Historic Moravian Bethlehem: The Next World Heritage Site?

Have you been to Bethlehem? I’m referring to the small, charming Colonial city just over an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, in the midst of upstate Pennsylvania.

Whilst you might be forgiven for first thinking of the Judean village in the Nativity story, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is on the verge of being named one of the most historically and culturally valuable places in the world. Since 2012, its Historic Moravian district been designated as a National Historic Landmark District by the National Parks Service, the highest heritage distinction in the United States. And then, just before Christmas last year, Historic Moravian Bethlehem was placed on the US Tentative List for nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“This is just the beginning of a multi-year selection process, but to be nominated is a huge honor,” says Charlene Donchez Mowers, President of Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites, the organization that cares for and promotes the city’s heritage. She and her team have been instrumental in the effort to achieve recognition for Historic Moravian Bethlehem, working not only with local partners, but with other Moravian communities across the world – such as Christiansfeld in Denmark, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.

What is it that makes Historic Moravian Bethlehem such a special place? To answer that question, we need to go back more than 275 years to 1741, when the city was founded by the Moravian religious group, a branch of Christianity originating in the German-speaking kingdom of Moravia. The Moravians had a strong focus on equality and community. As with other Moravian settlements from Europe to South Africa, they planned and built Bethlehem to embody these principles, with common spaces shared by everyone, and provision to educate, employ and house the whole community, regardless of gender, social status or ethnicity.

The city of Bethlehem has kept this distinctive spirit alive over the years by protecting and celebrating its Historic Moravian district. And whilst many buildings would be recognized by the original settlers, Charlene Donchez Mowers says that “what makes these historic structures special is that they are still part of a living community.”

Take, for example, the impressive Gemeinhaus or community hall, the oldest surviving building in Bethlehem and the largest Colonial period log structure still in use in the United States. It was a massive physical and technical undertaking for the settlers, especially as it was only the second structure they built – it stands at 94 feet tall by 32 feet wide, with two and a half stories and an attic. The Gemeinhaus was the place where the community came together, and their first place of worship, the Saal, was housed on its second floor. Today it has a new role as the home of the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem, one of the city’s most important tourist sites.

Another example is the Single Sisters’ House, which was given to the unmarried women of Bethlehem as a place to live, work and learn in 1748. At a time when most women experienced huge pressure to marry in order to be financially supported, Moravian women had the option of living in the Single Sisters’ House, where they could continue their education and develop their skills, becoming leaders in the community. Charlene points out that, over 200 years later, the House continues to celebrate women’s accomplishments and examine the challenges they face with programs and activities such as the Single Sisters’ Series.  


Bethlehem has a range of dynamic historic sites even beyond its National Historic Landmark District. Especially popular with young families is Burnside Plantation. Once the first private enterprise in the city, Burnside is now in the care of Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites, and is open to all as a place to learn about life on a Colonial era farm. Volunteers research authentic meals to serve in the farm kitchen, and lead workshops for the community on everything from nature to 18th century dance. 

Another important local landmark is the Sun Inn, a hotel that has hosted some of the most pivotal figures in American history. In 1777, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress met at the Sun Inn during their journey from Philadelphia to York. Guests such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams – who dubbed Bethlehem a ‘curious and remarkable town’ – later stayed there.

The Sun Inn is still a flourishing business, with a popular tavern serving local food and drink as well as an onsite museum. It is even branching into new areas, with a distillery creating craft spirits based on 18th century recipes due to launch this December.

With such a wealth of places that preserve its past whilst being fully part of its present, Bethlehem truly is a uniquely vibrant historic city. What will be Charlene Donchez Mowers’ reaction, should her city be awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status?

 “If we were to receive it, we would just be absolutely thrilled,” she says. “It would be an amazing opportunity to welcome visitors from all over the world into our historic structures and our living community.”


Article written by Alice Krainock on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association

All photos of historic sites sourced from Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites.

Photo of Sun Inn sourced from Wikipedia Commons.

Photo of Charlene Donchez Mowers sourced from Lehigh Valley Live.