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History's Headlines: Single Sisters of Bethlehem, Yesterday and Today

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - For most of its history, all that many Americans knew of Bethlehem’s Moravian Single Sisters’ House was contained in a poem written by renowned 19th century great Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Then a fledgling poet of 18, Longfellow’s “Hymn of the Moravian Nuns at Bethlehem,” written in 1825, penned an imaginative vision more akin to the Middle Ages than the American Revolution. In a letter Longfellow wrote on January 13, 1857, in response to one he received from C.W. Doster, a Bethlehem resident and student at Yale, he admits he took information from a brief reference in a magazine article he saw, calling the Single Sisters nuns, and the rest was “figurative,” aka poetic license.  

The reality of the creation of a banner by the residents of the Single Sisters’ House for Casimir Pulaski, Polish freedom fighter and American patriot, is different. They were not cloistered nuns, but skilled experts in embroidery, which they used to help support themselves. Pulaski saw their work while in Bethlehem and commissioned a banner because of the women’s superior artistic abilities. It is not known if he paid for it.

Although no one knows who actually made the banner, long standing tradition claims Susan Von Gersdorf, the Eldress of the House, proposed it.

It is also claimed to have been designed by Rebecca Langly, an English born Moravian with the aid of her sister, Erdmuth Langly, along with Julia Bader, Anna Blum, Anna Hussy, Maria Rosina Schultz, Anna Maria Weiss.  After Pulaski’s death in battle in 1779 it was given, in 1844, to the Maryland Historical Society, where it is said to be to this day.

But there is a lot more to the Single Sisters’ House than Longfellow’s poem.

Starting on April 6th it will be the focal point of a new exhibit that will focus not just on the history of the house- occupied from 1744 to 2007- but the changing roles of women in the modern world. “It was occupied for so many years, we want to see it through layers of time,” says Lindsey Jancay, director of Collections & Programming for Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites.

Jancay points out that the project will have two aspects: the first floor will focus on the history of the Single Sisters’ House and the people who lived there. It will include the permanent exhibit. The second floor will focus on the role of women today. Through a series of lectures, performances and other events, it will discuss the role of women in leadership roles.

“It will be a working and living space,” says Tyler Shermer, a Moravian College senior who is working with Jancay on the project. Shermer admits to always having an interest in history. He is majoring in leadership studies at Moravian.

The Single Sisters’ House was built in 1744 as the Single Brethren House. In 1748, a new Single Brethren House was built.

On November 15th “the single women and girls, twenty one of the former, and twenty nine of the latter,” records Bishop Joseph Levering, “who had come down in a body on the 13th from Nazareth, where they had been domiciled since June 1, 1745, took possession of the former house of the single men. And on that day November 15, 1748 it became the Sisters’ House.”

Single Sisters were one of the “choirs” into which Moravian communities were divided by their founder Count von Zinzendorf. It was an idea brought to Bethlehem and designed for single young women who were 19 or older. One of those early sisters was Anne Maria Worbass. Drawn to the Moravians in Europe, she walked an entire day to get to their community at Hermhaag in Germany only to be turned away. But eventually she traveled to America to Bethlehem. After a drawing of lots went in her favor, she was admitted to the Single Sisters’ House.

Worbass wrote the following in her diary: “On November 3rd (1752), I was moved into the choir house of the Single Sisters… was happy to have a little place after so much fluttering around my foot could now rest…I felt touched anew by the dear Savior in my heart and was especially content and happy for some time.”

Like the other Single Sisters, Worbass took a role in the General Economy, the communal system under which the early Moravians operated. “My worldly business,” she wrote, “was whatever turned up in the Economy and latterly I was a cook for the Sisters for two years in the Sisters House.”

When the General Economy came to an end in the 1760s the Single Sisters continued to take in unmarried and widowed women. But now they had to pay two shillings and six pence a week. Part of their task was ministering to the younger Sisters. One sister called “the Helper” looked after the spiritual needs of her fellow sisters.

Although women could become Acolytes and Deacons in the Moravian Church, some roles open to men were closed to them at that time. They could not, for example, train as missionaries, become ministers or manage the money in the Women’s Choirs. Yet compared to other Protestant denominations they had a great deal of respect and were listened to.

Education was always important to Moravians. It was Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf, the Count’s daughter, who began the first school in the 1740s. Out of this grew education for young Moravian women and finally in the late 18th century what became the Young Ladies Seminary, one of the best schools for women in the country.

Many of the Single Sisters were instructors at the school. Joshua  Gilpin, an early 19th century traveler, gave this description of what he saw:

“After the schools we passed thro’ the Sisters house remarkable for its extreme neatness, the dormitory is in the garret which is made very roomy and pleasant, the beds are all single and I suppose about 60 formed in three rows thro’ the length of the house and the center of the chamber their burns a lamp all night under a ventilator which carries thro’ it the air from the closeness of the room.”

A lot changed over the years and the Single Sisters’ House changed with it. In the Cold War years it was even listed as a fallout shelter. Today that space will tell a different story but one still connected to the role of the Single Sisters of long ago.


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