EPHRATA, Pa. (WHTM) — It was one of Pennsylvania’s early experiments in religious freedom. “Ephrata Cloister was an early religious community, established in 1732 by a German immigrant named Conrad Beissel,” Elizabeth Bertheaud explained. She’s the Historic Site Administrator for the Cloister.

“The reason that it’s here is because of William Penn setting up the colony of Pennsylvania as a place where anybody could worship as they please. The Brothers and Sisters was a really small group. At the height it’s about 80, that would be about 40 celibate sisters and 40 celibate brothers, and about 200 married members of the congregation.”

Ephrata Cloister is now part of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. You can find one of the state’s blue and yellow historical markers at the entrance. Recently, the Cloister added a second marker, honoring three of the sisters, ‘Ephrata’s Women Composers.'”

“Sister Foben is Christiana Lassle, sister Hannah is Hannah Lichty, sister Ketura is Catherine Hagaman,” said Bertheaud. “Our conclusion is that these three women were writing hymns, and were the first three women in British North America who were writing music.

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The women’s compositions were found by a researcher, Dr. Christopher Herbert, in the Ephrata Codex, a 900-plus page collection of the Cloister’s hymns located in the Library of Congress.

“He identified three songs, that the text for the hymns was obviously written by somebody else, but their names appear next to these musical notations,” Berthaud explained.

The sisters would have done their composing in the Saron, the Sisters’ House. Each sister had their own room there. They had opportunities for education, denied many women at that time, and were encouraged to express their artistic sides, in things like elegant calligraphy called “Fraturschrifften”, and of course, music.

The women’s compositions would have been performed right next door, in the meetinghouse.

“Usually it was four-part acapella harmony. Sometimes five parts, but usually four,” Berthaud said. And there are no musical instruments. Beissel believed your voice was your musical instrument.

Conrad Beissel devised his own way of writing hymns, and taught it to the brothers and sisters.

“Christopher Herbert really defined it very nicely as sort of a paint by numbers musical notation,” Berthaud said. “If this happens in the soprano line, then that happens in the other, it’s all pretty scripted out. If this is an A, then this is a C for the tenors, etc. So it’s all pretty scripted out, but they managed to put together over 1000 different combinations of that scripted music.”

So what would the three sisters have thought, about being given their own historical marker?

“They would probably be appalled at the recognition,” Bertheaud said. “Because being the community that this was, it was about the community, not about the individual. But we felt strongly that these women needed to be recognized for their accomplishments.

To see the Ephrata Codex, click here.