monastery sketch.JPG

The Monastery that stands today was built in about 1747 by Joseph Gorgas and is on the same site where the Brethren Church was started in America, but to get the whole history we must start a little earlier. The first inhabitants of the Wissahickon were the Lenni Lenape tribe of the Delaware Indians. They made the original trails from Shackamaxon on the Delaware river to the Schuylkill and beyond. The name "Wissahickon" comes from the two Lenape words "Wisaucksickan" meaning yellow-colored stream and "Wisamickan" meaning catfish creak. We don't know much about the natives besides what was observed by white explorers. The first white men in the area were probably James Coyan and his group of surveyors who were sent to split the land along the banks into 12 plots for the first settlers.

In 1683, William Penn visited the area to meet the Indians and to formally purchase the land from them. He describes their appearance in relation to other cultures and ethnicities.


The only remembrance of the Lenape in the Wissahickon is a statue of a crouching Native American on what is now called "Indian Rock." The statue was erected in 1902 by Mr. and Mrs. W. Henry. The statue is often thought to be Tedyuscung - the last of the Lenape Chiefs. A more appropriate description was given long ago when some one described him as "no true savage - he was litigious, was frequently drunk, and showed other evidences of a tendency to lapse into civilization." There is also speculation that the rock the statue is on was actually the site of the last council of the Delaware Indians in 1764 before their removal to the Wyoming Valley.


The white Settlers who probably had the closest relations with the Lenape Indians were John Kelpius and the Hermits in the Ridge. In 1694, Kelpius and his mystic followers came from Germany to the small village of Germantown. After the town became too big for their liking they moved into the woods and formed the "Society of the Woman in the Wilderness." Then, they built a cabin and started preparing for the millennium by watching and reading the stars. They believed the savior was coming and they wanted to be ready for her.


They were also very interested in botany and the healing powers of certain plants. Kelpius and one of his faithful followers, Dr. Christopher Witt, created the first botanical garden in America along the lower Wissahickon. They were friendly with the Lenape and probably learned from them how to live along the Wissahickon and how to cultivate and use the native plants. This Lenape history would be somewhere between Penn and Tedyuscung and we don't know much about how they lived. On a side note, Dr. Witt is also the painter of the first oil painting in America, painted of Kelpius in 1705. The picture we see here is a lithograph first published in 1889. Kelpius died in 1708 in his garden surrounded by his pupils.

There is often the misconception that Kelpius had a connection with the monastery. The location of the first cabin and later three story mansion is actually a few miles up stream from the hermit's cave. The cave is still there and is a short hike from hermits lane off of Lincoln Drive.

Originally the land belonged to a John Cunrads and in 1719 was sold to Johannes Gumre (also spelled Gummere or Gomory). Gumre had a hand in helping start the first German Baptist Brethren in America.


The church had been started in Germany in 1708 by Alexander Mack. Mack moved to Germantown in 1729 and preached until his death in 1735. But, Mack was not the first Brethren to come to America. In 1719 Peter Becker, along with Gumre and his wife Anna, moved to the area and struggled to unite the 20 families that had come together. Because of the hardships of sailing for weeks and then starting a whole new life the congregation failed at first. Finally, they were able to organize themselves into a church with Becker as their elder. On Christmas day of 1723 they gathered along the Wissahickon to baptize six new members of the church. This was the first Baptist baptism in America. What made them special was that they used a total immersion baptism which is the reason they are often referred to as "the Dunkards" Then the 23 of them returned to Gumre's cabin for feet washing, holy communion and the lord's supper (also known as a love feast). Thus, the Brethren Church started in the new world.

Some years later they built a stone building in Germantown. When Alexander Mack came from Germany, he lived in a shack behind the church. After Mack passed away, Chris Sawer and Alex Mack Jr. took over the church. Sawer was one of the first printers in America. He had an advantage in Germantown over other printers of the time such as Franklin because he had smuggled over German type face and was able to print in German. He printed the first German bibles in America.

Another interesting member of the Brethren was Martin Brumbal. He was a president of Juniata College, Superintendent of Philadelphia Public Schools and Governor of Pennsylvania. When he became the governor, many of the Brethren thought he was compromising his principals. The brethren are pacifists and believe in equality. By becoming governor , he might have had to make decisions that go against his values. The church as a whole has broken off into different sects. Recently, the brethren common ideas and history have been gathered in a Brethren Encyclopedia which is a great source of information about the churches.

To get back to the history of the Monastery, after Gumre moved away he sold the land with the cabin to his son who in turn sold it to Benjamin Shoemaker in 1742. Four or 5 years later Shoemaker sold it to John Gorgas Jr. Gorgas senior had moved from Germany in 1688 supposedly on the same ship as William Rittenhouse who started Rittenhousetown. In 1706 he was naturalized as a English citizen so that he could own land in the colony. Gorgas married Psyche (or Seikie) Rittenhouse and they had quite a few kids. In his will, his wife is named Sophia and we don't know if it's the same woman. When he died in 1741 he left his land to his older sons and his wife and younger kids moved to a 7th day Baptist community in Ephreta. His two oldest sons John and Joseph Gorgas came back to live on the land. John Jr. (the eldest son), bought the section right on the river from Shoemaker and gave it to Joseph. Joseph then built a three story mansion, a barn and a paper mill on it. Because of his connection with the Baptists in Ephrata Joseph Gorgas allowed the brothers and sisters from Ephrata to stay with him. This is probably why it's referred to as a monastery. Joseph Gorgas married a woman named Juliana but never had any children. When they got to be older, Joseph and Juliana moved to Ephrata to live out the rest of their lives. He died in 1766 and she in 1805. When they left, Joseph's brother John was given the land. In 1761, he sold it to Edward Milner for 1500£.


Milner sold it to Peter Care (or Case) in 1775 who we know fought in the revolutionary war. He sold the land to John Livezey in 1805 then died in 1821. The Livezey family and their mill has it's own history that is probably as long as this one. The two are tied here when Livezey owned the additional land including the monastery. He didn't have it for long though, because he sold it to a man named Lonstreth who used the mill again. He sold it to Joshua Garsed who manufactured flax thread on the property. He lived in the house and made many changes to the building, including, taking down the balcony that went around the second story and changing some of the interiors.

In 1841 the property was purchased by John H. Brock and James H. Hart and they sold it to Elizabeth Wiest in 1843. (So far she is the only woman to own it) When she died, the property went to her children Frances W. Wiest and Mrs. Charles Thompson Jones. And finally in 1852 they sold it to William Gordon Kitchen. He was married to a Susan Kitchen and they had a bunch of kids. After William Gordon died the city of Philadelphia bought the land from Susan through her eldest son James Kitchen to add to land for Fairmount Park.

 The City named the road leading to the Monastery "Kitchen's Lane" and incorporated the mansion and stable into the park. For a while the stable was the used for the mounted park guards. Some of the older members of the barn can still remember the mounted guards riding along forbidden drive. Forbidden drive is the paved road along the Wissahickon that is off limits to all vehicles partly thanks to the horseback riding community in the park. 

The park used the Monastery for some years for the mounted guards to use as a barn and home base. Some of the elder members of the Wissahickon community can still tell you stories of the mounted guard and the hay rides the barn used to run. In the 1970's the guards left and moved all of their horses and training facilities to another part of the city. The building was starting to look old and there was talk of taking it down. A new director came in with the "Friends of the Wissahickon" and helped bring the barn back to life. The Monastery was renovated including a pluming system and electricity to all the whole house.

Over the years the stable has passed hands a few times and had a few different clubs call it home. The University of Pennsylvania had an equestrian team at one point using the stables. Now it is under the supervision of the "Borders and Stewards of the Monastery" who help keep the barn running smoothly and the history intact.