12 Most Beautiful Churches in America
Medieval labyrinths, intricate stained glass, even a sculpture of Darth Vader… There's no question that America's churches are just as intriguing as their European counterparts. And not just in grandeur—the stories behind these architectural masterpieces are downright biblical.
Whether it's a grand cathedral the length of two football fields or a stunning chapel that has been hand-crafted deep in the forest, the most beautiful churches in America are as diverse as the country itself. From coast to coast, we found 12 of the most architecturally inspiring churches. No matter what your religious affiliation is, everyone can find enlightenment in the towering domes, mosaic artworks, and impressive sculptures, not to mention the stories behind these buildings.
The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine
New York City
The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine is well worth the 20-minute subway ride from Times Square. The Episcopalian Cathedral takes up an entire block and is tall enough to hold the Statue of Liberty. In fact, the only church that beats it in size is St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. The limestone-granite structure is impressive enough to rival any European church—but it didn't begin looking quite the same as it does now. When architects George Heins and Christopher Grand Lafarge first built the structure in 1892, they designed it in Romanesque-Byzantine style. Several fires and a couple of decades later, Ralph Adams Cram took over the structure and transformed it into the French Gothic style we see today. The Great Rose Window above the bronze doors on the Cathedral's Amsterdam Avenue side is the largest stained-glass window in the U.S., with more than 10,000 pieces of colored glass. Make time to stroll around the 13-acre grounds too—in addition to the cathedral's impressive Peace Fountain, which depicts the battle between good and evil, white peacocks roam the grounds too and if you're lucky you'll spot one.
Washington National Cathedral
There is no shortage of churches in Washington, D.C., but none quite so noteworthy as Washington National Cathedral (officially called Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul). Not only has this religious institution been the site of 21 presidential funerals—from William McKinley in 1901 to Gerald Ford in 2007—but national heroes such as Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson are interred here. As befitting our capital, the 517-foot-long building is an imposing ode to worship. The design is Neo-Gothic through-and-through, from its limestone exterior with its steep arches to its stained glass windows and flying buttresses. It took 83 years to build and was only officially finished in September of 1990. The modern completion led to a surprising detail—a sculpture of Darth Vader at the top of the west tower (a contemporary representation of evil). Standing in for good, you'll find a more traditional approach to religious sculpture—288 angels. Head up to the Pilgrim Observation Gallery near the Wisconsin Avenue entrance for magnificent 360-degree views of Washington, D.C.
Visit: The Pilgrim Observation Gallery is open Monday thru Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Several guided tours are available for from $10 per person, including an inside look at the Cathedral's art and architecture among other behind-the-scenes tour options (online reservations are required). 3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202/537-6200, nationalcathedral.org, requested contribution of $10 per person.
St. Mary of the Angels
It's something of a miracle that this stunning cathedral still exists. The first St. Mary of the Angels was built in 1899 in northwest Chicago and soon became a parish school. The present-day church was completed in 1920 following several struggles with material shortages during World War I. When the Kennedy Expressway was built in 1960, many residents left the area and in 1988 the building was closed and prepared for demolition. Fortunately, the remaining parishioners and the priests of Opus Dei were able to work together and officially save it three years later. Major repairs soon began, including the preservation of the 26 nine-foot tall angels that line the roof. Like most Italian Romanesque churches inspired by St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, St. Mary of the Angels was designed in the shape of a cross, with a large dome in the center and two bell towers at its sides. Stained-glass windows inside the church depict the 12 Apostles, the Stations of the Cross, images of the saints and angels, and various other biblical scenes (there is also a painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus that was reportedly smuggled out of communist Poland).