Testaments of Time: 5 of the Oldest Churches in America

Josh Florence

Testaments of Time: 5 of the Oldest Churches in America

The United States may not have as many years of church history compared to other locations around the world. What it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. God really does make all things new. In The United States, the Church and its history is just that. We see examples of missionary fervor, baptisms of multitudes, and an immense trust in God’s divine providence.

The laborers who ventured from Europe to minister to the natives and the European arrivals to the New World reaped a great harvest of souls for God. By the grace of God, this was done, even when “the laborers were few.” (Mt. 9:34)

These communities, initially, did not have physical churches to worship. When missionaries first arrived in St. Augustine, FL, for example, they said mass next to the bay where they landed. The older churches which exist in our country speak to the massive collective effort of people pulling together in order to house Our Lord.

The church buildings in the US still visible today act as a testament to God’s fidelity. The stories of resilience, faith, and devotion in these places make them worth a visit. Below are listed five of the oldest churches you can visit in the continental United States. 


1. Mission San Miguel- Santa Fe; Built: 1610; Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico

Starting with the oldest church building in the United States, Mission San Miguel is, rightly, the first to show up on the list. Oral tradition dates the church to 1610, although the exact date is not known for certain. Surviving written record shows that the church was in existence by 1628.

Throughout its history, the church has been a part of the Spanish empire, Mexico, and The United States. Oral tradition states that it was constructed by Tlaxcalan Indians who came alongside Spaniards to expand into what is present-day New Mexico.

The original church was built of adobe and is a Franciscan-designed house. The church was partially destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The present building dates from 1710.

At San Miguel, you can visit the 789-pound San Jose Bell. It now resides in the main church building since it fell from the church’s bell tower in 1872. One legend says that the bell was brought over from Andalucia, Spain. The locals in Andalucia had cast the bell out of thanksgiving to St. Joseph’s protection from the Moors.1


2. St. Francis Xavier Church; Built: 1731; Location: Leonardtown, MD

This church has the distinction of being the oldest continuous catholic church in the 13 original English colonies. Maryland was originally established for Catholics in 1632. The first English settlers landed at St. Clement’s Island on March 25, 1634. On that day, the first Catholic mass in the English colonies was celebrated.  

Leonardtown is located in close proximity to St. Clement’s Island. Jesuit priests began their work around Leonardtown in the year 1640.

As you may have noticed, the church building is dated at 1731. Even though Catholics were living and worshipping in this area since 1641, the church building that we know today was not built, in large part due to the anti-Catholic sentiment of the English during the 17th century. There were anti-Catholic activities in 1645 and 1655 which caused the Jesuits to flee the area although they would return.

The Catholics of the colony would be able to worship more freely under the reign of Charles II in 1660. During this time, a chapel was built in 1662. A cemetery was also built at this time and is still in use today.

The Protestant Rebellion of 1689 and then the Intolerant Act of 1704 made open Catholic worship difficult for the Colonists. Although missionary work was driven underground, a physical church was built without any exterior adornments. This is the present building.2


3. San Fernando Cathedral; Built: 1731; San Antonio, TX

The church was founded by a group of 16 families from the Canary Islands at the invitation of King Phillip V, of Spain.3 It is one of the oldest cathedrals in The United States and is located in downtown, San Antonio.4 The back of the cathedral is where the original structure can be seen. 

Although most think of The Alamo when they think of San Antonio, San Fernando Cathedral played a role in the battle and Texas history. It was from the cathedral bell towers on February 23rd, 1836 that the warning was sounded for the Texas revolutionaries that Santa Anna was at the city gates.5

Other historical notes include the ashes of soldiers from the battle of San Jacinto, which can be found in the church. Also, the famous soldier from the battle of The Alamo, Sam Bowie, was married in San Fernando Cathedral. 


4. Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis, King of France; Built: 1789; Location: New Orleans, LA

This Cathedral-Basilica is located in the historic French Quarter of New Orleans. When it was originally built, it was located between two other historic buildings of New Orleans. One is The Cabildo, which was the seat of government for the city of New Orleans. On the other side of the cathedral is the Presbytere, where the Capuchin monks used to live. These two buildings are now operated by the Louisiana State Museum.6

The cathedral is directly across from Jackson Square, named for the US President, Andrew Jackson, who visited the Cathedral in 1840. This visit by the former president was to commemorate the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

The Cathedral was also visited by Zachary Taylor in 1847, before he became a U.S. president. The occasion was to celebrate his successful participation in the Mexican-American war. 

It was visited by St. Pope John Paul II in 1987. During his address to the faithful of New Orleans he said, “This temple of God, this house of prayer and gate of heaven stands as the central point of the City of New Orleans, and from this place all distances are measured. Here Christ dwells in your midst, present in word and Sacrament, making this a place of grace and blessing for all the People of God. . . And just as this Cathedral of Saint Louis is the focal point of the City of New Orleans, so too Christ is the very center of your lives.”


5. Cahokia Holy Family Catholic Church; Built: 1799; Cahokia, IL

Holy Family has been a parish since 1699, the same year the original log church was dedicated. The community was founded by missionaries from Quebec who were hoping to convert the Tamaroa Indians.

The original log church burned in 1740 but the second church, which still stands today, was dedicated on September 24th, 1799. The church is made of black walnut timber, 90% of which is from the original church.

Notable historic items include candlesticks which were a gift from King Louis XIV of France and the church’s original bell which was a gift from King Louis XV. Most impressive is the original chalice from the first mass in 1698. This same chalice was later used by St. Pope John Paul II during his visit to St. Louis in 1999.8


 “History of San Miguel Chapel”, San Miguel Chapel: The Story of the Oldest Church in the United States, accessed on July 13th, 2023, https://sanmiguelchapel.org/.

 “History” St. Francis Xavier, Newtowne, MD, accessed July 13th, 2023, https://stfrancisxavierchurch.org/history.

3 “Our History” San Fernando Cathedral: The Heart of San Antonio, Accessed July 13th, 2023, https://sfcathedral.org/our-history

4 Bullock Texas State History Museum, “Canary Island Descendants” Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBqF8hY01GA

5 The Texas Bucket List- San Fernando Cathedral, Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsnTfEuPZGM

6 “Our History” Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis King of France, Accessed on July 13th, 2023, https://www.stlouiscathedral.org/about/our-history/ .

7 “Apostolic Journey to The United States of America and Canada”, Accessed on July 14th, 2023, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1987/september/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19870912_cattedrale-new-orleans.html

8 “Log Church” Cahokia Holy Family Catholic Church, Accessed on July 13th, 2023, https://www.holyfamily1699.org/log-church.html