11 August 2011

Those Places Thursday: Ephrata Cloister

Today the Ephrata Cloister is a part of the Pennsylvania Historical Society. However, when it was founded in 1732, it was Protestant German community that began as a retreat, a way of life which supported solitude. For a time it flourished and by the mid 18th century it was well known for its printing and music and art.

The Cloister was founded by Conrad Beissel, a German. He came to America in search of religious freedom – not just to worship who he chose but also how he chose to do so. Other men and women joined him in Ephrata. Beissel felt people should focus on preparing to join God in Heaven after their parting. He felt so strongly about this purpose that he did not think people should marry, as spouses may take attention away from that purpose.

The Brothers and Sisters of the Cloister were unmarried spending their days in work and prayer.  The Sisters lived in one large communal building known as the Saron. The Brothers lived in the Bethania, a large communal home for the men. They tended gardens, made candles and baskets, and copied music. They also operated several mills and a printing office, which they were quite well known for.

Some married families with children lived outside the Cloister and visited weekly to worship but were not full members since they were not celibate.

Beissel passed in 1768. The last of the congregation passed in 1813. The families joined another local church. In 1941 the State purchased the land and buildings and preserved it. It is now a museum of not just the Cloister itself but of life in general in those early years.

On the site is the Meetinghouse, a bakery, a physician house, the weaver’s house, an academy, the printing office, a stable and a carpenter’s barn. In addition there is also a burial site. The earliest marker is 1767. The last burial was in 1961 and has not been used for burials since.

Today re-enactors (like the ones at left here) take on the roles of Brothers and Sisters and even Beissel himself in an effort to show history. Each March the State opens up the Ephrata Cloister free as part of Charter Day.

The Cloister is located on Route 322 in Ephrata, Lancaster County. For more information, visit their site at www.ephratacloister.org.

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