12 Most Beautiful Churches in America
America's churches are just as intriguing as their European counterparts. And not just in grandeur: The stories behind these architectural masterpieces—located in some of our country's most popular vacation spots—are downright biblical.
Visit: There are 15 area painted churches that earned a spot on the National Registry of Historic Places. They are open to the public for self-guided tours—pick up a map from the Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce. 2833 F.M. 2672, 979/743-3117, stmary-highhill.com.
Memorial Presbyterian Church
St. Augustine, FL
Built in 1889 by Henry Flagler as a memorial to his daughter following her untimely death due to childbirth complications, Memorial Presbyterian Church is Florida's oldest Presbyterian Church. The design was inspired by Venetian Renaissance style (namely St. Mark's Cathedral) and the church features a 150-foot tall copper dome with a 20-foot tall Greek Cross at the top. Inside, the great Baptismal Font was carved from a solid chunk of Siena marble while the floor is modeled after a classic Venetian floor pattern using different sized square and rectangular tiles. The choir performs from behind an ornately carved screen, and every pew, door, and panel is carved from a rich mahogany from the Dominican Republic. Flagler himself was the son of a Presbyterian minister and he later designed the stained glass windows you see today depicting the lessons of the Apostles' Creed. The bell tower and the five pillars that surround the church actually predate the structure—they were incorporated from another building that housed this congregation that dated back to 1826.
Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France
New Orleans, LA
Overlooking iconic Jackson Square, the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France is our country's oldest continually used Catholic cathedral. Established in 1720, the original Cathedral was dedicated to French King Louis IX and was where colonists and slaves alike were baptized. Unfortunately, the original church burned to the ground in 1788 when a candle set fire to the altar's lace draperies. A second cathedral was built in its place in 1794 and was later restored in 1849 to the condition you see it in today. The Cathedral features a central clock and bell tower and an Italian organ dating back to 1825. Luminaries have been visiting the church throughout its history. Andrew Jackson came to the Cathedral in 1840 as he returned to New Orleans for the commemoration of Jackson Square and Pope John Paul II paid a visit to this historic cathedral in 1987.
Visit: You can tour the St. Louis Cathedral daily after the 7:30 a.m. mass until 4 p.m. with the help of a self-guided brochure available for a $1 donation. 615 Pere Antoine Alley, 504/525-9585, stlouiscathedral.org.
San Francisco, CA
Grace Cathedral in San Francisco's Nob Hill has a look reminiscent of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The elaborate stained glass windows were inspired by biblical stories—the Passion, Crucifixion, and the Beatitudes are depicted in the St. Matthew window and the story of Christ healing the paralyzed man is shown in the St. Mark window. The masterpiece is the window illustrating the Twenty-Third Psalm (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want). It was created in the medieval style of presenting the scene from the bottom up, so that it symbolically rises to heaven. Grace Cathedral is also home to an indoor and outdoor Labyrinth, recalling a tradition dating back to France's Chartres Cathedral in 1220 when people would walk the winding path of the design as a way to release their troubles, meditate, and return to God's healing power. The Cathedral has been hosting celebrated authors and scholars ever since it was completed in 1964—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached here in 1965 and crowds reportedly filled the Cathedral, front steps, plaza, and parking lot. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jane Goodall, Isabel Allende, Carlos Santana, Sandra Day O'Connor, and the Dalai Lama have all been honored speakers at Grace Cathedral's Gresham Hall.