The United States has provided a refuge for persecuted religious groups ever since the Puritans boarded the Mayflower and set sail for the New World in 1620. Roger Williams later broke away from the Plymouth Colony and established the country's first Baptist congregation in Providence, R.I. Quakers settled in Pennsylvania, while Catholics, financed by Britain's Lord Baltimore, escaped to what would eventually become the state of Maryland.
Since the colonial period, churches have served an important role not only in politics and history but also in the creation of a new, distinctly American architectural landscape. Today, the U.S. is home to more than 300 different religions and roughly 350,000 congregations attending services in a vast array of ecclesiastical buildings throughout the nation.
The Anglican Book of Common Prayer reminds believers that all human life, inevitably, turns to dust. The same principle can hold true for great works of architecture, which can just as suddenly turn to ash. On April 15, millions of people watched in disbelief as flames consumed the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris—arguably one of the most beautiful and historically significant ecclesiastical buildings in the western world. For many, the 850-year-old Gothic masterpiece represented the very heart of France and had seemed indestructible, weathering even the French Revolution.
Stacker presents this carefully curated list of some of the most beautiful and historically significant churches in each of the 50 states. Several buildings are elaborate cathedrals in major cities. Others are simple, yet striking, structures in America's heartland or former missionary centers that sprang up as the country expanded westward. Many buildings are artistic masterpieces, including a handful of churches designed by some of the most innovative architects of modern times.
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Designed by local black architect Dave Benjamin West in 1894, First Baptist Church was built for a historically African American congregation. The red brick Gothic Revival church rose to prominence in the 1960s as a center for the growing civil rights movement.
St. Michael's Cathedral in Sitka, Alaska, is the oldest Orthodox cathedral in the United States. The structure was built in the 1840s while Alaska was still under Russian rule; the U.S. later bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867 for $7.2 million. The cathedral was made of wood and capped with a traditional Russian onion dome, and was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1961. The church was destroyed by fire just five years later, but thanks to a drawing created by the Historic American Buildings Survey, architects were able to recreate the original structure using fireproof materials.
Rising out from the red rocks of Sedona, the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Holy Cross was built in 1956. Designed by Marguerite Brunswig Staude, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, the facade is dominated by a wall of stained glass, encased by a thin membrane of masonry and a towering cross measuring 90 feet high.
Retired school teacher Jim Reed had a vision: the creation of a non-denominational, ethereal sanctuary on land he originally purchased for his retirement. Reed hired Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice E. Fay Jones to design the structure, which was completed in 1980. Nestled in the wooded Ozark hills just outside Eureka Springs, Thorncrown Chapel is a temple of light supported by a series of crisscrossing beams evocative of the surrounding forest, visible through the soaring, floor-to-ceiling panes of glass.
Wayfarers Chapel—another glass church influenced by the aesthetic of Frank Lloyd Wright—was designed by his son, Lloyd Wright, for Palos Verdes resident Elizabeth Schellenberg. Both Schellenberg and Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, the woman who donated the land Wayfarers Chapel sits upon, were members of the Swedenborgian Church. This Christian sect was founded in the 18th century by Lutheran theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. Wayfarers Chapel embodies the Swedenborgian principles of harmony and balance between the spiritual and natural realms. A popular destination for celebrity weddings (Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay were married there in 1958), the skeletal, glass-enclosed structure overlooks the beautiful blue of the Pacific Ocean.
The rough-hewn stone Chapel on the Rock sits in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. Dedicated to St. Catherine of Siena, it was originally part of a 60,000 square foot retreat complex founded by Edith and Oscar Malo in the 1930s. But a 2011 fire and 2013 flooding destroyed much of the property surrounding the chapel. In 2016, the Archdiocese of Denver began a massive renovation to the site, which hosted Pope John Paul II when he visited the U.S. in 1993.
Litchfield is noteworthy for more than the fictional women's prison featured in the hit Netflix series “Orange Is The New Black”—it's also home to one of the oldest congregational communities in the country. This Greek Revival church, built in 1829, is considered one of the finest examples of early 19th-century church architecture.
A haven for colonial settlers of all faiths, Delaware has no shortage of beautiful churches. Trinity Episcopal in Wilmington, however, is particularly impressive. Constructed from rough stone in the English Gothic style, the church was designed by Philadelphia-based architect Theophilus Chandler, Jr. It boasts a distinctive timbered ceiling and Tiffany stained glass windows.
North Miami is home to the cloister of the Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux—a stunning Spanish Romanesque chapel and surrounding gardens dating to the early 12th century. Purchased by William Randolph Hearst in 1925, the building was taken apart stone by stone and shipped to a storage facility where it languished for over 25 years. In the 1950s, a pair of entrepreneurs purchased the dismantled structure and resurrected it in Miami. Originally a Catholic church, the chapel is now home to an active Episcopal parish.
Made of stained cypress shingles, Faith Chapel on Georgia's Jekyll Island was founded in 1904 to serve members of the exclusive Jekyll Island Club. The chapel ceased to function as a non-denominational house of worship in the 1940s, but couples can still be married in the soft, prismatic glow of the building's Tiffany stained glass window.
The Mokuaikaua community in Kailua is the oldest Christian congregation in Hawaii, founded in 1820 by the first mainland missionaries to reach the island. The current church was built in 1836 to replace two earlier wooden structures. The design, with its towering spire, melds traditional Western ecclesiastical architectural motifs with local materials—notably, the Koa wood interior and the exterior stone repurposed from a neighboring Hawaiian temple.
Built by the Jesuits for the local Coeur d'Alene tribe in the early 1850s, Cataldo's Mission of the Sacred Heart is the oldest building in Idaho, as well as one of the most fascinating. The interior is a triumph of folk art, boasting altars painted to mimic Italian marble and chandeliers wrought from tin cans. A virtual time capsule, the church has managed to avoid renovations over the years and is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
When fire destroyed the existing Universalist church in Chicago's Oak Park suburb, local resident Frank Lloyd Wright stepped up and designed a new house of worship for this congregation. His classically inspired meeting house—christened Unity Temple—was the first ecclesiastical building to be constructed from poured concrete. When the doors opened in 1908, members were greeted by an almost mystical interior, bathed in light filtered through a dramatic second story clerestory.
This sandstone church was built in 1907 on the sprawling Saint Meinrad Archabbey, a Benedictine monastery established by Swiss monks in the 1850s. Designed by Adrian Wewer, a Franciscan brother with no formal architecture training, the imposing sandstone structure, with its rounded arches and central rose window, is an homage to medieval European ecclesiastical architecture in America's heartland.
If it wasn't for its whitewashed exterior, Gothic-inspired windows, and belfry, the Morning Star Chapel in Elk Horn could easily be mistaken for a child's playhouse. With just four pews, the tiny chapel was built for personal use by octogenarian Johann Wolensky in 1951.
Located in Wyandotte County, White Church Christian Church was erected at the turn of the 20th century to replace a Methodist building that was destroyed by a cyclone. The new church, built of locally quarried stone, is notable for its 21 stained glass windows and an inscription that reads, “Twelve Apostles to the Indians from 1830 to 1856 and their heroic wives.”
This 1791 log meeting house, located just outside Lexington, is now contained in a 1930s stone structure. Founded as a place of worship for the local Presbyterian community, Cane Ridge occupies a seminal role in the Second Great Awakening religious movement that swept the country in the early 19th century. In 1801, it hosted one of the biggest and earliest camp revival meetings.
Founded by Acadian exiles from Canada, the parish of St. Martin de Tours was established in 1765 and continues to serve the parish's diverse Catholic congregation. The striking, cream and gold stucco church—which features a distinctive, raised pulpit—was constructed in the 1840s to accommodate the community's growing population.
An outstanding example of federal architecture, the Unitarian-Universalist First Parish Church in Portland was built in 1825 to replace a house of worship known as “Old Jerusalem” that had served the community since 1740. The distinctive clock tower was preserved from the earlier structure and incorporated into the new building. Constructed from local granite, First Parish survived Portland's Great Fire of 1866 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Founded in 1632 as a colony for Catholic refugees, Maryland is fittingly home to the country's first Catholic cathedral. The Basilica of the Assumption was designed in 1806 by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. The innovative neo-classical design—which features a columned portico and a Latin-cross floor plan capped by a massive dome—was employed to establish a distinctly “American” vision of ecclesiastical architecture.
Bostonians have been worshipping at Henry Hobson Richardson's Romanesque revival masterpiece since the 1870s. Trinity Church changed the vernacular of both ecclesiastical and public architecture in the United States, eschewing Gothic elements in favor of rounded arches, rough-hewn stone, and opalescent windows created by stained glass master John LaFarge.
St. James Grosse Ile was the dream of Lisette Denison Forth, a former slave who became the first black woman to own land in Michigan. After obtaining her freedom, Denison Forth found work as a domestic servant, saving her earnings and investing in real estate. A bequest of $1,500 upon her death in 1866 provided the seed money that made her dream a reality. The charming Carpenter Gothic church is graced by a large Tiffany glass window and a pair of carved wooden doors dedicated to Denison Forth.
Moorhead, Minn. is home to the only wooden stave church in the U.S., modeled after a medieval masterpiece in Norway. Stave churches—named for their distinctive support pillars—combine elements of Roman basilicas with northern European building traditions, including exuberant, carved, ornamental woodwork replete with pagan-inspired details. Completed in 2001, the Hopperstad Stave Church Replica is administered by the Clay County Historical Society and available for weddings.
This ghostly Episcopal church might be in need of a little tender love and care, but its ethereal beauty is still visible beyond the peeling paint. Ornamented with Gothic detail, St. Mary's Chapel in Natchez boasts ornately carved woodwork, marble floors, and fiery-hued stained glass windows. Originally part of the Laurel Hill plantation complex ravaged by fire in the 1960s, the chapel was built in 1839 with stucco bricks made by the owner's slaves.
The Byzantine-inspired Cathedral of St. Louis was built between 1914 and 1917. Every inch of the polychromed interior is covered in vibrant color. The mosaic-encrusted walls constitute one of the largest collections of this ancient art form in North America. A visit from Pope John Paul II in 1997 elevated the cathedral to the status of basilica.
St. Mary's Mission Chapel in Stevensville is situated in Montana's Bitterroot Valley and the product of several building campaigns, the first of which began in 1866. The chapel's rustic exterior stands in stark contrast to the breathtaking interior, created by Jesuit priest and craftsman Anthony Ravalli. He drew inspiration from the Renaissance cathedrals of his native Italy.
This Episcopal church on the Santee Indian Reservation has a particularly endearing rustic charm. Built in 1884 with traditional board-and-batten siding, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
The futuristic Las Vegas Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was dedicated in 1989. Built of sparkling white stone, Nevada's first Mormon temple measures approximately 80,350 square feet and boasts six soaring spires.
One of just nine summer chapels in New Hampshire, St. Andrew's by the Sea was erected in 1877 to provide an Episcopal house of worship for wealthy seasonal residents from New York City and Chicago. Designed by the firm of Walter T. Winslow and George H. Wetherell in an amalgamation of the Victorian Stick and late Gothic Revival styles, the distinctive ceiling was built with a series of heavy trusses that mimic the form of an inverted boat. The stunning stained glass windows created by Tiffany Studios and John LaFarge were financed by the tiny chapel's well-heeled parishioners.
Architecture enthusiasts should take a gander at New Jersey's historic Alpine Community Church before it disappears. An architectural gem in the New York City commuter town of Alpine, the United Methodist Church is now up for sale due to dwindling attendance. Designed in 1871 by J. Cleveland Cady, the building is included on the National and Registers of Historic Places, though that won't necessarily save it. Concerned residents have floated the idea of buying it themselves and repurposing the structure as a community center.
This quaint adobe church sits in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just northwest of Santa Fe. Simple and serene, San Geronimo de Taos was erected in 1850 after an earlier adobe church—built in 1728—was destroyed during the Mexican-American War. In 1992, San Geronimo de Taos was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The majestic Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City rivals medieval European churches, even in its perpetually unfinished state. A Gothic revival masterpiece measuring 121,000 square feet, it's one of the biggest churches in the world, and its magnificent rose window—composed of 100,000 pieces of stained glass—is the largest of its kind in the United States. Despite its status as one of the most magnificent buildings in the world, it wasn't declared a New York City landmark until 2017.
Railroad tycoon George Vanderbilt commissioned the Cathedral of All Souls to serve the community associated with his massive Biltmore Estate. The church was designed by Biltmore architect Richard Morris Hunt. Although Hunt designed six houses of worship during his illustrious career, Cathedral of All Souls is the only one still in existence.
The Bread of Life Church, now known as St. George's Episcopal Church, is one of the oldest remaining houses of worship in North Dakota. Constructed in 1880 and 1881, the beautiful barn-red church was placed under the authority of the State Historical Society in 1965.
13 gorgeous green onion domes crown the neo-Byzantine St. Theodosius Cathedral, the oldest Orthodox church in Cleveland. Most of the money for the church was raised by members of the congregation, although it's rumored that Russian Czar Nicholas II contributed to the fund before he was executed by Bolsheviks. The church is home to numerous hand-painted icons and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
One of the most notable examples of Art Deco ecclesiastical architecture in the world, the Boston Avenue Church in Tulsa is a modern masterpiece of metal, glass, terra cotta, limestone, and granite. Designed by Adah M. Robinson, the soaring structure boasts Cubist-influenced sculpture and geometric stained glass panels.
The Grotto, dedicated to Our Sorrowful Mother, is a unique Roman Catholic garden sanctuary nestled in a wooded section of Portland. The dream of Father Ambrose Mayer, who stumbled upon the abandoned former quarry in 1923, The Grotto has dedicated spaces for both indoor and outdoor services.
Noted for its remarkable stained glass windows, Bryn Athyn Cathedral was funded by wealthy industrialist John Pitcairn and constructed between 1913 and 1928. In keeping with Swedenborgian theology, which emphasizes the unpredictability of the human experience, the church's architecture eschews straight lines in favor of almost imperceptible curvature.
Providence is home, quite literally, to the first Baptist congregation in the U.S., founded by exiled Plymouth Puritan Roger Williams in 1638. The whitewashed, brick-and-timber building was built in the late 18th century and is one of the finest examples of Federalist architecture in the country. Stunning in its simplicity, the purposefully spare interior was designed to keep the minds of worshippers fixed on spiritual matters, as opposed to visual delights.
Built in 1706, St. Andrew's Parish Church in Charleston is the oldest surviving house of worship in South Carolina. The simple, whitewashed church counted wealthy rice and indigo plantation owners among its congregants and miraculously survived the tumult of the Civil War. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Built in 1869, the Vangen Lutheran Church in rural Mission Hills is one of the oldest ecclesiastical buildings in South Dakota—if not the oldest. Established to serve the liturgical needs of South Dakota's sizable Norwegian population, the postcard-pretty, white-washed church holds an annual service on Memorial Day.
The Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville took quite a beating during the Civil War, when it was seized by the government for use as a hospital. Several decades and considerable amounts of money were spent rehabilitating the church. The congregation made the bold decision in 1892 to renovate the interior in the style of an ancient Egyptian temple. The end result was stunning—if somewhat unorthodox for an ecclesiastical building.
Whitewashed churches are common in Hill Country, but few boast the jaw-dropping reveal of St. Mary's in Fredericksburg. One of only about 20 “painted churches” erected by German immigrants who settled in the state, the building bears some colorful adornment on almost every interior surface—including painted vestibules with Bible verses in German. Built in 1906, St. Mary's is considered one of the finest of its genre.
A symbol of mainstream Mormonism recognized throughout the world, the Latter Day Saints Temple in Salt Lake City took an astonishing 40 years to complete. Construction began in the middle of the 19th century, soon after the Mormon community settled in Utah. Architect Truman O. Angell designed the structure with a nod to the Gothic Revival. Symbolic images—such as sun and moon stones, five-pointed stars, and the all-seeing eye of the Heavenly Father—recur throughout the richly painted interior.
The Old Round Church in Richmond, Vt., is unusual not just in terms of its 16-sided design, but also its original congregation. In its early days, it served Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists and Universalists alike. Built between 1812 and 1813 by local builder William Rhodes, the church is currently home to the Richmond Historical Society and a National Historic Landmark.
With its distinctive four-tiered spire, Palladian windows, and Flemish Bond brickwork, Christ Church in Alexandria is a notable American example of Georgian architecture. Designed by Colonel James Wren—a descendent of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect behind London's St. Paul's Cathedral—this historical Episcopal house of worship counts George Washington as one of its many illustrious members.
The Diocese of Olympia had grand plans for St. Mark's, which was originally conceived as a magnificent Gothic cathedral for Seattle. The stock market crash of 1931, however, drained the diocese's coffers, scrapping the original plans. The remaining funds were used to build a massive, surprisingly striking concrete shell with modernist overtones, dramatically perched on a rocky ledge overlooking Seattle's Lake Union.
Washington D.C. has no shortage of beautiful churches, but few can compete with the grandeur of the National Cathedral, which boasts 112 carved gargoyles and 215 stained glass windows. Officially known as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Paul, construction began in 1907 and took 83 years to complete.
St. Peter's Catholic Church is dramatically situated on a rocky hillside, overlooking the town of Harper's Ferry. The striking neo-Gothic church was built in 1989 with red granite and sandstone imported from neighboring states. It essentially overhauled an earlier structure dating from 1833, which had managed to survive the Civil War.
Designed for his boyhood congregation near Madison, Frank Lloyd Wright likened the First Unitarian Meeting House to hands folded in prayer. To reduce costs, church members dragged blocks of limestone from a nearby quarry to the building site and helped build furniture Wright created for the interior.
Built in 1925, this unassuming Roman Catholic chapel could easily be mistaken for a log cabin homestead, if not for the wooden cross affixed to the roof. Dramatically situated by the south entrance to the Grand Teton National Park, the church captures the beauty of the natural landscape via a large picture window behind the altar. Designed by architect C.B. Loomis, the chapel was built by local carpenters and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.