There is something about visiting an old church.
Of course, many churchgoing evangelicals will warn about getting too attached to a church, which after all is just a building or meeting house, as early Protestant churches were once called. Obviously, the real church is the congregation.
Setting aside denomination and even theological questions, there is something special about visiting an old church be it a chapel, church or cathedral.
These edifices are where people have gathered in times good and bad to say prayers, celebrate and remember. Even houses of worship belonging to other faith traditions, say Christian Scientists, have something special about them.
It is also hard for some of the non-believers who come to admire architecture not to be mesmerized by these sacred spaces, which in the Christian tradition were built for the glory of God.
Many people also think they must travel to Europe to find a magnificent old church. This is somewhat understandable given the state of ecclesiastical architecture — and, frankly speaking, secular and civic architecture — since the postwar years. However, there are countless examples of notable old churches on these shores.
The following five churches, listed in no particular order, are among my favorites. Best of all, none require a passport to visit.
St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue
A couple blocks down New York City’s famed Fifth Avenue from the better known St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Roman Catholic) is St. Thomas Church.
An Episcopal parish, the church is renowned for its choral music and prim and proper liturgy.
The present edifice, which can be lost amidst the towers of modern Manhattan, was designed by architects Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram G. Goodhue — whose services were the best money could buy at the time — and built between 1911 and 1914.
The finest part of their design is what immediately catches your eye upon entering the nave through the main entrance, or narthex, on Fifth Avenue: The nearly floor-to-ceiling screen at the east wall. Part of the great altar, the screen, also called a reredos, has sculptures of Christ in Majesty, the cross of Calvary and some 70 other figures.
Chapel at the Hawaiian Royal Mausoleum State Monument
Hawaii isn’t just the fiftieth state. It’s also the only former kingdom in the Union.
This unique history means the state has a number of landmarks connected to the Hawaiian monarchy. One such sight is the Gothic Revival chapel at the Hawaiian Royal Mausoleum State Monument in Honolulu.
If you didn’t know better you might think this was a church in the English countryside. Designed by architect Theodore Heuck in the style of Gothic Revival, the unnamed, cruciform-shaped chapel served as the royal mausoleum from 1865, when construction finished, until 1922, when the remains of royals were transferred to a new underground tomb.
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The country’s first cathedral is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Roman Catholic) in Baltimore, Maryland.
Built over much of the 19th century the design is the work of Benjamin Latrobe, best known for his work designing the U.S. Capitol in nearby Washington. Treasures include two paintings gifted by King Louis XVIII of France in 1821.
Cathedral Church of St. John Divine
Another grand New York City church is the world’s largest cathedral, the Cathedral Church of St. John Divine (Episcopal).
St. John the Divine is both massive — its official capacity is 4,500 people — and unfinished. It will probably remain unfinished, as construction has been stalled for decades due to a lack of funds.
The cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal bishop of New York, is another Cram masterpiece. He took over from original architects George Heins and Christopher LaFarge and transformed their Romanesque Revival design into Gothic Revival, though the two distinct styles blend together to show the transition of architectural styles in the same way as some of Europe’s great cathedrals.
Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury
This former London church was deconstructed and shipped stone-by-stone — all 7,000 stones — across the Atlantic to become part of the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri.
Designed by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666 devastated London the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury is typical of Wren’s famous churches.
The church, reconstructed faithfully to Wren’s original Baroque design, serves as a campus chapel and event space for Westminster College, a historically Presbyterian liberal arts college. Meanwhile, the museum is housed underneath in the undercroft.