Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the town of Ephrata is in northeastern Pennsylvania. It is in the southeastern portion of the state. The error has been corrected below.

Escapes: Living the cloistered life in Ephrata, Pa.

By Sue Kovach Shuman
Friday, March 4, 2011

They were deep into denial of bodily comforts: A block of wood served as a pillow, a narrow board protruding from the wall was a bed.

In winter, it's easy to grasp the severity of life at Ephrata Cloister, a Protestant monastic community in southeastern Pennsylvania where, in 1732, Conrad Beissel, banished from Germany for his religious beliefs, found the freedom he sought. Here, he and his followers created music, writings and a place of peace that have survived for centuries.

About 17,000 visitors come to Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County each year. This is Pennsylvania Dutch country, where black-hatted Amish men drive buggies down Main Street past churches with roots deeper than the U.S. Constitution.

Beissel did his own thing at Ephrata, which revolved around finding personal union with God through prayer, worship and work. He and his followers slept no more than six hours a night. I tried out a board-bed in a cabin and found six minutes impossible.

They ate one small vegetarian meal each evening. Beissel advocated celibacy but shared the cloister with married "householders." More than half the community - 280 at its peak - were celibate brothers and sisters who wore long white robes and went barefoot or wore linen shoes.

"Beissel was probably very eccentric and difficult," said tour guide Nicholas Siegert as he led me through the Sisters' House, a dormitory, and the meetinghouse, a worship hall, two buildings accessible by guided tour only. "Life here is a prelude to the afterlife."

The community prepared for Christ's return to Earth, believing that every day was their last. So it's ironic that so much of their earthly existence remains: nine of the 50 original buildings on 28 acres; musical compositions; Germanic calligraphy called Frakturschriften (fractured writing); and printed books. The small cloister museum contains unique script and books. There's also a clock made in 1735 with no minute hand, for life was measured in periods of no less than an hour.

A glass trumpet unearthed in 1995 is bewildering - the cloisterers used no instruments. Instead, with bowed heads, they emitted soothing vocal sounds. "It was an unusual singing scale, like a mantra, a lot of repeating," Siegert explained as we listened to a sample of the music.

When not praying or composing music, Beissel's followers worked. A bakery, a printing office and a weaver's house, near which Beissel is buried, still stand.

After Beissel's death in 1768 at age 77, his community began to disintegrate. The cloister was used as a Revolutionary War hospital; some residents died after tending the sick. The last celibate died in 1813, and a year later, married residents formed the German Seventh Day Baptist Church on the site. After a squabble among descendants, the state took over the site in 1941. It is now a National Historic Landmark.

It's not part of the cloister, but Ephrata's oldest building stands in the community park across Cocalico Creek. It's a 1732 whitewashed cabin where Anna and Maria Eicher, daughters of Beissel follower Daniel Eicher, lived as celibates. Today, it houses the Eicher Indian Museum. "We specialize in Eastern woodland tribes such as Delaware, Susquehannock, Conoy, Nanticoke, Shawnee and Cherokee," explained Jim DeFilippis, who gives tours of the two-room museum.

The Cocalico Historical Society library on Main Street runs the Theodore R. Sprecher Museum, which was closed the day I visited. But I peered through the windows at rooms furnished in the style of the 1860s, when the livestock-and-real-estate Connell family lived there. The permanent collection includes Pennsylvania German folk art and furniture. An exhibition of watercolors by Hattie Klapp Brunner, the "Grandma Moses of Pennsylvania," whose primitive-style paintings portray country life, runs until October.

As dusk descended, I headed for Ephrata Square, the business district, for a short walk. Then, craving some Pennsylvania Dutch comfort food, I headed back uptown to the Cloister Restaurant, which had been crowded earlier in the day. After I had the chicken-on-waffle-with-corn fritters special, I knew why. Mmm.

Elva Stauffer, 85, who runs the diner with her son Ronald, was preparing the next day's special: stuffed pig stomach. "I fill them with bread cubes, cubed potatoes, loose sausage, celery," she told me. Ronald said that customers love schnitz und knepp - ham, dried apples and dumplings. When I left, he gave me a decades-old postcard as a souvenir.

The next morning, still thinking about food, I drove to the 30-acre Green Dragon Farmer's Market and Auction, where 400-some growers, artisans and merchants sell everything from sausages to celebrity memorabilia in seven market buildings. The prices seemed unreal: three bunches of broccoli for $1.79! At Sunnyside Pastries, I bought wet-bottom shoo-fly pie and sticky buns.

I had one final stop. Karly Peterson at the Ephrata Visitor Center had told me that her favorite place in town is Bethany United Church of Christ on East Main Street. She's awed, she said, that people have worshiped on the spot for almost 300 years. Standing in the silent sanctuary, so was I.

On the way home, thinking how peaceful and non-touristy Ephrata is, I dripped chocolate-chip whoopie-pie cream on my slacks. And then I wondered what residents at Ephrata Cloister would think of a visitor so decidedly not into self-denial.

Shuman is a freelance writer in Washington.

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