Cloister social experiment

By on October 15, 2014

Finally, the day I had anxiously anticipated for months had come and I could not wait to get down to the Ephrata Cloister for a rare tour of the upper floors of the Saal and Saron buildings. In fact, until my son, Phillip’s, involvement with the Cloister’s Student Historian program reignited my profound interest and fascination with all things Cloister, I didn’t even know anyone from the general public was ever granted such access.
Indeed, as part of the annual Founders Day events at the historic site, a limited number of groups were able to purchase special tours of those floors for $12. The experience, the new insight into Cloister life and the rare glimpse at floors left mostly untouched for perhaps over 100 years made the admission price a bargain I could not refuse.
I had the pleasure of touring the sites with tour guide Director Nick Siegert. Nick possesses an unending wealth of insight and knowledge of the Cloister, making the tour one of the most interesting I have ever had at any historic site.
Perhaps more than ever before, I obtained a greater understanding of what the buildings represented and how they were used. No longer could I look at the Cloister as one site, but many, each with a purpose and connection to the whole. That the Cloister was a communal group of celibate men and women who came together under the spiritual leadership of Conrad Beissel was certainly not new information. But that the Saal as it looks today is a far cry from how it looked at various periods of its history was new information.
That celibacy among the brothers and sisters is common knowledge but fully understanding the importance placed upon it in the early Cloister society cannot be discounted, for it ties directly to what buildings were built, how they were constructed and then used over the years. The group and its founder, Conrad Beissel, were thoroughly convinced that Christ would soon return and that their time on earth would be short. Therefore, in order to fully commit themselves to their love and devotion to God, they preached that it was far better to live the solitary life than to enjoy certain benefits of marriage. So strict was this view of human relations that it had a direct impact on the architecture and history of both Saal and Saron.
When the Saal was built in 1741, tall partitions prevented men from worshipping together or even seeing one another. Two years later, when the Saron was built, it was in reality an early social experiment doomed to failure a mere 18 months later.
While the Saron today is called the Sisters House, few people familiar with the Cloister realize that it was originally designed more as a modern duplex, with one side mirroring the other. The idea was that by segregating the brothers on one side and the sisters on the other, the Saron could act as a means for helping those members who had been married better adjust to their new solitary lifestyle. Needless to say, within 18 months that experiment failed and the walls between one side and the other came down. The Bethania, built to mirror the Saal and Saron in 1746, was designated for use by the brothers with the original two buildings being used solely by the sisters.
The Bethania was demolished in 1908 after years of neglect from sitting unused. From the Cloisters peak in the 1750’s with approximately 300 members, the population of original celibate sisters and brothers died off and the number of people living at the Cloister diminished to the point where Bethania was simply no longer used.
In later years, the sisters had the area between the two balconies in the Saal closed in creating one continuous second floor above the chapel. Siegert explained that it is not entirely clear what that area may have been used for, but most probably is as a work area.
In the course of renovating the Saal, the floor between the balconies was removed and restored to a look very typical of how it would have looked in the 18th century. That same approach was used in renovating the first floor of the Saron.
Left untouched, however, are the remaining floors of both buildings, creating an almost eerie feeling as if the sisters who lived there could have just left days ago. Like traveling back in time, touring the upper floors provided a rare glimpse at the solitary, ascetic life lived. In the center was an area that would have served as a kitchen or food prep area. Fireplaces very typical and reminiscent of what the builders would have seen firsthand while still living in Germany were placed in the center. Several five-plate stoves were later used throughout the building for both heating and food prep. On each side of the hearth rooms were common areas used for prayer, worship and work space. Individual sleeping rooms, or cells, bordered the common area.
Each cell had one or perhaps two sisters per room. The ascetic life discouraged any life comforts, so beds consisted of a hardwood bench and a square block as a pillow. A small closet area and small wall cupboard were the only pieces of furniture in each room as the sisters and brothers would have had very few personal belongings.
Throughout the years of the Cloister’s decline, residents with either little appreciation for their place in history or little care for preserving that heritage would provide curious out of town visitors with cheap tours of the community, even going so far as to either sell some of the original furnishings or offering souvenirs taken from the buildings to their visitors.
According to Siegert, it was not uncommon for Cloister members to actually rip a page or two from books printed by the Cloister and give them to visitors as a souvenir. With such little regard for maintaining the historical significance of the buildings, much was chipped and broken and taken away in the years leading up to the restoration work which began after the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took ownership in 1941.
One visitor marveled at how wide the planks used on the floors of the buildings were. Often in excess of ten or even 12 inches, many of the floors were made of pine and oak flooring. As a woodworker, I was astonished to find so many of the floors constructed of extremely wide quarter-sawn oak planks. The difference between standard white oak and quarter-sawn white oak is the way it is sawn. The result is a board with more stability, less likely to cup or shrink and with the tell-tale medullary rays and ribbons. It can also reduce the yield of the log.
In its use for furniture, a quarter-sawn oak piece is almost always much more expensive than standard oak. I had to wonder why the builders of the Cloister used so much of it throughout the Saron. I can only speculate the reason amounted to supply. After all, Ephrata was in the heart of “Penn’s Woods.” Could it be that instead of the lush fields upon which the buildings are located today were more akin to a forest, thick with old-growth centuries-old white oaks? These trees would have needed to have a diameter of two or even three feet to produce such wide quarter-sawn boards. Even more fascinating: these trees would have been growing perhaps when Columbus first sailed to the New World.
The collective wonders, discoveries and mysteries of my Founders Day tour of the upper floors of the Saal and Saron could fill far more than a mere historical column. But this I know: I plan to return year after year for the tour so long as my old body and the good folks at the Cloister allow. And I recommend that you, too, rediscover the Ephrata Cloister. While a ton of information can be found on their website: ephratacloiser.org, nothing compares to being there in person to experience it firsthand. Visit the website to learn about their hours of operation or how to volunteer, but visit in person to live a little bit of our local history.
Gary P. Klinger welcomes your questions as well as suggestions for future editions of our historical column via email at klingerglobal@gmail.com.

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