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Visitors from a Moravian community in Denmark tour Bethlehem

September 29th, 2015 |

September 22, 2015 | In The News

Written by Nicole Radzievich for The Morning Call

In a historic city like Bethlehem, it’s common to see Colonial-clad guides leading visitors along the brick sidewalks past the Gemeinhaus and other Moravian structures in the oldest part of town.

But the tourists Tuesday were no ordinary sightseers. They were a contingent from Christiansfeld, a small town in southern Denmark also celebrated for its architecture dating to its Moravian religious founders.

Christiansfeld this year was named to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage List, which honors natural and cultural gems around the world.

Sharing a historic designation honoring the likes of the Taj Mahal and Vatican City, Christiansfeld has raised the profile of the Moravian community internationally and is paving a path for similar Moravian landmarks like the ones in Bethlehem for a spot on that coveted list.

Joergen Boytler, one of the Danish scholars who researched Christiansfeld for its listing, was on the tour Tuesday. He said Bethlehem’s Moravian community is important for its “architecture, history and the idea that a town can be built on an ideal.”

The Moravians christened Bethlehem on Christmas Eve 1741 and built a town that became an emblem not only for religious freedom, but also for innovation as it built a tannery, water pump, grain mill and other industrial buildings on the banks of Monocacy Creek.

The Moravians converted Native Americans to Christianity and lived in a closed, communal setting prized for equality within the settlement.

“It’s the science of this, the architecture and other details that [bring] Bethlehem, Christiansfeld and other Moravian communities together,” said Boytler, unity business administrator of the Worldwide Moravian Church.

In its research, Christiansfeld identified Bethlehem and well-preserved examples of Moravian communities, including Genadendal in South Africa, Zeist in the Netherlands, and Gracehill in Northern Ireland.

Charlene Donchez Mowers, executive director of the Historic Bethlehem Museum and Sites, hopes Christiansfeld’s achievement leads the way for Bethlehem to obtain the designation and is working to get Bethlehem nominated to the tentative list next year. There are 1,031 World Heritage Sites, according to the UNESCO website.

The designation wouldn’t come with money to preserve Bethlehem’s history, but it would put the city in a stronger position to make its case for grants. World Heritage officials have advocated on behalf of historic sites that are threatened, including working with the Egyptian government in 1995 to reroute a proposed highway away from the Giza Pyramids outside of Cairo.

“If Bethlehem is listed as a World Heritage site, we will be in the same league as the … Great Wall of China,” Mowers said. “It’s an incredible opportunity.”

Representatives from Christiansfeld are expected to spend two days in Bethlehem and visit other Moravian communities in Nazareth and Lititz, Lancaster County. They also plan to visit the Moravian settlement in Salem, N.C., and take a New York City excursion.

Toting backpacks and snapping photos, the Danish visitors on Tuesday toured the Gemeinhaus, the birthplace of scientist Louis David von Schweinitz and the nation’s largest 18th-century log structure in continuous use; the Sisters House, where unmarried women lived; the waterworks, which is billed as the nation’s first municipal pump system, and other buildings.

The visitors observed the beeswax candles that were first used in Bethlehem in 1756, old fire engines and the musical serpent, a cross between a woodwind and brass instrument.

Through an interpreter, visitors listened to stories about how Bethlehem Moravians spoke different languages, but the common language was German. In fact, the Moravians held services in English and German into the early 20th century. The congregants sometimes engaged in “polyglot singing,” everyone singing the same hymn in their own language.

“Wouldn’t that be a joyful noise?” Mowers asked them.

Historic Bethlehem Museum and Sites docent Loretta Hein showed the Danes a plain white headdress, dubbed a Schneppelhaube. The Moravian women once told the church elders that they were going to wear fancier ones.

“One of the brothers said, ‘This is the beginning of dangerous times,’” Hein recounted.

Boytler said the ingenuity of water usage is what pulls the Moravian communities together around the world. Lititz has a small water pump behind its church, he pointed out.

Bethlehem’s waterworks was designed by engineers from Denmark who came to the New World to help the Moravians.

Christiansfeld, by comparison, also was prized for its water system when it was settled in 1773, three decades after Bethlehem. The town was measured by the center, the Church Square. It was laid out like a cross with a fountain in the middle. Fresh water was piped through hollowed oak logs from a forest just outside town.

Historians credit that water system for saving the Moravians from the fates of other Danish cities, where many died from dysentery.

Brian Michael Lione, a heritage consultant and a trustee at U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, came to Bethlehem on Tuesday to meet with Mowers and the Christiansfeld visitors.

He said one criterion for a site to be picked is “outstanding universal value.”

“This is absolutely a part of that,” he said.

He said Bethlehem was important to the history of the United States — its religious diversity — and shared many of the same attributes as similar Moravian settlements in other countries, providing connections to cultures around the world.

Bethlehem’s Moravian structures collectively were designated a National Historic Landmark District in 2012, on par with Williamsburg, Va., and New Orleans’ French Quarter, because of their high degree of authenticity and integrity.

Bethlehem’s district features the Colonial Industrial Quarter, God’s Acre cemetery, the Sun Inn and buildings of the Central Moravian Church, Historic Bethlehem and Moravian College. Two buildings — the 1762 waterworks pump house and the 1741 Gemeinhaus community hall — are already recognized as historic landmarks.

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