Theo Whiddon, center, and other church members sing “Age of Aquarius” during the annual “Stones Rising” gathering last August at the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Artemas, Pa., in August 2014. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Michelle Donnelly dons horns and crystals for the annual Samhain (Gaelic for ‘summer’s end’) festival last November at the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

In its 300-year history as go-to haven for religions on the run — the Quakers, the Amish, the Huguenots — it is unlikely that Pennsylvania has attracted a community as colorful, and spiritually diverse, as the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary.

Hidden in the state’s southern foothills, the sanctuary bills itself as a “safe and sacred ceremonial space for the modern practice of ancient religion.” An eclectic, 250-acre oasis, it includes a Native American Sweat Lodge, drum and dance circle, hilltop labyrinth, dozens of altars for worship and hundreds of campsites. And at its spiritual center, the Allegheny’s answer to Stonehenge — 47 multi-ton stones semi-circling an open-air altar. The stones were all raised by hand and are still growing by two stones a year thanks to a three-day, sweat-filled, community-wide tug of war called “Stones Rising.”

There are a half-dozen or so full-time residents of the sanctuary who live under monastic vows of poverty and service, but their community of support swells into the hundreds for their many Earth-religious ceremonies, such as Beltaine, Samhain and Yule. Though the variety of faiths on display at Four Quarters can appear disparate — members’ religious roots range from Afro-Caribbean and Neopagan, to Gaian and Druidic — they are nearly all nature-based, putting these forested foothills at the center of their spirituality.

The founder of Four Quarters is a 58-year-old former engineer named Orren Whiddon. Burly and whip smart, with a salt and pepper beard, and plump belly bulging between his suspenders, Whiddon says their spiritual traditions are not meant as a counter-cultural statement or utopian vision.

“We are in our third decade, and we have gotten here with simple hard work and the amazing support of our membership”, Whiddon says. Nor is their working farm — run by the full-time residents — some idealized notion of rural life. We work seven days a week during the season and it can be very hard. But the reward is in living simply with what we build by our own hands … and sharing it.”

Text by Jim Lo Scalzo


Mason Jean, left, hugs Coriander Woodruff, center, as they and other church members return from blessing several of the most sacred sites on the church property during a Yule celebration in December. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Four Quarters church member Stillwater mows the hilltop labyrinth. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Four Quarters founder Orren Whiddon hugs his dog, Shamus, in the kitchen of the “Farmhouse,” where he and other full time residents reside. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Many Four Quarters members are LGBT, or home-schoolers, artists and cultural activists. They say their church is a place where all of its members can live their lives openly and without compromise, can love and be loved, can refer to other members as brothers and sisters and to the land as their “spiritual home” and forget for a time the cold realities — religious, economic or homophobic — that lay just off, beyond the altars, the hemlock trees and the rolling Allegheny hills.

Sustainable living is key to the church’s earth-based spiritual traditions. They grow their own vegetables and raise their own poultry and beef. They built most of their own buildings by hand and heat them with wood from their land. The church also operates its own meadery, which brings in outside income, as does an on-site machine shop. And nowhere will you find a television set.

Nobody receives a wage for their work; live-in members pool their skills, their food and their living expenses into a common treasury — commune style. The church’s operating revenue comes from memberships, donations and from making portions of their land available for alternative music and arts festivals in summer. Whiddon mails financial statements to members every January; the church is governed by a board of directors and is registered in Pennsylvania as a nonprofit church and monastery.

Four Quarters’s adherence to “Earth Living,” as well as its financial transparency, serves as a working model to counter another of Whiddon’s concerns: That we are in the early stages of a global industrial collapse. Whiddon believes that oil, food and resource depletion, combined with rising population and climate change, will lead to economic catastrophe. For Whiddon, Four Quarters is less a prepper sanctuary than an example of sustainable stewardship of the land as mitigation for what he sees as hard times ahead.


Church members socialize after a Yule celebration “gift exchange” last December in a building they call “the loft,” a communal gathering place where visiting members can also spend the night when it is too cold to camp. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Patty Althouse, left, and John Pees, right, both full-time residents of the church, prepare to kill, defeather and butcher several geese, then freeze the meat for a future meal. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Josh Powell, left, prepares to lift the lid of a giant smoker so that John Pees, right, can add four stuffed ducks, three geese were already cooking inside, for the church’s Yule celebration. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Churchgoers cool off in Sideling Hill Creek, at a spot known as Hemlock Hole, during the annual “Drum & Splash” gathering in July. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Church member Elspeth Oldbert, right, takes hold of a baby as he is passed through center hole of the “Mother Stone,” during a “blessing of the babies” ceremony in the Stone Circle at the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Church members move an 8-ton rock by hand toward a giant stone circle during the annual “Stones Rising” gathering last August. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Joel Tinkle, center, watches fellow stone handlers shovel wet concrete onto the base of an 8-ton rock that they moved and raised by hand. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Vicki Smith prays at dusk inside the Circle of Standing Stones. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Last August, three months after same-sex marriage was legalized in Pennsylvania, Rhys McGovern, right, and Mel Norver, left, share a kiss inside a shed while waiting for the start of their wedding ceremony. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Church member Mike McConnell swings two large sparklers during the annual “Drum & Splash” gathering in July. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Churchgoers dance at an evening drum circle during the annual “Drum & Splash” gathering. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)