America’s golden age of churches ran roughly from the mid-19th century to the early decades of the 20th century. During this era, immense church construction projects were undertaken all across the country, creating symbols of a nation at its height in terms of both faith and industry. The grandest of these, largely from the Roman Catholic and Episcopal traditions, arose in America’s great urban centers, especially in the northeast. Although the days of magnificent and ambitious church projects seem to be relegated to the past, these monuments of faith have become an indelible part of America’s culture and skylines.
Cathedral of St. John the Divine
New York City, New York
New York City is home to some of the largest church buildings in America, including several record setting structures. The greatest of these, hands down, is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Upper Manhattan. St. John’s had its roots in the late 19th century, when the Episcopal Diocese of New York decided to embark on the most ambitious Protestant construction project in history: a cathedral on a scale so massive that it would become an integral part of the New York City skyline. Construction began in 1892, and it took nearly fifty years for the nave alone to be completed. Even though the last scaffolding came down in 2007, the cathedral continues to be a work in progress, earning it the nickname ‘St. John the Unfinished’.
St. John’s is the largest church of any denomination in the United States, the second largest in the Western Hemisphere and the fourth largest in the world. It is also the world’s largest non-Catholic church. Sprawling over three city blocks, this neo-Gothic masterpiece has one of the largest architectural footprints in New York. One of the bell towers is still under construction. The tomb of Horatio Potter, the bishop who inaugurated the project over a century ago, is within. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is located at the northern end of Manhattan Island, just a few blocks from the massive Riverside Church, the tallest church in America.
Washington National Cathedral
The Washington National Cathedral, officially the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, is the de-facto national church of the United States. The earliest plans for Washington DC called for a national church, but serious planning did not get underway until the late 19th century, when the Episcopal Church received a commission to oversee the project. Ground broke in 1907 in a ceremony presided over by Theodore Roosevelt, and much of the construction between the two world wars was overseen by General John Pershing. Construction was not completed until the 1990s.
America’s second largest church building, the Washington National Cathedral hosts many state events that require a church, such as presidential funerals. During World War II, it was designated as the national house of prayer. Today it is attended by politicians, diplomats and other residents of the capital. Many prominent Americans are buried on the grounds of the cathedral, including Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller. The Washington National Cathedral is located on the northeast side of the city a few miles from the Mall.
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the largest Catholic church building in the United States and was, for a brief time, the largest church of any denomination in the Western Hemisphere. Its prominence comes from its location in the national capital, as well as from its association with John Carroll, the first Catholic Archbishop in the United States. Carroll, a signed of the Declaration of Independence, famously offered his blessing on the new nation naming Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception as its patron.
The construction of the church began just after World War I, with a friendly rivalry taking place between it and the Washington National Cathedral being built across town. It was completed in 1961, and for a brief period was the largest completed church in the United States. It remains the largest Catholic church in America. Interestingly, it is not the seat of the Archdiocese of Washington, which is why it is not designated as a cathedral. It was, however, elevated to the position of a minor basilica in 1990.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
New York City, New York
St. Patrick’s Cathedral is one of the largest and most important churches in the United States; and thanks to its incomparable location on Fifth Avenue in the heart of New York City, it is without rival the most visited, and overcrowded, church in America. The site of the cathedral began humbly as home to a community of Trappist monks and later an orphanage. During the early 19th century, large numbers of Catholic immigrants, especially from Ireland, necessitated the construction of a major new cathedral. In 1850 New York became an Archbishopric, and work began on the new church a few years later. It was substantially completed in 1878.
St. Patrick’s was the largest church in the Americas at the time of its completion, and remains to the present day the second tallest. Thanks to its immense and spectacular façade, the cathedral manages to dominate its stretch of Fifth Avenue in the face of encroaching, modern-day skyscrapers. It is perhaps most famous for hosting the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade every March 17th, one of the largest annual Catholic feast celebrations in America. St. Patrick’s has also hosted among the highest number of papal visits of any cathedral in the United States.
Cathedral of St. Paul
St. Paul, Minnesota
The Cathedral of St. Paul, along with the Basilica of St. Mary, one of the co-cathedrals of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. It is the largest church in America outside of New York City and Washington DC. It was founded in 1841 and was one of the first major permanent church buildings in the American northwest. By 1888, the Roman Catholic Church had grown so large in the region that Minneapolis-St. Paul was established as an archdiocese, and new cathedrals were ordered for both cities. The first to be completed was St. Paul’s, affirming it as the mother church of the archdiocese.
St. Paul’s opened in 1915, and for a brief period was America’s second largest church. It continues to be the third largest Catholic church building in the United States, and remains one of the largest overall as well as the fourth tallest. Its iconic feature is a massive copper dome, considered one of the finest in America. In 2009 the Cathedral of St. Paul was designated the National Shrine of the Apostle Paul, the only church so designated in the United States.