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EPHRATA >> Ephrata, located in northern Lancaster County, may be small, but carefully preserved gems like the Ephrata Cloister loom large in the annals of history, making it an enlightening and educational destination.

Known as one of America's earliest religious communities, the Ephrata Cloister was founded in 1732 by German settlers led by Conrad Beissel.

Beissel, who was born in Eberbach, Germany, disagreed with his country's state-run churches. Believing that citizens should have the liberty to make their own choices on how to worship, he set sail to North America and settled in Pennsylvania, the only colony to offer religious freedom. There he was able to escape the shackles of his country's demands for obeisance to the religion of the rulers.

After arriving in the colonies, Beissel settled in Germantown before moving near Lancaster, where he acted as leader of a Brethren Congregation. His quest for inner peace and his desire to escape the distractions of the world eventually led him, in 1732, to Ephrata.

Described as "charismatic," Beissel attracted others to his religious retreat, and by 1750 the Community of the Solitary at Ephrata numbered 80 men and women, who agreed to live a regimented, celibate life to better worship God.

Today, the Ephrata Cloister is designated a National Historic Landmark and is run by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. Tours are conducted seven days a week from now until December and several days a week thereafter.

Taking the tour

Parking is ample at the Ephrata Cloister and a short path will take you to the Visitor's Center, where you will be greeted by a guide dressed in a simple hooded, long, white robe, the traditional garb that residents were required to wear at the time.

After viewing a short film about Beissel and his quest for religious freedom, guests will follow their guide outdoors to relax on benches. There, in the midst of historic buildings that have been described as some of the most significant surviving examples of pre-colonial architecture in America, they will learn more about the unique community.

Members of the community led a life of discipline and celibacy, indulged in only one meager meal a day and slept a mere six hours a night. The purpose of such self-restraint, according to Beissel, was to prepare his followers for heaven through earthly denial. Sleeping accommodations were comprised of a bench and a wooden pillow and the six hours of sleep were broken into two separate three-hour periods, interrupted for a time of worship in a meeting house.

Members spent the remainder of their days engaging in a variety of jobs ranging from gardening to mending, milling, cooking and other tasks related to the upkeep of the compound. The brothers and sisters bought a printing press and were responsible for printing the largest book in the colonies at the time. "The Martyr's Mirror" spans 1,500 pages and describes the early persecution of the Anabaptists; to this day, it is treasured by the Amish.

After a short introduction to the life of the people who lived in the cloister, guests are guided to the Saron, otherwise known as the sisters' house, where members ate, slept, cooked and performed other chores. Afterward, there's the visit to the Saal, or meeting house — one of the oldest places of worship in Pennsylvania — where residents listened to sermons conducted by Beissel. Songs, penned both by Beissel and his followers, sometimes contained an amazing 300 verses.

At the end of the tour, guests will be able to explore the grounds and other buildings on the property, which list phone numbers to dial to learn more along the way.

On my visit, students from the confirmation class at the Covenant United Methodist Church joined the tour. Aaron Rudolph from Walnut Port seemed to agree with the rest of his class in saying they especially enjoyed exploring the grounds.

Within the cloister is a cemetery where visitors are permitted. Here, many members have been laid to rest, including leader Conrad Beissel, whose passing in 1768 led to the slow demise of the community after the takeover by Peter Miller, who believed that the monastic life was no longer attractive to new generations.

By 1777, a third of the small community was killed by typhoid and by 1814, the Community of the Solitary at Ephrata dissolved as the last four followers joined the Seventh Day Baptist church, marking an end to the "holy experiment."

To learn more visit www.ephratacloister.org/

Upcoming event

Fathers' Day at the Cloister: Become a Master & Apprentice of Trades on Fathers' Day

WHEN: 1-4 p.m. June 21

COST: $6 a child and accompanying adult; $3 for each additional participant; free with an ECA Family Level Membership.

DETAILS: Sign an 18th century style contract and learn what it might be like to be an apprentice in the bakery, carpenter's house and print shop. Simple "make and take" activities are suitable for all family members.

Call to register, 733-6600.

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