Mount St. Mary’s is a private Catholic university outside Emmitsburg, Maryland in the Catoctin Mountains. It is a small school on a 1,400 acre campus, with a little more than 1,700 undergraduates. It has a storied history, with a legendary foundation.
In 1805, a French priest named Father John DuBois saw a light in the hills as he passed between Frederick and Emmitsburg. It was growing dark, so he traveled toward the light, thinking it was a farmhouse. Exhausted, he laid down for the night beneath a large oak tree. When he woke up, he saw he was in a beautiful spot in the Catoctin Mountains. Local Catholics called it “St. Mary’s Mountain,” so it seemed an ideal place for a church.
DuBois also established a school, which grew into a seminary. Father Simon Bruté became a teacher there in 1812. The university was officially founded in 1830, and it doubled as a boarding school until the early 1900s. Bradley Hall is a remnant of those boarding school days. Not far from where Father DuBois erected his church, he also created a small shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is now known as the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, with extensive gardens and statuary.
Some visitors claim to have seen an apparition of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton wandering the grounds and gardens. She founded the Sisters of Charity and was the first native born U.S. citizen to be canonized as a saint. She also founded Saint Joseph’s Academy and Free School for girls, the first free Catholic parochial school in the United States, a few miles from Mount St. Mary’s in 1809. The two schools have since merged.
Mount St. Mary’s is home to several other unusual tales. The first involves a phantom hand belonging to Leander, an indentured slave gifted to the university. Leander was known as a thief, and eventually his hand was cut off to teach him a lesson. The hand was supposedly buried on campus, and to this day students swear they hear it tapping on windows or catch a glimpse of it crawling down the hallways.
A faceless phantom, that of a young Confederate soldier who was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg and thrown in a well, is said to approach students from behind, tap them on the shoulder, and ask to be turned over so he can see the stars. According to legend, he made a vow with his sweetheart back home to gaze at the same star every night while he was away. It’s a romantic story, but it’s unlikely any battlefield casualties were disposed of in a well.
The most famous ghost on campus is Father Simon Gabriel Bruté, who haunts Room 252 in Brute Hall. Since at least the 1970s, occupants of that room have reported strange activity, including finding items in disarray and electronic devices exhibiting strange behavior. Father Brute’s ghost is not confined there, however, and has been spotted around campus.
Mount St. Mary’s University is located at 16300 Old Emmitsburg Road. It’s a beautiful campus, with buildings dating back to the early nineteenth century. The National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes is breathtaking. A walking trail from campus to the grotto, up several flights of winding stairs, is physically demanding, so drive if you can.