The date is April 30, 1789. George Washington has just taken the oath of office to become the first president of the newly formed United States. The ceremony at Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York now over, the new chief executive makes his way to St. Paul’s Chapel, about five blocks away. Here, he offers a prayer for his nation and petitions heaven that he will not fail in the great responsibility now placed upon him. Washington, a pious man, believed the Deity was with him and his beleaguered army during the war for independence. Now he seeks the same help as the country’s first elected chief officer.

The St. Paul Chapel would see Washington return time and again over the next year while Trinity Church was being rebuilt. It had been gravely damaged by fire in 1776, the year after war broke out between the colonies and Great Britain, and was under reconstruction when Washington placed his hand on the Bible 13 years later, promising a new level of service to his country. Trinity Church wouldn’t be finished until the following year, and during the interim, Washington would make the St. Paul Chapel his home church. Today, both church and chapel stand as sentinels to days now past, but very crucial days in the country’s history as it emerged from a colonial outpost to a full-fledged nation. Much of that history has been religious in nature.

Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel— both of which form the iconic cornerstones of Trinity Church Wall Street—are open for tours as well as worship. And besides the religious emblems that visitors might see here, nearby are plenty of other sites to behold. Among them are the final resting places of Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza; the Soldiers’ Monument, honoring those who died while imprisoned on ships during the Revolutionary War; and a monument memorializing William Bradford, founder of New York’s first newspaper.

There’s even an augmented virtual tour at the Trinity complex where those who come to the site can download an app and get additional information about what they see while walking the grounds. Washington would likely think this remarkable—a modern way to explore the site that was established two centuries before the advent of cellphones.

That juxtaposition between past and present remains at play in many religious centers across the country. These iconic buildings, besides serving as houses of faith, also serve as symbols of artistry in architecture. And, of course, they are enveloped by their history.

Cathedral of St. Paul, St. Paul, Minnesota;
Credit: Visit Saint Paul
Cathedrals, Missions, Temples & More

Another house of worship worthy of note that pays homage to the Apostle Paul is the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota. The cathedral, consecrated in 1958 after decades of work, is adorned with all sorts of statues and iconic emblems of the Catholic faith. The structure, which started out as a wooden chapel overlooking the Mississippi River, had an interesting history even before its evolution into the iconic symbol it is today (the largest cathedral in the continental U.S.). For instance, because of the fits and starts along the way to construction, four other structures with the same name—including the wooden chapel—preceded the current Cathedral of St. Paul.

As magnificent as the building appears on the outside, it pales in comparison to what’s on the inside. Its hallowed halls are adorned with reliefs depicting the Catholic saints and other religious icons, many of them with placards informing visitors what role each saint played in religious history and the role they continue to play in the lives of the faith’s adherents. The site is open for tours except during mass and special ceremonial events.

A state over in Wisconsin is the Basilica of St. Josaphat, which the parish describes as “a Franciscan center for prayer and spirituality, inspiration, and beauty.” Located on the South Side of Milwaukee in Historic Lincoln Village, “it is home to a vibrant Roman Catholic parish and remains a testament to the faith of the Polish immigrants [who] created it.”

Touring the Basilica of St. Josaphat with its artistic dome, stained glass windows, religious statues, and other emblems signifying the faith—the craftsmanship of its entire architectural structure—makes this a reverent and educational stop for any group.

While in Milwaukee, don’t forget to check out the many other things to do here. The Cream City, so nicknamed because of the cream-colored bricks that dominated early structural projects, has a vibrant city life with activities to explore for any group and age bracket. Keep an eye open for the other buildings noted for their architecture: Milwaukee City Hall, Mitchell Building, and the Pabst Mansion, to name a few.

Salt Lake Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah;
Credit: Unsplash/Ismael Paramo

Plan an itinerary to the Rockies to see another iconic religious building, this one the Salt Lake Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Salt Lake Temple was the first planned after the Latter-day Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 but was the fourth to be completed. Actual construction didn’t start until 1853 and took 40 years to complete. The temple serves a symbol of the faith’s belief in Christ and the eternal nature of families. Many engravings on the temple have symbolic reference, including the sun, moon, and stars denoting the faith’s belief in “heaven,” and the all-seeing eye that rep- resents the omnipresence of God. Located at Temple Square, the site also is home to other religious icons including the historic Tabernacle (built with wooden pegs), and statues and other emblems depicting the faith and its pioneer heritage. A visitors’ center houses the popular The Christus—a large statue of the resurrected Christ, arms open to show crucifixion marks—that stands in the center of a rotunda with a mural of the universe.

Chapels, Grottos & Shrines

Across a few state lines to the northeast, in the Mount Rushmore State, is the Chapel in the Hills, a stave chapel located in the Black Hills near Rapid City, South Dakota. Dedicated on July 6, 1969, it is one of few remaining stave churches in the continental United States. Stave churches—those built of wood, including large pillars instead of stone—have their roots in the 10th and 11th centuries in Norway, after the age of the Vikings. Among their traits are steep-angled roofs that, in some cases, appear almost like pillars reaching to the heavens. Such is the case with the Chapel in the Hills, which has been a must-see stop for group tours for years. And being in the Black Hills, the door is open wide to experience other nearby adventures, including Mount Rushmore National Monument, which has been respectfully dubbed “America’s Shrine of Democracy.”

If your group is looking for an outdoor setting during an architectural group tour, look to the Pacific Northwest to see the National Cemetery of Our Sorrowful Mother, or simply known as The Grotto, an outdoor amphitheater of sorts located in Portland, Oregon. For some people, being in the outdoors is their church experience, and at The Grotto this way of life comes into full focus with the many things there are to see and experience here, including chapels, gardens, a labyrinth, monastery, and hundreds of statues carved in bronze, fiberglass, granite, marble, polyester resin, and wood. The site is open for groups of 15 or more, but it is requested that inquires be made at least two weeks before groups make a visit.

Cemetery of Our Sorrowful Mother, Portland, Oregon;
Credit: Adobe/Yooran Park

Point your group’s compass to the southeast to the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche at Mission Nombre De Dios, a diocese of St. Augustine in St. Augustine, Florida, which has, according to a description on its website, shared “the story of the graces of Mary for over 450 years.”

The shrine, built in 1609 to honor Our Lady of La Leche, is the oldest shrine in the U.S. While the historicity of the shrine’s name origins is hard to tell, some say La Leche was an apparition story popular among the early Spanish; others say the shrine was likely built as a mission to bring Christianity to the area. Whatever its origins, it was designated a National Shrine in 2019. The site is open for tours and many events are planned here throughout the year, including those during the Easter season and even a celebration of Founder’s Day in September.

By Andrew Weeks

Main Image: St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church, New York City, New York; Credit: Adobe/Jazzabi