EPHRATA, Pa. (WHTM) – Ephrata Cloister, a religious community in Lancaster County, was founded in 1732 by Conrad Beissel (1691-1768), who immigrated from Germany to Pennsylvania in 1720.
It’s now part of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Rural Farm and Village History Trail.
There are actually four PHMC historical markers for the site: one right at the entrance to the Cloisters, two along Route 272 (north and south), and a fourth that was placed just recently, which we’ll get to later.
Conrad Beissel and his followers believed the Second Coming would happen soon, and they should spend their earthly lives preparing for a spiritual union with God.
At the visitor center, you can get a look at how members of the community lived their lives. Some practiced celibacy, wore plain white robes, and lived in the “Brother House” and “Sister House”. Married members, the Householders, lived at farms and homes near the Cloister.
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The Brother House was torn down in 1906, but the Sister House offers visitors a look at what daily life was like. The building interiors and furniture are basic-whitewashed walls and furniture with little or no ornamentation; proof that there is beauty in simplicity.
The Cloister balanced spiritual times of prayer with the practical work needed to keep the community going. They farmed, did carpentry and milling, and made textiles.
They also made paper… lots of it. The cloister had a printing press and published hundreds of books and documents, including the largest book printed in colonial America, the Martyrs Mirror.
A lot of paper also went into Frakturschriften, a German-style of calligraphy. Frakturschriften literally translates as “broken script”. If you search the term online, you get a lot of German websites. You can see framed examples of it on the walls as you tour the Cloister buildings.
The Cloister also produced a lot of four-part choral music, based on a composing system created by Beissel himself. In 2022 the state erected a new historical marker at the Cloister, celebrating three of the sisters-Sister Foben (Christiana Lassle), sister Hannah (Hannah Lichty), and sister Ketura (Catherine Hagaman). as the first women in British North America to write music.
But as often happens with groups centered around a charismatic leader, the Cloister community began to lose cohesion after Biessel died. In 1814, after the last celebate member died, the remaining Householders merged with the German Seventh Day Baptist Church. The buildings remained in use until 1934.
The Cloister became part of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1941. They have preserved and restored the buildings so that people can see what life was like in one of the Commonwealth’s early religious communities.