The Most Beautiful Churches in the U.S. That You Need to See
Beauty reveals God; for centuries it has been the Church's teaching tool in architecture, art, and stained glass, all of which depict God’s love for us in unique ways. America has a rich tradition of artisanship in her churches, so we have taken this opportunity to highlight 10 particularly striking examples.
Beauty is also in the eye of the beholder, and any list like this is destined to omit some deserving contender. For this reason, in addition to the obvious choices, we have attempted to include some “hidden gems.” These lesser known churches may not be household names but still contain a beauty which inspires. We have also attempted to include churches from every region of the country so that readers, wherever they are, may have the opportunity to visit one of these churches.
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C.
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The largest church in North America and National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception tops the list. The shrine is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and has received special honor from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as a National Sanctuary of Prayer and Pilgrimage. It is divided into an upper and lower church and contains more than 70 chapels and oratories with my personal favorite being the chapel of the Miraculous Medal. The Church is modeled on a combination of Byzantine and Romanesque architecture and is actually the 10th largest church in the world. The church is filled by Romanesque sculptures and Byzantine style mosaics including its most famous mosaic “Christ in Majesty” which spans the North Apse of the Upper Church and is one of the largest mosaics in the world—it is said to contain over 4000 shades and colors. The upper church also contains mosaics depicting the Creation of the World, the Redemption, the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the Last Judgment.
The lower church is modeled on the early Christian catacombs and is home to numerous smaller chapels and places of prayer. Though smaller in size, these are no less ornate than the upper church and are filled with sculptures and mosaics deserving of their own praise. Visit the website for a virtual tour (with 360 degree views) and the complete details for the summary above.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City, NY
CC by Moody Man
St. Patrick’s Cathedral is situated on one full square block of prime real estate in downtown Manhattan. At the time, Archbishop Hughes was criticized for selecting a site that was too far from the city. The cornerstone for St. Patrick’s Cathedral was laid in 1858, but the church was not finished until 1878 after construction was halted by the Civil War. St. Patrick’s is renowned for both its architecture and art. The cathedral is built in a Neo-Gothic style and features spires that rise 330 feet. The stained glass windows were produced in France, England, and Boston and are crowned by the famous rose window. St. Patrick’s also houses a pietà statue which is three times the size of Michelangelo's work. The World Columbian Exposition in Chicago recognized the Stations of the Cross for their artistry in 1893. The crypt chapel serves as the burial site for the 9 deceased archbishops of New York as well as Venerable Fulton Sheen. Venerable Pierre Toussaint was the first layperson to be buried there in 1990.
Most recently, the Cathedral has undergone a major renovation which includes restoration of the bronze doors, cleaning of the exterior marble, and restoration of the interior of the church. More information regarding the details above as well as a variety of photos can be found here. A brief video tour can also be found on the Cathedral website.
The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France, New Orleans, LA
CC By Jason Mrachina
The St. Louis Cathedral is not only one of the most recognizable landmarks in a city known for its architecture, it is also the oldest continuously used cathedral in the United States. The original church was consecrated in 1727 and witnessed the baptisms, weddings, and funerals of the colonists. The year 1788 ushered in the “year of calamity,” when the original church burned to the ground. It took 5 years to construct the new church. The cathedral has undergone various restorations throughout the years. The current cathedral looks down on the square of Andrew Jackson and the bronze general on his horse. Sitting in the heart of the French Quarter, the Cathedral of St. Louis is recognized by its three steeples and trademark clock face which decorates the front facade. Visit the Cathedral website for more information.
St. John Cantius, Chicago, IL
CC by Alan Cordova
One of the toughest decisions on the list as the city of Chicago has a rich catholic tradition. St. John Cantius was selected for its beautiful baroque interior which has remained intact for over 100 years. Baroque art and architecture is known for its ornate beauty and St. John Cantius delivers this in all respects. This church, which was originally founded as a Polish parish church, features ornate carvings and statues, rich inlaid wood floors, decorative ceilings, and beautiful stained glass windows. Images and history of St. John Cantius can be found on the church's website. Other Chicago honorable mentions go to Holy Name Cathedral and St. Mary of the Angels.
St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and Newman Center, Lincoln, NE
This hidden gem is just 3 years old. Constructed in 2015, this marvelous church contains seating for 600 as well as separate facilities for college ministry. The church design faced several unique challenges, yet the architects managed to maintain a traditional cruciform design despite spatial limitations of the building site lot. This forced several unique design features including a flattened apse behind the main altar. Normally, this space would be semi-circular. However, architects took advantage of this flattened apse which hosts a stained glass window 30 ft (3 stories high) x 40ft. The window was produced in Germany and depicts Christ seated on a throne surrounded by numerous saints. A full description of the architecture and how the this church came to be can be found here.
Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Denver, CO
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The twin spires which were completed in 1991 tower 210 ft above Logan Avenue in downtown Denver and serve as the face of the immense church. Inside, the church spans 116 ft in width and 195 in length. The sanctuary contains a massive high altar constructed from Carrara marble imported from Italy. The 68-foot-high vaulted ceiling draws the eye upward to a myriad of stain glass windows (75 stained glass windows in all, more than any other church in America). The windows were crafted in Munich, Germany by the famous craftsman F.X. Zettler at the Royal Bavarian Art Institute. Zettler was most famous for his ability to create beautiful colors and dyes, but his processes were destroyed during World War II. The most prominent stained glass images depict Mary the Mother of God and the declaration of Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in the east and west transepts of the church. These windows are accompanied by many other powerful images depicting the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, the Crucifixion, and my personal favorite, Jesus calming the storm at sea. Pictures of the Cathedral’s stained glass windows and more details as described above can be found on the Cathedral website.
Cathedral of Madeleine, Salt Lake City, UT
Completed in 1909, the Cathedral combines a Romanesque style exterior with a Gothic interior design. The exterior remains largely the same as the 1909 design, but the interior design is owed to an early renovation (began in 1917) which was designed by leading American architect John Theodore Comes. The design was inspired by the Spanish Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages and the ornate murals, the shrine of St. Mary Magdalen, and various other shrines were added at this time. A great restoration of the interior was completed in 1993.
The Cathedral of Madeleine contains several unique works of art including Stations of the Cross, which were added in 1993 and combine traditional iconography with American Southwestern elements. A tabernacle tower inspired by late medieval sacrament towers inhabits the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The stained glass windows were also designed by the famous F. X. Zettler in Munich. However, the Cathedral is probably best recognized for its two shrines: The Lady Chapel and the Chapel of Saint Joseph, which are situated on each side of the main sanctuary. Both Shrines incorporate the Spanish Gothic style. Carvings within The Lady Chapel depict the Flight into Egypt, the Holy Family, and the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple, while the St. Joseph Chapel contains carved scenes of the Annunciation to the Ahepherds, the Birth of Christ, and the Adoration of the Magi. Visit the Cathedral of Madeleine website for more details and interactive 360 degree panoramic view.
St. Ignatius Mission, St. Ignatius, Montana (near Glacier National Park)
Another hidden gem is found in Montana. The St. Ignatius Mission was established in the 1890’s. This church is situated on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Nestled near Glacier National Park, the Mission Church surrounds one with beauty inside and out. After passing through the scenic mountain landscape, one makes their way into the beautiful chapel which is decorated by 58 original paintings by Brother Joseph Carignano. The church is also known for two of its most distinctive paintings “The Salish Lord” and “Lord's mother” in Native American form. A panoramic virtual tour can be found here. A more complete history of the mission can be found here.
Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Sacramento, CA
The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament opened in 1889 and was intentionally situated near the capitol building in order to reinforce the importance of the Church in society. Throughout its history, the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament was aided by benefactors who were dedicated to making the Cathedral a center for art and culture. Their influence is still present today in the art and stained glass windows of the Cathedral. These benefactors included the Stanford family; Jane Stanford donated the image of the “Sistine Madonna,” which is a reproduction of the famous painting by Raphael Sanzio. Our Lady Chapel includes a Mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Juan Diego surrounded by saints from the Americas. The Chapel of the Martyrs is famous for its mural, which depicts the martyrs of the early church in the upper portion of the image and martyrs from the later centuries in the lower portion. The martyrs in the lower portion further were chosen to represent the ethnic diversity within the diocese. The focal point of the Cathedral is the main altar which is situated under a suspended Crucifix. The altar contains a relic of Saint Toribio Romo who was killed during the Cristero Rebellion in Mexico, a rebellion that arose as a result of strict anti-clerical and anti-Catholic laws. A slideshow containing the history and images can be found on the Cathedral website.
Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ
While not a household name, the Mission San Xavier del Bac features a uniquely Spanish and Southwestern flair. Originally founded as a Catholic mission, the church was completed in 1797. It is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona and maintains its unique Spanish Colonial architectural character both inside and out, as the church interior is still filled with original statues and murals. Go to the Mission website to read its rich history, take an interactive virtual tour, and flip through the photo gallery. If you are in Tucson, you may also consider visiting the St. Augustine Cathedral which we also considered for this list.