Christianity is the most widely followed religion in the United States, with nearly 75% of American adults professing a Christian faith. Over 68 million of those Christians are devoted Roman Catholics, who gather each Sunday at their local church to celebrate the Sunday Mass. Many of these churches have become historic places during their long history in the Americas, and today, we’re exploring 8 of the most historic Catholic churches in the US.
1) The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis: St. Louis, Missouri
Built as a replacement for the previous Cathedral of St. Louis, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis was completed in 1914. The cathedral currently serves as the seat for the archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, but remains best known for its collection of mosaics. With over 41.5 million individual glass tesserae pieces, the cathedral is the largest mosaic collection in the world outside of Russia. These mosaics were first installed in 1912, and finally completed in 1988. While the majority of these depict Biblical scenes, a section of the cathedral’s artwork is dedicated to the life of King Louis IX of France, the church’s namesake.
In addition to its mosaics, the cathedral is also home to a famous crypt, which currently houses three former cardinals, and The Angel of Harmony sculpture, which was installed in 1999. The sculpture, which depicts a winged angel with three children, was meant to be a symbol of racial harmony.
2) San Fernando Cathedral: San Fernando, Texas
First constructed between 1738 and 1750, the San Fernando Cathedral (sometimes known as the Cathedral of Our lady of Candelaria and Guadalupe) is one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States. First built by settlers from the Canary Islands, the cathedral is dedicated to the Virgin of Candelaria, the patroness of the Islands.
In addition to being the oldest cathedral in Texas, San Fernando Cathedral was visited by Pope John Paul II in 1987, during the first and only papal visit to the state of Texas. This distinction allowed the cathedral to join an elite group of churches which have been visited by popes since 1965. In 2003, the Cathedral underwent a major restoration, which saw a change in the church’s interior, a replacement of its rectory, and the construction of a community centre.
3) Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church: Mobile, Alabama
Founded in 1899, the Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church was organized to serve the African-American population of Mobile during the Jim Crow era. It has historically been served by the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, who also formed the Most Pure Heart of Mary School in 1901. This school has continued to operate into the present day.
The church is most well-known, however, for its engagement in the Civil Rights Movement. Both priests and nuns alike participated in multiple boycotts and demonstration during the Movement, in a show of support for the African-American community of Mobile. It was also used as a meetinghouse for the Neighborhood Organized Workers group. Today, the church continues to be served by the Josephite brothers, and emphasizes its African-American heritage.
4) Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: Washington, D.C.
Dedicated in 1959, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception holds many distinctions: in addition to being the largest Catholic church in North America, the basilica is also the tallest habitable building in Washington D.C., and the eighth largest religious structure in the world. The construction of the massive cathedral began in 1920, but was only truly finished in 2017. With 70 chapels, multiple mosaics, and a crypt, it is one of the most ornately decorated Catholic sites in the nation.
Although the basilica does not have its own specific parish community, it serves the Catholic University of America and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It also hosts Masses for many organizations. In addition, it houses the world’s largest collection of contemporary ecclesiastical art.
5) Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine: St. Augustine, Florida
The oldest congregation in the contiguous United States, parish records for the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine date back to 1594. The congregation itself, however, was established in 1565. The first church was built quickly during the 1560s, but was subsequently burned to the ground in 1586 during an attack on the Spanish settlement by the English Sir Francis Drake. A second cathedral was subsequently rebuilt, but this one also burnt down in 1599.
In total, the cathedral has been built four times and remodeled once, only the last build of which used a fireproof material. The current cathedral is built using coquina stone, a type of sedimentary rock that is mainly composed of small bits of seashell. This last build of the cathedral was completed in the 19th century, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. Today, the congregation continues to hold regular services.
Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. Reprinted from St. Augustine Then & Now by Summer Bozeman, courtesy of the Florida Photographic Archives (pg. 12, Arcadia Publishing, 2009).
6) Catedral Metropolitana Basílica de San Juan Bautista: San Juan, Puerto Rico
The oldest cathedral in the United States, Catedral Metropolitana Basílica de San Juan Bautista (or the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint John the Baptist) is located in historic Old San Juan, in Puerto Rico. Originally built in 1521, the cathedral burnt down once, but was built (and has remained standing) since 1540.
Besides its age, the cathedral is known for housing the tomb of Juan Ponce de León, a prominent Spanish explorer, and the founder of the first European settlement on the island. It also contains a well-known shrine to Blessed Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Santiago, the first Caribbean-born layperson to beatified by the Catholic Church, and the wax-coated, mummified remains of St. Pius, a first-century martyr. These make the cathedral a major pilgrimage site for those in Puerto Rico and the Americas.
7) Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help: Boston, Massachusetts
First established by priests of the Most Holy Redeemer (or “Redemptionists”), the Basilica and Shrine of our Lady of Perpetual Help is located in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. It was originally built in 1870, but was rebuilt into a grander structure beginning in 1874, and dedicated in 1878.
The basilica’s claim to fame, however, came after a replica icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was installed over the altar of the church in 1871. The original 15th century icon depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary, and hails from the Byzantine Empire. After the replica was installed at the basilica, reports of miraculous healing were reported, and attributed to mediation by the Virgin Mary. Her intercessions were widely reported, and hundreds began visiting the icon in the hopes of receiving healing.
Because of these numerous healings, the shrine has performed a weekly blessing of the sick since 1874. The basilica has also hosted a number of large events, including the funeral of Senator Edward Kennedy.
8) St. Patrick’s Cathedral: New York City, New York
One of the other esteemed American churches to receive a papal visit, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is the seat of the archbishop for the Archdiocese of New York. It was first constructed in 1858, and dedicated in 1879, after taking a break in construction for the Civil War. Built in a distinctive Neo-Gothic style, the cathedral is considered one of the largest symbols of Catholicism in New York City.
Due to its status in New York City (and indeed to most American Catholics), St. Patrick’s has been visited by four Popes since the mid-20th century: Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. The cathedral is also known for its two pipe organs, and its large collection of stained glass windows. It was most recently renovated between 2012 and 2015.