Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Hearing Echoes of Spartan Life Travelers' Records Tell Tale of 18th-Century Pennsylvania Cloister

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Hearing Echoes of Spartan Life Travelers' Records Tell Tale of 18th-Century Pennsylvania Cloister

Article excerpt

IT IS the tourists who tell the story of Ephrata Cloister.

Without the writings of visitors who stopped there for food and shelter on their 18th-century travels, we would know little about this religious community tucked amid the small villages and rolling farmlands of north central Pennsylvania near Lancaster.

At its height in 1750, this complex of oddly angled buildings spread over 25 acres of gentle hills housed 300 celibate brothers and sisters who adhered to a rigid code of behavior that forbade comfort, chatter and worldly pleasures. "Life here was about self-discipline, self-denial, self-sacrifice," says Angela Shuck, who, garbed in a white robe similar to that which the cloister members wore, is leading three of us around the grounds. It's a lifestyle that still holds some fascination for tourists, 60,000 of whom annually detour off Pennsylvania's Route 222 near Lancaster and visit the complex at the edge of the bustling, attractive village of Ephrata. The 13 restored and reconstructed buildings, including residences, a bakery, print shop, barn, carpentry shop and stable, rest in a remarkably serene setting. There is only a slight breeze when I arrive, but other than the whistling of the trees, it's silent - so still, in fact, that when a bird sings, I am startled. Situated on the banks of Cocalico Creek, the cloister, which was started in 1732, ranks as one of America's oldest communal societies. It was the brainchild of Conrad Beissel, a German Pietist who managed to woo away his followers from the Dunkards, a religious group that believed in triple baptism. The group originally bought 250 acres. The members built distinctive structures of logs and stone with steeply pitched roofs, tiered dormer windows, wooden chimneys and flared eaves. And they supported themselves by farming and publishing, producing numerous tracts, pamphlets and hand-illuminated books and inscriptions done in the Germanic tradition called fraktur. "There was a print shop here," says Shuck. "They were printing the largest book in the world (the 1,200-page `Martyrs Mirror,' a 1748 book for another religious order, the Mennonites)." They also took in travelers, and it's the records of those people that painted the picture of life at the cloister reflected today, Shuck says. She leads us into a large structure that once housed the sisters, and we get a glimpse - and a feel - of what life here must have been like. The three floors are identical, each with a central kitchen and workroom, as well as tiny sleeping cells. It is so cold in here, our teeth threaten to chatter - just about the way it was for cloister members, says Shuck. The houses were unheated except for the cooking ovens. Members wore homemade garments - habits of white linen in summer, white wool in winter. We pass by some of the cells with the 15-inch-wide boards on which members slept. …

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