When it comes to holy architectural feats, it can be easy for Americans to throw the towel in and think: “Okay, Europe. We get it. You’re way more epic.”
Sure, our friends across the pond may have time, history, and Michelangelo on their side — but it doesn’t mean that we can’t hold our own in the New World. In fact, the amount of architectural prowess we put into our churches is pretty dang impressive, uplifting both religious and non-religious alike. As a Buddhist friend once told me, “Catholic churches are just so…otherworldly.”
Well, I suppose that’s kind of the idea!
Yet, despite their otherworldliness, many of them keep a pretty low profile. When I’m traveling, I’m always looking for architectural gems and often find them just around the block. Granted, most of the churches in this roundup have some local fame (and definitely a long line for wedding reservations), but their small low-budget websites rarely do them a slice of justice (even if they do use bright turquoise Papyrus in their headers, to be fair).
While this is certainly not a complete list, these eight churches offer a unique reminder of how diverse and epic Catholic architecture really can be — right here, stateside.
- Holy Family Shrine, Gretna, NE
- Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, AZ
- St. Catherine of Siena Chapel in Allenspark, CO
- Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco, CA
- El Santuario de Chimayo in Chimayo, NM
- St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN
- Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, at Holy Hill in Hubertus, WI
- St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Chicago, IL
Talk about “supernatural”! I mean, this place even has a stream flowing alongside the pews.
Executed by four anonymous Catholic architects who wanted to build a chapel for the “travelers of the road and spirit,” the Holy Family Shrine’s main feature isn’t just its stunning architecture, but rather how the architecture embraces the stunning nature surrounding it. (The chapel is inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s protégé Euine Fay Jones, who created the more famous Thorncrown Chapel.)
Some say that as you enter the church, you don’t feel like you’re in another space; rather you feel like you’re seeing nature — aka, the architecture of God — with an entirely different perspective.
One of Sedona’s earliest landmarks, the Chapel of the Holy Cross, is wedged between two red mounds standing 200 feet above the ground, giving it an ethereal, magnificent look.
“Looking at it directly, it seems the rocks parted to embrace the structure,” states one travel outlet. “From the side, it looks like it was dropped into place; from above, it resembles a diving board or runway where one might leap towards spirit.” Whoa — but please don’t try that. It’s, like, really, really high.
Known as the “Chapel of the Rock,” this idyllic church holds a prime view of the majestic Rockies and might be the perfect place to surrender your soul on a cold winter night (possibly literally and definitely metaphorically).
On a historical note, in 1993 Pope Saint John Paul II prayed and blessed the chapel and surrounding woods during his visit to Denver for World Youth Day, instantly making this place all the more popular.
Like all modern architecture, there are a lot of opinions on this church. But my favorite perspective is the adoring one on its parish website: “In this sacred place, ancient faith and modern technology combine to create a twenty-first century hymn of praise to Almighty God.” Alleluia!
No matter your architectural preferences, when you really stop to contemplate this monumental holy space, a respite to the hustle and bustle of San Francisco, you can’t help but be reminded that faith isn’t something set in the past, but rather a spark carrying us into the future. (Even if that future, according to some, slightly evokes alien spaceship vibes.)
With an adobe bell tower on each side, the location of this church will make you think you’ve stumbled into a time machine or a movie set as it transports you into another world — reminding us of the church’s humble, missionary beginnings on this continent.
The west might have been wild when this church was built in 1816 to serve families living in the area, but they knew God is always near, humbly beckoning us to rest our weary spirits and quench our thirsty souls. (And maybe grab some real water too, because desert).
In 1950, the community of Benedictine monks at Collegeville had outgrown their original abbey and contacted 12 architects to submit plans to build “a truly architectural monument to the service of God.”
Designed to make worship an intimate experience, many consider this one of the first pieces of successful modern religious architecture in the United States. Others believe it was the first depiction of a flat screen television.
Just look at it! With 440 acres of woodland surrounding the Basilica, this Neo-Romanesque shrine sits on the highest peak of Kettle Moraine. The surrounding woodland provides a beautiful, holy, and even mystical atmosphere that the Jesuit missionaries in the 1670s would have surely felt when they saw the site for the first time.
Now, more than 300,000 pilgrims visit these contemplative grounds yearly — and you needn’t wonder why.
Rumor has it that when these shiny 13 domes (one for Jesus plus 12 for his disciples) are freshly polished, they gleam so brightly that pilots looking to land their planes at O’Hare have to reroute!
Even so, this Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (a Byzantine rite in full communion with the Holy See) perfectly marries the ancient tradition of the East with modern living in a city like Chicago. And it marries a lot of people, too.