Editor’s note: Leila Pitchford-English recently visited Pennsylvania. This is one of several columns about sites she visited.
While Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is best know as home to many Amish families, it has many other religious elements.
Pennsylvania founder William Penn sought religious freedom for the people of his colony, which led to many unusual groups settling there. A drive through Lancaster and nearby counties shows denomination names unheard of in the South. And in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, the state maintains a historic site of a strict religious group from the 1700s.
Founded in 1732, the Ephrata Cloister was home to a group that sought to retreat from worldly distractions and lose themselves in holy work.
The monastic settlement was founded by Conrad Beissel, who wanted to live as a hermit, his idea being that earthly life should be spent preparing to achieve a spiritual union with God. He felt that the Second Coming of Christ would happen soon.
The cloister as it was known became home to about 80 celibate brothers and sisters.
The cloister is filled with buildings, including a large women’s building and a men’s building with cells for each member. However, they spent little time in their rooms, as they slept and ate very little — one vegetarian meal a day. Most of the day was spent in work or worship.
They slept for six hours a day on wooden benches with a block for a pillow. That six hours was interrupted with a two-hour worship service at midnight.
While the group was intended for unmarried people, some married couples bought into the idea and were called householders. About 200 of them lived nearby, providing support for the celibate members.
The celibate members wore white robes and lived a heavily disciplined life. Their buildings were log, stone and half-timbered structures, that also housed paper making and printing operations, a bakery, a mill and more. Some of the celibate members participated in various crafts.
The group composed more than 1,000 a cappella pieces using four-part harmony. Women were among the composers — likely, the earliest female composers in the New World. A choir keeps the music alive today.
The printing operations were for themselves and other religious groups. The 1,500-page “Martys Mirror” was printed for the Mennonites and was the largest book printed in colonial America. The group owned the second German press in America.
The group was also known for its German calligraphy, Frakturscriften, and for other crafts.
Beissel died in 1768. Because the members were celibate, the last member died in 1813. The buildings were then used by the German Seventh Day Baptist Church, which was formed by the remaining Householders, but it closed in 1934.
In 1941, the state took control of the property.
Visit ephratacloister.org for information on visiting the cloister grounds. If you go, use the guided tour and movie to gain an understanding of life on the property in the 1700s, and then allow time to wander the grounds and explore the buildings and the cemetery.
Many buildings use a cellphone system to provide an audio tour of the buildings not on the main tour. Most of the buildings are original, though some are reproductions.
The Mennonite Information Center may not have a creative name, but it is a great way to tour Amish and Mennonite country in Lancaster County.
The center has films and museum exhibits, as well as a tabernacle replica, but its attraction for us was the tour guides who provide private tours in your own car.
Other organizations offer tours on small buses or in buggies, but the guides at the Mennonite Information Center guide you through the county at your own pace. The basic tour is two hours, but if you go over, you just pay an additional fee.
The tour guide has a script and basic route, but if you want to know more about something, ask. If there is something you want to see or not see, ask. The guides are willing to personalize it for you.
The tours can be made by appointment or by dropping in. However, drop-ins may have to wait a half-hour for a guide to arrive.
Our guide took us past Amish and Mennonite homes and businesses. We talked about the denominations and their history, as well as the expense of farmland and how some of the families are finding other ways to live — including raising flowers that are sold on the honor system at the roadside. The tour covers a major part of the area and allows for stops at stores. (The soft pretzel at one shop was amazing.)
Visit mennoniteinfoctr.org for information on tours. Its gift shop offers a wide selection of books and other materials on Mennonites and Amish.