As Emmalie knows full-well, ever since the one-two punch of visiting the Spanish missions in California and then being awe-struck by the medieval churches in France and Spain, I have loved visiting churches. I adore the architecture, the artwork, the paintings, the history, and the aura inside of them. There is something lacking in contemporary churches that leaves me aching for the splendor and reverence of old churches.
In trying to document the churches we have visited, there was a time when I would take pictures of the interiors, but my opinion has changed on that. It has not changed because I think it disrespectful – although during a service it certainly is – but rather because there is a sort of “sacred ambiance” inside a church that a photo fails to capture. This is something that can only be experienced in person. Therefore, I only have pictures from the outside of each church we’ve been to. Maybe, however, this post will pique your interest to see the inside of each one!
With that, I have compiled a list of my favorite churches Emmalie and I have visited. In no particular order, (it would be strange to rate/rank churches) here they are:
Notre-Dame de Paris
Paris, Île-de-France, France
Visited in July 2018
OK, so I know I just said these are in no particular order, but if one was going to be one at the top of the list, Notre-Dame would be it. This church has become the church I am most thankful to have seen for reasons you may already understand. After hiking the Camino de Santiago, we wanted to spend some time sightseeing somewhere. I can’t remember how much we debated where to go, but I am so thankful we chose to go to Paris, if for no other reason than to see this gorgeous church.
Probably since first watching the cartoon version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I’ve wanted to see the church that lent its name to the movie. I can also remember talking about it in freshman history class and wondering what in the world a flying buttress was. Plus, seeing pictures of the rose window only made me want to see the real thing.
We toured the beautiful church once, seeing the rose window, the artwork, and the dark, Gothic eyes peering over the city. We then came back for a chanted Mass. A chanted Mass in Notre-Dame! I couldn’t believe it was happening. As we toured Paris, it seemed we inevitably found ourselves wondering pass Notre-Dame time after time.
As I mentioned before, Notre-Dame has become the church I am most thankful to have seen because less than eight months after visiting it, a fire raged in the church, bringing down much of the roof and the spire. Though the church will stand as it always has, it will never look the same – at least not in my lifetime.
Catedral de Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain
Visited in July 2018
This cathedral is the most artistic and intricate church I have ever seen. I cannot imagine the amount of time and detail that it took to build. Each tiny piece seems as though it could have taken years to complete and it all comes together to form this stunning church.
As the tradition goes, this is the tomb of St. James, the Apostle of Christ and brother of St. John. You can see a statue of St. James in the center tower under the arch as he is dressed as Santiago Peregrino – St. James the Pilgrim – welcoming pilgrims to his tomb. This was the destination as we walked the Camino de Santiago and it has been walked by pilgrims for over a thousand years.
After the rediscovery of the tomb of St. James in the 800s, a series of shrines and chapels marked the grave. Construction on the current cathedral began in 1075 and it was consecrated in 1211. Though the pilgrimage has waxed and waned in popularity throughout the years (currently quite popular), the cathedral has remained steadfast. My favorite story about the Camino is that while the cathedral was being built, pious pilgrims would gather as much stone as they could along the way, carrying to Santiago to help with the church’s construction. In this way, the cathedral was truly built by many hands.
Because of the hard work getting here (34 days of hiking), Santiago will forever have a special place in my heart. Furthermore, the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage is something I highly and empathically recommend everyone try!
St. Paul Lutheran Church
Duluth, Kansas, United States
Visited in August 2018
If this church is not the quintessential American “country church”, then I don’t know what is. While I’m a sucker for stone churches, there is an undeniable beauty in wood. Even getting to this church is a treat as you pass through gorgeous farmland, turn the corner, pop over a hill, and then boom! The white tower suddenly presents itself surrounded amongst the trees.
Founded in 1875, Saint Paul’s is apart of the Kansas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The interesting story behind this church is – as I remember it – that during the anti-German sentiments during the World Wars, the German writing and paintings inside the church were covered up. They remained covered until only the oldest members could remember that anything was covered up. Around 2000, an older member mentioned that to the left of the altar there was a painting of Christ. After some disbelief, someone finally removed a piece of the wall and, sure enough, there was a foot!
The painting is now uncovered with another painting of Christ added to the right of the altar. Furthermore, the German writing above the altar has been converted to English while preserving as much of the original German letters as possible.
This is certainly a church to visit if you ever find yourself in northeast Kansas.
Misión La Purísima Concepción
Near Lompoc, California, United States
Visited in January 2017
Whereas cities built up around other missions such as San Diego de Alcalá, San Luis Rey de Francia, and San Juan Capistrano, Misión La Purísima Concepción remains off on its own a little ways. It is one of the most restored missions in California, giving an accurate representation of what mission-life would have been like two hundred years ago.
This remains one of my favorite churches because of its unique color. I have seen churches with pink details or outlines, but never one so bold as to have totally pink walls. It also has a living history farm and seeing farm animals is always a pro for me!
Founded in 1787 by Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, it was the eleventh of the twenty-one missions in Alta California. After being destroyed by an earthquake in 1812, the mission was moved to its current location in La Cañada de los Berros, “The Canyon of the Watercress”. Known as “The Linear Mission”, it may have been built in this way to make it easier to escape should another earthquake occur.
With animals and a great example of an original Spanish mission, this is a perfect stop on your California road trip.
Between Puente la Reina and Estella, Navarre, Spain
Visited on June 10, 2018
This might come across as an unusual choice, yet this unknown church is one that has given me a lot of thought since we stumbled upon it while walking the Camino. The first picture was taken from the trail itself, so I assume many people bypass it as you must go out of your way to visit it.
We took the short trek (possibly after my incessant prodding) and came to an unlocked black gate where a door must have once been that led into the sanctuary. Inside we found it empty save for a stone altar. Upon the altar, people had placed their written (and possibly unwritten) prayers, hopes, and aspirations. It struck me that those who did take the time to visit this church still saw its value and its sacredness. Even to this day, the altar is still serving its purpose.
Places like these make my mind wonder about a bygone era. As you can see, this church stands by itself now; but I wondered about the village that used to be here, those people who were baptized here and married here, the sermons that echoed here, those people who forged a life in this place long ago. I wondered about what they were like, what their dreams and aspirations were, what they hoped for. I wondered who they were – now only known to God. Places like these simultaneously make you reflect on the beauty of this life, and fleeting nature of it. Perhaps that is why abandoned places like this are necessary to see.
Misión San Luis Rey de Francia
Oceanside, California, United States
Visited in the Summer of 2015
This is the church that, I think, started my adoration of churches. Emmalie and I initially visited San Luis Rey the first summer we were in California. During our three years or so in Oceanside, we visited San Luis Rey many times. It always made for a calm afternoon walking the grounds or sitting in the sanctuary.
The altar contains statues of Christ, different saints, and the mission’s namesake: King Louis IX of France, who is the patron of the Third Order of St. Francis. The interior also has beautifully hand-painted designs on the walls. I appreciated the imperfections that really gave it a hand-made, “human” touch.
Known as “The King of the Missions”, San Luis Rey was founded in 1798 by Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén and was the largest building in California by 1830. While it no longer encompasses the 950,400 acres it did at its largest, it still possesses a considerable amount of land that provides a tranquil repose from the busy city that surrounds it.
After passing through Mexican and American hands, President Abraham Lincoln gave the mission back to the Catholic Church in 1865. The Mission Museum has the original document that is dated March 18, 1865 – less than a month before the president would be assassinated. The mission underwent extensive restorations after being neglected and is now, in my opinion, one of the best missions to visit in California.
As my first “church-love”, San Luis Rey will always be a special place for me.
Igrexa de Santa María A Real do Cebreiro
O Cebreiro, Galicia, Spain
Visited on July 2, 2018
Having been built in the 800s, possibly by the Benedictines, this was one of the oldest churches we saw on the Camino. In was in the quaint mountain village of O Cebriero – a town with remarkable views below and durable stone buildings throughout. It was during this stretch of the Camino that you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Ireland, as there is a strong Celtic heritage in this part of Spain.
Tradition maintains that St. Francis of Assisi stopped at this church while he walked the Camino around 1214. Places such as this church, that have seen much time, always make you think about how many eyes have beheld them and how many feet have walked through their door. We attended Mass and I remember thinking about who else had sat where I sat throughout the centuries.
We left the following morning under a cool, mountain mist that only added to the charm of this place.
Cathedral Church and Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Mother of God, Help of Christians
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Visited in July 2017
Known by its shorter name: St. Mary’s Cathedral, we visited this church while I was working in Australia. Emmalie and most of my family came out for a week and we toured Brisbane down to Sydney. We took a superb walking tour of Sydney where we first discovered St. Mary’s. Later on, we walked back up to explore it a little more.
Once stepping through the doors, we found striking stained glass windows lighting tall arches and vaulted ceilings. The lighting created a unique yellow/orange glow, revealing the beautiful altar. Inside was also a solemn memorial to Australia’s fallen, bearing the words: “Their name lives on for all generations”.
Construction of the first St. Mary’s Chapel began in 1821, but that building was destroyed by a fire in 1865. Archbishop John Polding then appointed William Wardell to build a new cathedral. Construction of the current cathedral began in 1868 and would continue periodically until the spires were added in 2000, completing Mr. Wardell’s vision.
If you’re ever taking a trip to see the Sydney Opera House or Australia’s gorgeous beaches, be sure to take the walk up to St. Mary’s Cathedral.
Misión San Juan Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano, California, United States
Visited in November 2016
While we never saw the famed swallows of San Juan Capistrano, “The Birthplace of Orange County” was a stunning church to visit. Standing in the ruins of the massive stone church really makes a person feel small. Moving inside to the plant-filled plaza, we saw the bells silhouetted against the California sky.
Founded in 1776, it was the seventh of the original nine missions of Alta California founded by Father Junípero Serra. In 1812, an earthquake caused the Great Stone Church to collapse. Unlike La Purísima Concepción, San Juan Capistrano was not moved, but neither was it restored. Thus, it remains as a testament to a past era and gives a scale to the substantial size the mission once was.
The story of the swallows at San Juan Capistrano goes like this: while on a walk through town, the priest of the mission from 1910-1933, Father John O’Sullivan, found a shopkeeper knocking down the swallows’ nests from his shop. When the priest asked the shopkeeper where he thought the swallows should go, he responded that he didn’t care, as long as they weren’t at his shop. Father O’Sullivan then told the birds they could stay at the mission. Taking his invitation, the swallows began building their nests the following day at the mission and return every year.
The train ride from Oceanside to San Juan Capistrano runs along the coast and was a favorite trip of ours and one that I would recommend anyone to take.
Concatedral de Santa María de la Redonda
Logroño, La Rioja, Spain
Visited on June 13, 2018
This was one of the most artistic churches we saw along the Camino. When I talk about the “sacred ambiance” in a church, I remember it specifically from Santa María de la Redonda. Inside, massive stone pillars were holding up a high vaulted ceiling. The interior was exactly what I would picture when thinking of a European church. I stood in awe inside this church for quite some time and I’m sure Emmalie had to prod me out. Also, though I can’t say I remember it, in doing a little research I found that there is a painting of the Crucifixion of Christ hanging inside that is attributed to Michelangelo.
The Co-Cathedral stands on the site of a 12th-century chapel. Its construction began in the 15th century, with more additions being added until the 18th century. It is the co-cathedral of La Diócesis de Calahorra y La Calzada-Logroño, along with La Catedral de Santa María de Calahorra and La Catedral del Salvador de Santo Domingo de la Calzada.
I will always recommend hiking the Camino de Santiago and one of the innumerable benefits of undertaking the adventure would be to discover this cathedral along the way.
Well, there they are. We’ve been blessed to see many churches and, Lord willing, will see many more. Hopefully, these pictures will interest you to see these churches and many others for yourself! Thank you very much for reading!