It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Pennsylvania offers tour groups such a wide range of fascinating faith-based attractions to visit. After all, when English Quaker William Penn founded the colony in 1682, it was with the idea of religious freedom fixed firmly in mind. Rather than persecuting people of different beliefs, he accepted them with open arms, creating a refuge for all in the name of brotherly love.
Today, perhaps thanks to Penn’s unusual vision, Pennsylvania gives groups an inspiring diversity of spiritual spaces to visit, from churches to museums and even a theater dedicated to showcasing stories from the Bible.
This itinerary winds across the Keystone State, beginning in Philadelphia and ending in Pittsburgh. Because they are Pennsylvania’s two biggest cities, they make excellent entry and exit points, whether traveling into them via airports or the interstate. In between, groups will stop in the suburb of Bryn Athyn before heading west to Ronks, in the center of the state, and then farther northwest to Bolivar, in the Laurel Highlands. Group leaders should allow at least three nights for this trip and consider adding two or three more to see additional sights.
A Faith-Focused Museum in Philadelphia
Groups can explore how the Bible has influenced the nation from its founding to today at the 40,000-square-foot Faith and Liberty Discovery Center (FLDC) on Independence Mall in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. Six interactive galleries tell the stories of how visionaries like William Penn, Martin Luther King Jr. and peace activist Dorothy Day found inspiration in the Scripture and encourage visitors to consider how their own lives are affecting the course of history.
Unlike most museums, which are artifact driven, much of the content in the FLDC is experienced through multimedia exhibits. Groups access it using a handheld smart lamp that activates exhibits automatically and collects content, like images and quotes, which visitors can then retrieve at home.
The FLDC, which opened in May, offers groups admission discounts on advance bookings.
While you’re there: Within easy walking distance of the FLDC, Independence Hall is one of the City of Brotherly Love’s must-see attractions. Tours take visitors into the Assembly Room, where the nation’s Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence and delegates from 12 states signed the U.S. Constitution.
Religious Art Haven in Bryn Athyn
Just an hour’s drive north from Philadelphia is the jaw-dropping Glencairn Museum. The institution’s home is part of its allure: a magnificent Gothic-style castle that boasts spaces like the Great Hall, which soars 74 feet and boasts medieval stained glass and sculpture. The structure, which sits within the confines of the Bryn Athyn Historic District, is equaled in beauty only by the collection it houses.
Group visitors to Glencairn will encounter a cross-section of the museum’s 8,000 works of religious art and artifacts hailing from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, as well as Assyria, Babylon, Mesopotamia and Asia. Perhaps the museum’s most showstopping piece is a stained-glass window from the Abbey Church of St. Denis in France. Depicting the Flight to Egypt, it dates to the 12th century.
Group leaders may want to schedule a special all-day tour of Bryn Athyn, which includes a Glencairn visit, along with stops at the Beaux Arts-style Cairnwood and Bryn Athyn Cathedral.
While you’re there: Like Glencairn, Valley Forge National Historical Park is in Montgomery County. Bring your group to learn about how the Continental Army’s encampment during the winter of 1777-78 changed the course of American history. Gen. George Washington’s headquarters is just one of the park’s historic sites.
Live Bible Stories in Ronks
It’s almost a straight shot 90 minutes west from Bryn Athyn to Ronks, located in the rolling Amish farm fields of Lancaster County. If the bucolic setting doesn’t feel heavenly to groups, taking in a show at Sight and Sound Theatres will. Now in its 45th year, Sight and Sound is known for bringing the Bible to life with spectacular productions that feature a 300-foot wraparound stage, casts comprising dozens of professional actors; live animals that scramble up and down the aisles; and three-story-high set pieces.
“David,” which will open March 12, 2022, and play through the year’s end, tells the tale of the triumphs and tragedies the biblical hero experiences on his way to becoming “a man after God’s own heart.” Among the technical elements sure to wow groups is a massive 110-foot-wide, 30-foot-tall LED screen.
Speaking of groups, Sight and Sound not only gives groups discounts, it also offers tour leaders a free downloadable planning guide.
While you’re there: Lancaster County is famed for its Amish population, and the Amish Village, a living history attraction, offers groups a way to learn about these very private people. Sights include an authentic Amish farmhouse built in the 1840s.
Ancient Faith in Laurel Highlands
Tucked away in the lush forests of the Laurel Highlands, Antiochian Village takes about three and a half hours to reach from Ronks, but the drive is well worth it. The village, owned by the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, gives groups the chance to learn more about this religious movement founded in ancient Syria. Attractions include a museum, a chapel, a library and a meditation trail.
Inside the candle-lit chapel, groups will discover examples of the ancient Christian art form of iconography on the walls, and the library offers pleasures like a Book of the Gospels in Latin and Arabic that dates to 1591. In addition to Antiochian artifacts and art, the museum features a Titanic exhibit that tells the stories of the Middle Eastern passengers who were aboard the ill-fated ship.
Tour leaders may book themed luncheons or dinners for their groups on the idyllic 300-acre property. Options include a Titanic-inspired menu and a menu of Middle Eastern fare.
While you’re there: Fallingwater, designed by America’s most esteemed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2019. Groups can enjoy a variety of tours, including sunset, brunch and collections tours.
Pittsburgh’s Religious Relics
It takes only about 90 minutes for motorcoaches to travel from the Laurel Highlands to Pittsburgh, the former steel city that’s remade itself into a tourist hot spot. There awaits St. Anthony’s Chapel, an unassuming building that contains more relics than anywhere else, barring the Vatican. More than 5,000 bits of the bodies of holy people or their belongings reside within St. Anthony’s, collected by the Rev. Suitbert Mollinger, who founded the Chapel in 1880.
Visiting groups will have a chance to see relics, including splinters from the true Cross, a fragment from the Crown of Thorns and pieces of Jesus’ swaddling clothes. In addition, the Chapel also houses pieces of the veil of the Blessed Mother and the cloak of St. Joseph. A tooth of St. Anthony’s, the only bit of his body not in Padua, Italy, is in the reliquary directly below his statue.
St. Anthony’s offers docent-led tours to groups, as well as lunch in the school hall.
While you’re there: Pittsburgh is a city filled with museums, but your group might best enjoy Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Founded in 1893, it features a 14-room greenhouse and 23 different gardens unspooling over 15 acres.