Few things garner as much attention for an historic site then the title of ‘oldest’, and the oldest churches are certainly no exception. Determining what is, in fact, the oldest church in America is a matter of some debate, as there are many ways to consider the question. Do churches on U.S. territories count? Did they actually have to be constructed in the United States? What if they are only partially standing? Do they have to currently be in use? Whichever way you choose to look at it, the following churches cover virtually every possibility.
Cathedral of San Juan Bautista & San Jose Church
San Juan, Puerto Rico (Catholic)
The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista and the San Jose Church, both located in San Juan, Puerto Rico, are, technically speaking, the two oldest churches currently standing on American soil. Thanks to the fact that the island of Puerto Rico was discovered by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, it was one of the first places in the New World where Christianity was introduced. The city was founded by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1508, and construction on both churches began in the ensuing decades.
The first church in San Juan was built in 1521, but this primitive structure was destroyed in a hurricane. A new church, the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, was built on the same spot and completed in 1540. The San Jose Church was constructed nearby in the 1530s. The former became the second cathedral in the New World, while the latter is the oldest standing Spanish Colonial structure in the Americas. Ponce de Leon was originally buried in the San Jose Church, but was reinterred in the cathedral in the 19th century. Together these two are unquestionably America’s oldest churches still in use.
San Miguel Mission
Santa Fe, New Mexico (Catholic)
The San Miguel Mission, a tiny adobe church located deep in the heart of the America west, is the oldest church standing in the contiguous 48 states. This location, thousands of miles from the Eastern Seaboard, is an extremely odd place for such a distinctive honor. However, there is a surprisingly good story for such an unlikely building. In the early 17th century, more than a decade before the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts, an expedition of Spanish explorers worked their way up the Rio Grande and Pecos Rivers from the Gulf of Mexico, travelling as far as what is now northern New Mexico.
At the end of their journey, they established a small colony and mission at what is now the city of Santa Fe. This effectively marked the northernmost point of the Spanish colonial empire in the North American interior. In the 1610s, the San Miguel Chapel was constructed at the local mission. Though damaged and repaired numerous times in its long history, most of the original structure is miraculously intact. Because of this, the San Miguel Mission just barely edges out the early churches of the English colonies for the title of America’s oldest church.
St. Luke’s Church & Jamestown Church
Smithfield & Jamestown, Virginia (Episcopal)
The Church of St. Luke and the Jamestown Church are the two oldest churches still standing in what was the original thirteen colonies, as well as the two oldest Protestant church buildings in the United States. The two are both located in the original territory settled by the British in the early 17th century, though there is some controversy over exactly which one is older. The first Protestant church in America was constructed at Jamestown in 1617, but this was replaced by a larger more permanent structure in 1639.
St. Luke’s Church has traditionally been dated to 1632, and some evidence supports this. Other evidence suggests that the building dates from 1682, but used materials from an earlier church in its construction. To date the controversy remains unresolved. To further complicate the matter, the Jamestown Church deteriorated and collapsed in the 18th century, though the church tower remained intact. Much of this church was restored in the early 1900s. So for those seeking America’s oldest colonial church, the choice comes between the unreliably dated St. Luke’s and the remains of the Jamestown Church. Visit both and be sure either way.
Old Trinity Church
Church Creek, Maryland (Episcopal)
The Old Trinity Church in Maryland lays claim to being the oldest church in America in continual use. It was constructed sometime around 1675, and became the center around which the town of Church Creek later grew up. There is some controversy about the dating of Old Trinity due to the fact that there are no town records available prior to the 18th century.
Nevertheless the church building itself is well over three hundred years old, and church records reflect non-stop activity for the entire period (and amazingly with the same continuous congregation). Unfortunately, due to the precipitous decline in the town’s population, this venerable congregation is now under the real threat of disappearing, and Old Trinity’s record in danger of being broken.
St. Joan of Arc Chapel
Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Catholic)
The St. Joan of Arc Chapel on the campus of Marquette University is, strictly speaking, America’s oldest church building, though only by an extreme technicality indulged by the author. This beautiful church was originally constructed in the village of Chasse-sur-Rhone in Central France in the 15th century. One of the very first churches to be dedicated to the French heroine of the Hundred Years War (martyred in 1431), it was the town’s primary church until falling into ruin after the French Revolution.
After World War I, the chapel was acquired by American railroad magnate James Hill who had it shipped and reconstructed brick by brick in Long Island, New York. In 1964, the chapel was gifted to Marquette University, and once again it was deconstructed brick by brick, moved and reconstructed. It now stands on the university campus. Among its treasures is the Joan of Arc Stone, believed to be the stone upon which Joan stood when she had her famous visions.