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Finding Faith in Pennsylvania

Stretching some 309 miles long and 174 miles wide, Pennsylvania could rightly lay claim to the title “God’s country.” After all, more than half of its 29 million acres are wood and wetland, park and pasture, all of it suffused with a gentle beauty quite unlike anywhere else in the U.S.

It’s a peaceful state, and this tranquillity is found not only in natural spaces but also in its spiritual places. In 1682, Quaker William Penn founded the colony as a refuge against religious persecution, and today worship remains an integral part of life for many Pennsylvanians. The entire Keystone State thus offers an inspiring diversity of devotional sites, both historic and modern, for groups to experience.

This itinerary begins in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s largest city and the most easily accessed, thanks to a world-class airport and road system. It then continues to the suburb of Elkins Park, before stopping in Nazareth, in the Lehigh Valley, and then heading farther west, to Lancaster County’s small community of Ephrata. The tour ends on the other side of the state from Philadelphia, in Franklin. From Franklin, groups can depart via Pittsburgh International Airport, just 90 minutes away. Leaders should consider planning on four nights for this tour, adding on another night or so if taking in additional sights along the way.

Pennsylvania’s Most Historic Church in Philadelphia

Tucked away next to a quiet park and alongside a brick path shaded by trees in Philadelphia’s Old City sits the magnificent Christ Church, where nation-builders including George Washington, Betsy Ross and Benjamin Franklin all once worshipped. Founded in 1695 as the Church of England’s first Pennsylvania parish, it made history again after the Revolution when it became the inaugural home of the American Episcopal Church. The current structure, considered one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the country, dates to 1744. When the steeple was completed in 1754, it became the colony’s tallest building, a position it held for more than half a century.

Inside, groups will want to keep their eyes peeled for the circa-1300s baptismal font, donated by the London church where William Penn was baptized, as well as the pew George Washington sat in while worshipping. Be sure to leave time to visit the two-acre burial grounds, where Benjamin Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence have been laid to rest. Still an active house of worship, Christ Church welcomes groups with special tours and pricing.

While you’re there: Old City, home to Christ Church, offers more than its fair share of other stellar group attractions, including the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Established in 1976, it’s the nation’s first major institution to commemorate and celebrate Black history and culture. Look for the permanent exhibit “Audacious Freedom,” which explores how African Americans contributed to this country’s founding.

Find a Frank Lloyd Wright Masterpiece in Elkins Park

It only takes about 30 minutes of motoring north from the Old City to reach Elkins Park, but the quiet suburb seems a world away from Philly’s hustle and bustle. Here, legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, working in concert with Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen, would design his only synagogue. Dedicated in 1959, just a few months after Wright’s death, it was an immediate success and soon named by the American Institute of Architects as one of his 17 most important projects. (In 2007, the building was selected as a National Historic Landmark.) But all superlatives pale in comparison to the soaring majesty of the structure, which resembles a Mayan temple and Wright himself described as a “luminous Mount Sinai.”

Beth Sholom, which means “House of Peace,” rises some 110 feet upward from the ground in a pyramid shape that’s crafted on the outside from corrugated wire glass. Inside, translucent walls of fiberglass allow the sun to shine during the day and brilliant light to escape into the heavens by night. Jewish symbols are present throughout, right down to the sand-colored carpeting, a reference to the desert journey of the Israelites. Specially priced tours of the synagogue are available to groups and include a short film about Beth Sholom.

While you’re there: In Montgomery County, American Treasure Tour Museum serves up thousands of Americana-themed items in a pristine, 100,000-square-foot facility that groups can visit via tram cars. With everything from vintage autos to self-playing orchestras, movie posters to stuffed animals, this is the perfect place to indulge in some sweet nostalgia for bygone days.

Experience The World’s Oldest Protestant Denomination in Nazareth

From Elkins Park, it’s a 75-minute drive due north to Nazareth, home to the Moravian Historical Society. Founded in 1857, the organization is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the culture of the ancient Protestant denomination, which traces its roots all the way back to the mid-1400s, in what would later become the Czech Republic. By 1740, a group of Moravians had settled on 500 acres in Pennsylvania, and today, many artifacts from their lives can be found at the Moravian Historical Society’s Whitfield House Museum. They include early American paintings, pottery, firearms, musical instruments, textiles, tools and much more.

Some of the most impressive of the 20,000 objects in the museum’s collection are 23 oil paintings by John Valentine Haidt, the first artist in America to illustrate primarily religious topics, as well as a pipe organ crafted in 1776 by David Tannenberg, the most important organ-maker of the era. Groups should also be sure to take time to appreciate the handsome stone Whitefield House, some 285 years old, that contains the museum.

While you’re there: If your group is clamouring for a longer look at Moravian history, head to nearby Bethlehem. Like Nazareth, it was founded by the denomination and is currently short-listed for World Heritage designation. Guided tours, led by docents in period dress, are available.

A Historic Monastic Settlement Ephrata

With its history of religious tolerance, it’s not surprising that Pennsylvania attracted smaller religious groups holding what might be called unusual beliefs. Groups can explore the former commune of one such sect in Ephrata, a small community located about 90 minutes southwest of Nazareth. The Ephrata Cloister was founded in 1732 by Conrad Beissel, who believed life should be spent simply, in preparation for the second coming. Church members ate and slept in limited amounts, wearing white robes as they went about their work, which included farming, milling and papermaking. Following Beissel’s death in 1768, the largely celibate group went into a slow decline, though the Germanic structures they lived and worked in remain.

Now a National Historic Landmark, the Ephrata Cloister offers tours that begin with a 15-minute video and continue with guided stops at two of the site’s most significant buildings, the Meetinghouse and the Sisters’ House. Afterward, groups can indulge in self-guided visits to seven more historic structures, as well as to the visitor center and the museum store.

While you’re there: Amish country is packed with plenty for groups to do and that includes taking in dinner and a show at Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre, where the good times include a buffet meal and a performance of a Broadway classic or a new favorite. A special package, which includes a question-and-answer after the show and autographed programs, is available to groups.

Tiffany Windows in Franklin

It’s a bit of a hike from Ephrata to Franklin, but the four-hour drive northwest is more than worth it. The little city in the corner of the state offers one of Pennsylvania’s most singular pleasures for groups: 30 exquisite Tiffany stained-glass windows. They can be found inside St. John’s Episcopal Church, one of only a handful of houses of worship in the world that can claim a full set of such windows. Installed from 1901 to 1917, they were the happy result of a Franklin oil boom, which allowed newly wealthy benefactors to donate the money needed for them.

Appraised at $16 million in the 1980s, the Tiffany windows are undoubtedly worth far more today. Among the most stunning is the monumental Rose Window, located across from the altar and said to be constructed of nearly four thousand separate pieces of glass. Leaders can schedule illuminating, docent-led tours of the church by contacting the parish office.

While you’re there: While Franklin’s charming Victorian buildings make a stroll through the town a must, so is a stop at DeBence Antique Music World. Groups will not only discover 200 mechanical musical instruments dating from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, they will also find other types of antique treasures, including 40 Tiffany-style hanging lamps.