The Complete Pilgrim is currently working on a survey regarding the best religious sites in America. While those results are a ways off, the initial results have yielded some interesting facts about where some of the largest clusters of major religious destinations are to be found. Not surprisingly, the largest clusters are to be found in bigger cities, with the heaviest concentrations of historic churches, cathedrals and synagogues along the Eastern Seaboard. But there are some interesting unexpected destinations as well.
In part two of two articles, The Complete Pilgrim is looking at the four best cities in America for religious siteseeing, plus an honorable mention. Go check out the ones near you:
4. San Francisco
It may seem odd that progressive San Francisco would be so high up on this list. However, it was the primary junction where Roman Catholics coming from the south, Russian Orthodox Christians coming from the north and Protestants coming from the east all came together in the mid-19th century. This left an impressive legacy of religious sites, including the St. Ignatius Church, seat of parish of San Francisco, and the Holy Virgin Cathedral, the mother church of Eastern Orthodoxy in the continental United States. Located in the harbor is the Fisherman’s and Seaman’s Memorial Chapel, the most visited maritime church in America, while Glide Memorial United Methodist Church is famous as one of America’s most progressive congregations. The city’s Mission District was started at its namesake Mission San Francisco de Asis. Also in San Francisco are two of the most stunningly beautiful synagogues on the West Coast: Congregation Emanu-El and Congregation Sherith Israel, both worthy of photo ops.
3. Washington, DC
Washington, DC made the list by virtue of the fact that almost every major religious denomination has their national church in America’s capital. First and foremost is the Washington National Cathedral, one of the largest Anglican/Episcopal churches in the world and the burial site of President Woodrow Wilson. Another major Episcopal site is St. John’s Church, across the street from the White House, which has been visited by the majority of American presidents. The Roman Catholic Church is represented by the stunning Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is the de-facto national Catholic church building in the United States. Other major churches to found in Washington include the Eastern Orthodox St. Nicholas Cathedral, the Metropoloitan Memorial United Methodist Church and the National Presbyterian Church. Also in the city is the beautiful old Adas Israel Synagogue, now maintained as a Jewish museum.
Claims by Boston and other cities aside, if any American city can be called the birthplace of religious freedom in America, it is Philadelphia. More religious denominations got their start in and around the Philadelphia area than just about any place else. The Germantown Mennonite Church, Gloria Dei Church (Old Swedes), and St. George’s United Methodist Church are among the oldest Mennonite, Lutheran and Methodist churches in the country, respectively. Some of America’s oldest African churches can be found here, including the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas and Mother Bethel AME Church. Many of America’s Founding Father’s attended Christ Church when the Declaration of Independence was being written here. One of America’s preeminent Catholic saints is buried at the National Shrine of St. John Neumann. Mikveh Israel Synagogue is home to one of America’s oldest Jewish congregations, and Haym Solomon, hero of the American revolution, is buried in its cemetery
1. New York
When it comes to religious sites, no city in America can top New York, especially Manhattan. Because of the plethora of places worth mentioning, the outlying boroughs and neighboring counties will be set aside for now. Starting in historic Downtown, there are the Episcopal Trinity Church, where Alexander Hamilton is appropriately buried at the end of Wall Street, and St. Paul’s Chapel, which was the center of rescue activity on September 11, 2001. Catholic sites downtown include the beautiful St. Peter’s Church, Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton on the site of her former home. Also of interest here are the John Street Methodist Church and America’s oldest Jewish cemetery.
Midtown Manhattan boasts some of America’s most beautiful churches, especially those along Fifth Avenue. Along this fabled street can be found Marble Collegiate Church, former home to speaker Norman Vincent Peale, St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, St. Patrick’s Church, the most visited church in America, and Temple Emanuel, once the largest synagogue in the world. East of Fifth Avenue can be found the stunningly beautiful Moorish style Central Synagogue, while a bit further uptown is the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church in America.
On the city’s Upper West Side can be found the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, home to one of America’s oldest Jewish congregations, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and the Manhattan LDS Temple. Further north, clustered around Columbia University, are not only some of America’s most prominent seminaries but some record setting churches. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is the largest church in America, while the nearby Riverside Church is the tallest. Nearby in Harlem is the Shrine of St. Frances Cabrini, located on the site of a high school she founded. At the very northern tip of Manhattan is The Cloisters, a series of monasteries purchased in Europe and moved piece by piece to New York where they were reassembled and turned into an adjunct museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Honorable Mention – Virginia Peninsula
While there is no single standout city on the Virginia Peninsula in terms of historic churches, four of America’s oldest churches can all be found within a short drive of each other here: Jamestown Church at the Jamestown Historic Site, Bruton Parish Church in Colonial Williamsburg, St. John’s Church in Hampton, and St. Luke’s Church across the river from the peninsula in Smithfield.