The Ephrata Cloister celebrates its founder's birth


February 24, 1991|By Dorothy Fleetwood

One of America's earliest communal societies, the Ephrata Cloister, was founded in Ephrata, Pa., by Conrad Beissel in 1732. On March 1, Beissel's 300th birthday will be marked at the cloister by a day of special activities, launching a yearlong celebration.

Beissel was born in 1691 in Eberbach, Germany, the son of a local baker. He became a Pietist (member of a 17th century religious movement that originated in Germany, stressing revitalized evangelical Christianity). With his followers he separated from the Dunkard Church, came to this country and established a radical religious communal society in Pennsylvania. They constructed buildings of log, stone and half-timber in the style of the medieval Germanic architecture of their homeland. By 1750 the society numbered about 300 members, consisting of three orders, a celibate brotherhood and sisterhood and a married order of householders, all dedicated to a strict life of spiritual purification. The celibate orders lived on Cloister grounds and engaged in farming, basketmaking, papermaking, printing and other crafts, while the householders lived nearby as farmers and craftsmen. The Cloister community produced a large volume of books, many magnificent hand-illuminated editions. Since vocal music was an important part of Cloister life, Beissel and his group composed over 1,000 hymns, which are among the earliest music written in Colonial America. Cloister members also aided travelers, feeding and lodging them free, and during the Battle of Brandywine in 1777 many of the buildings were turned into makeshift hospitals, treating as many as 500 wounded soldiers.

The society declined when Beissel's death in 1768 resulted in a loss of leadership and a rejection of a life of self-denial. In 1941 Ephrata Cloister became the property of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This historic site, which includes over a dozen restored and preserved buildings, is seen by about 50,000 visitors each year. On Friday the Cloisters will be open to the public free from 9 a.m to 6 p.m., with tours of the buildings offered throughout the day. A slide program will be presented before each tour. Kurt and Heidi Beissel, descendants of the Beissel family, will be special guests that day. In the tradition of Conrad's parents, Kurt and Heidi are bakers in Eberbach, Germany, and you will see them bake bread in the Cloister's ovens. Between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Philadelphia artist Roswell Weidner will be present to autograph his prints of the Cloister and visitors will be treated to pieces of birthday cake throughout the day.

On April 4 the Eberbach Chamber Orchestra will come from Germany to perform a joint concert with the Ephrata Cloister Chorus at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. in the meetinghouse. Free tickets will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. The Ephrata Associates will host the annual Associates Forum, an educational program about the site and its achievements, on May 3 and 4. A two-day conference Sept. 27 and 28 will feature scholars on the subjects of Fraktur, architecture, music, printing and other Cloister contributions. Co-sponsored by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Ephrata Cloister Associates, this first-time event is open to the public.

Located at 632 W. Main St. in Ephrata, the cloister is open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. For information, call (717) 733-6600.

Woodlawn Plantation in Mount Vernon, Va., is an appropriate setting for the 28th annual Needlework Exhibition. The estate was bequeathed to George Washington's adopted daughter, Eleanor Parke (Nelly) Custis and his nephew Lawrence Lewis. Nelly was an avid needleworker and as an added attraction this year there will be an exhibit of her needlework from the Woodlawn collection, some of which has never been seen by the public.

The exhibition is a showcase for needlework of every description, ranging from samplers and embroidery to small quilted apparel and rugs. There are categories for both amateur and professional competitors, judged by nationally and internationally known judges.

Needlework experts will offer daily demonstrations and mini-seminars in a wide range of needlework topics. These presentations are included in the price of admission. Visitors can also take self-guided tours of the mansion and a luncheon will be served in Woodlawn's Preservation Pub.

The show is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children, free for those under 5.

Woodlawn is 14 miles south of Washington at the intersection of U.S. 1 and Route 235 in Mount Vernon. Follow the signs from Interstate 95. For information, call (703) 780-4000.

"Ruts, Roads, and Rivers: Travel and Transportation in 18th Century Virginia" is the theme of the Learning Weekend in Colonial Williamsburg, Va., March 7-10.

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