Monday, May 11, 2015

Ephrata Cloister

Last weekend we took advantage of another lovely spring day to visit Ephrata Cloister.  The sun was shining, the blossom on the trees was beautiful, the bees were buzzing, and everything seemed to be green and finally coming "alive" after a long winter.


The cloister was one of America's earliest religious communities, founded in 1732 by German settlers, led by Conrad Beissel, seeking to take advantage of the "religious freedom" that was newly available in America.  The community consisted of celibate Brothers and Sisters, and a group of married families ("householders") who helped to support the cloister life.  At its peak, the cloister was home to almost 300 members working and worshipping there.

Despite the lovely weather on the day we visited, the cloister wasn't at all busy, and we took an organised tour of the key buildings with a very knowledgeable guide who explained a little more about the life of the Brothers and Sisters.  They lived and worshipped in some of the buildings that exist today.  The largest was the Saron (Sister's House) - a half-timbered building constructed in 1743 over 4 floors. The Saal next door was the householders' worship place.  The Brothers' House unfortunately no longer exists. 

The life of the brothers and sisters was highly regimented, with only 6 hours of sleep each night, broken by midnight prayers, (and sleeping on wooden boards with a nice wooden "pillow").  They were allowed one small (vegetarian) meal per day, and long hours of physical work (farming, candle making, baking, paper making, printing etc) were combined with 5 or 6 periods of prayer as well as time for "private contemplation" which included musical composition, singing, weaving, and beautiful calligraphy work called Frakturschriften (creating hand-illuminated books and inscriptions, copies of which can be found in the Museum Store).  These past-times were considered to be a discipline for both the body and soul.

We were free to explore the large grounds of the cloister, which backed onto the Cocalico river. The river was part of the reason that Beissel settled in this area, and once the community grew, it was the location of local baptisms. Today, a mother duck and all her little ducklings (lots of them!) were going for a paddle. 

Nearby in the, as yet empty, vegetable garden, another duck was guarding her cosy looking, but well-camouflaged, nest.

We continued to explore some of the outbuildings, including the bakery, physician's house, printing office and carpenter's house. 

The cloister community eventually began to decline with the death of the founder, Conrad Beissel in 1768.  The last celibate member died in 1813, but the remaining householders formed the German Seventh Day Baptism Church and continued to live and worship at the cloister until the 1930s.  The village outside the cloister gradually grew, becoming a regional centre of commerce, until the borough of Ephrata was created in the late 1890s.  The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquired the cloister site in 1941 and restored and renovated some of the buildings that are seen today. 

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