The practice of communal worship is a basic part of the many great world religions, one of the traditions at the heart of human culture.
In Christianity, praying, singing, preaching, teaching, and giving are all acts of worship, and the locus of these can be found in the local gathering place, the church.
Other religions have other sorts of gathering places, and society as a whole traditionally affords great importance to the places in which we engage in religious worship. They can be great, small, exquisite, or plain, but all such houses of worship are a symbol of a covenant the community has with the mysterious, the Divine.
Here are 13 of these fascinating houses of worship in America:
1. St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City
Officially named The Cathedral of St. Patrick but better known as St. Patrick’s Cathedral, this famous neo-gothic Roman Catholic cathedral seems to have descended from out of the heavens, landing right across Fifth Avenue from Rockefeller Center, facing the famous Atlas statue.
As the headquarters of the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York as well as a parish church, this marble-clad Manhattan landmark is one of the most distinctive and popular destinations in the city.
It was completed in 1878 and dedicated on May 25, 1879. Many artisans contributed to its architectural features. The windows, for example, were fashioned by artists from Boston, France, and England. The rose window was created by Charles Connick. The cathedral’s Pieta, sculpted by William Ordway Paetridge, is three times the size of Michaelangelo’s famed version in Rome.
The cathedral can accommodate 2,200 worshipers. The cathedral and associated buildings were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976.
Presently, the cathedral is undergoing a three-year, $177 million restoration.
2. Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, NYC
At 121,000 square feet, 601 feet long, 232 feet high and a width at its crossing of 320 feet, the world’s fourth largest Christian church is found not in Europe, but in New York on Amsterdam Avenue. It is The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, officially the Cathedral Church of Saint John: The Great Divine in the City and Diocese of New York. It is the cathedral of New York’s Episcopal Diocese.
Construction started on St. John's Day, Dec. 27, 1892, and has gone on for more than a century, ceasing in 1939 and beginning again in the 1980s. The towers have yet to be completed, and the entire structure may not be finished until the year 2050. Moreover, after a large fire on Dec. 18, 2001, the great cathedral was closed for repairs, but reopened in November 2008. However, restoration work remains unfinished, and the structure has picked up the moniker, “St. John the Unfinished.”
If and when St. John’s is ever is finished, it will be the largest neo-gothic cathedral in the world, capable of holding both the cathedrals of Notre Dame and Chartres within its walls.
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3. Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.
The Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, known to the public as Washington National Cathedral, is an English neo-gothic architectural gem. It is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world, the second-largest in the U.S, and its central tower at 676 feet above sea level is the highest spot in D.C. It is also the fourth-tallest structure in D.C.
Construction began in 1907 when President Theodore Roosevelt stood before a crowd of 10,000 and struck the foundation stone with the same mallet used by George Washington to dedicate the United States Capitol in 1793. Another stone in the foundation was brought from Bethlehem. The great building was not completed until 1990, however, making it Washington’s all-time longest-running construction project.
The magnificent structure has 63 bells, 112 gargoyles, and more than 215 gorgeous stained glass windows – the great West Rose window alone is made up of 10,500 pieces of stained glass. There is even a Space Window containing a moon rock provided by the crew of Apollo XI.
The cathedral was the scene of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last Sunday sermon a few days before his assassination.
The cathedral’s average attendance at Sunday services is about 1,700.
4. Lakewood Church, Houston, Texas
When televangelist and best-selling author Joel Osteen searched for a building that could accommodate his congregation of 43,500 — the largest in America — he discovered Houston’s Compaq Center, a 16,000 seat basketball arena, formerly home to the Houston Rockets.
After $75 million and 15 months, the awesome Lakewood Church opened its doors in 2005. The sanctuary features two waterfalls, three immense television screens and a lighting system that rivals what you’d see at a major rock concert.
More than 30,000 people worship at Lakewood Church each weekend.
America’s second biggest congregation, by the way, is also in Houston: The Second Baptist Church, led by Pastor Ed Young, has a membership of 23,659.
5. Salt Lake Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah
Largest and most spectacular of the 140 temples built by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), the Salt Lake Temple’s cornerstone was laid by Brigham Young and took 40 years to complete. It was dedicated in April 1893.
As a sacred structure, there are no public tours. Even so, unlike other temples, it serves as directive headquarters for the whole Church and thus has a whole floor of offices to house Church administrators.
The church is the centerpiece of Temple Square, the most popular tourist attraction in Utah, which is home to not just the Mormon Temple but the Mormon Tabernacle and Assembly Hall, along with monuments, statues, and visitors centers.
6. The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, NYC
New York is home to many beautiful and historic synagogues: The Central Synagogue with its Moorish architecture, the magnificent Temple Emanu-El, and at least two great old Lower East Side Synagogues that are now museums: the Angel Orensanz Foundation and the Eldridge Street Synagogue. And, from a human interest standpoint, it’s hard to beat the Carlebach Shul on West 79th Street. (It's not much to look at, but the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was an amazing person, literally a famous folk-singing rabbi of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.)
Even so, we are drawn to Congregation Shearith Israel, often called The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, on Central Park West. It is the oldest Jewish congregation in America, founded in 1654 by 23 Brazilian Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent who were fleeing religious persecution.
Congregation Shearith Israel’s rich history includes illustrious Sephardic families such as Cardozo (including both the Supreme Court’s Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo and the current corporation counsel of New York, Michael A. Cardozo), Nathan (philanthropist Benjamin Nathan on the distaff side and the Algonquin Round Table’s Robert Nathan) and Lazarus (as in Emma, author of the poem on the Statue of Liberty).
On Nov. 24, 2013, Congregation Shearith Israel will receive a new spiritual leader, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik. The scion of a revered rabbinic family, he is the grandson of Ahron Soloveichik and the great-nephew of Joseph Soloveitchik, the late leader of American Modern Orthodoxy who was commonly known as The Rav. In 2012, Mitt Romney tapped Rabbi Meir Soloveichik to deliver an invocation at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
7. Old South Meeting House, Boston, Mass.
Completed in 1729 by Puritans, Benjamin Franklin was baptized here. Church members included Phillis Wheatley, the first published black poet, and patriots Thomas Cushing, William Dawes, and James Otis.
The biggest building in Colonial Boston, a crowd met there to discuss events such as the Boston Massacre. It was there that the Boston Tea Party was launched when Samuel Adams gave a secret signal to 5,000 colonists meeting there. A group disguised as Native Americans and calling itself The Sons of Liberty raced to Griffin's Wharf and dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.
The Old South since 1877 has been a historic site, a museum, and an educational institution. It maintains a policy allowing groups otherwise denied a public forum to meet there.
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8. The Islamic Center of America, Dearborn, Mich.
The largest mosque in North America, it is also the oldest Shia mosque in America. The Islamic Center of America dates back to 1964, but was itself an offshoot of the Dix Mosque, established in 1937.
The organization opened this new spectacular $12 million structure in 2005. It houses an enormous auditorium, community center, library, and administrative offices, and remains the largest Arab-American religious and cultural facility in America, a 120,000 square-foot complex.
9. Hsi Lai Temple, Hacienda Heights, Calif.
Officially known as Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple, this is the largest Chinese Buddhist monastery in North America, with a floor area reported to be 102,432 square feet.
“Hsi Lai” translates roughly as “coming to the West.” Situated in Hacienda Heights, a suburb of Los Angeles County, the temple is affiliated with Lin-Chi (Rinzai) Fo Guang Shan, one of Taiwan’s largest Buddhist organizations (founded in 1967), and serves as its first overseas branch temple. The huge facility is also a center of the practice of Humanistic Buddhism. It contains a Buddhist university, library, theme gardens, and press. It was also the site of the founding and headquarters of the Buddha’s Light International Organization.
Finished at a cost of $10 million on Nov. 26, 1988, the temple has accommodated many important religious events, such as the 16th General Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists and the 7th Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhist Youth. The location even served as the starting place for the 19th season of the reality series “The Amazing Race.” It also got into a bit of trouble after a 1996 Democratic fundraiser was held there for Vice President Al Gore, and the fund-raiser organizers were indicted on federal charges of laundering campaign contributions.
10. Shree Raseshwari Radha Rani Temple, Texas
The oldest Hindu Temple in Texas and the largest in North America — indeed, it is one of the largest Hindu Temple complexes in the Western Hemisphere — the Shree Raseshwari Radha Rani temple at Radha Madhav Dham (the main U.S. center of Jagadguru Kripalu Parishat) was established by Jagadguru Shree Kripaluji Maharaj. It sits on more than 200 scenic acres nestled in the Hill Country south of Austin, Texas.
11. The Baha’I House of Worship, Wilmette, Ill.
America’s only Baha’i house of worship is one of only seven Baha'i temples in the world and it is the oldest such house of worship in the world, having been dedicated on May 2, 1953. Sitting on a picturesque 6.97 acre plot of land, the distance from the floor of the building’s auditorium to the ceiling of the dome is 138 feet, and the dome’s interior is 72 feet in diameter. The auditorium seats 1,191 people.
On the National Register of Historic Places since 1978, this great domed structure was named by the Illinois Office of tourism as one of the “Seven Wonders of Illinois.”
12. Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, Calif.
California’s Crystal Cathedral is an architectural wonder, a glass edifice designed by the great architect Philip Johnson. Financed by the Reformed Church in America and its founder, Robert H. Schuller, it was built between 1977 and 1981 at cost of $18 million, and can seat 2,736 people. The church also houses the Hazel Wright Memorial organ, one of the world’s largest musical instruments.
For many years the principal place of worship for Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral Ministries, the organization filed for bankruptcy in October 2010 and in February 2012 the cathedral and surrounding land was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County, to be repurposed as the diocese's new cathedral. Renovations are now going on to make the building conform with the Roman Catholic liturgy. The cathedral is expected to reopen in 2016 with the new name of Christ Cathedral.
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13. Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, Ariz.
Inspired by the Empire State Building, Sedona rancher and sculptor Marguerite Brunswig Staude originally commissioned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to build a church in Europe. The outbreak of World War II nixed that idea, so Staude instead chose Richard Hein and August K. Strotz to build a distinctive Roman Catholic chapel near her home among the red mesas of Sedona.
To construct the Chapel on Coconino National Forest land, the late Sen. Barry Goldwater was instrumental in obtaining a special-use permit. Built at a cost of $300,000, the Chapel was completed in 1956 and won the American Institute of Architects Award of Honor in 1957. In 2007, the people of Arizona voted the Chapel to be one of the Seven Man-Made Wonders of Arizona.
As Staude proclaimed, “Though Catholic in faith, as a work of art the Chapel has a universal appeal. Its doors will ever be open to one and all, regardless of creed, that God may come to life in the souls of all men and be a living reality.”
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