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America’s cathedrals

Courtesy Visit Milwaukee

Touring the great cathedrals of Europe gives travelers a look into some of the world’s greatest feats of spirituality and architecture. But you don’t need to pack your people onto an overseas flight to experience high church — cathedrals and basilicas throughout the United States rival their foreign counterparts in artistry and experience.

Although they don’t have the centuries of history associated with European churches, America’s cathedrals feature architecture and artwork that tell a distinctly American story. Some reflect the country’s strong immigrant heritage, and others present reflections on our modern faith. Each is an achievement in design with a feeling and ambiance all its own.

Cathedrals aren’t just for Catholics; groups from churches of every denomination will enjoy the their history and symbolism. Whether you stop in just for a tour or take the time to experience an entire worship service, a visit to a cathedral will add memorable, meditative moments to your next church group tour.

Washington National Cathedral
[ Washington, D.C. ]
From the time that workers laid the first foundation stone in 1907, it took 83 years to finish building Washington National Cathedral. All the work was worthwhile, though; this grand Gothic building has become the religious center of the nation’s capital.

“We look at it as an embodiment of the role that faith plays in America,” said Richard Weinberg, the cathedral’s director of communications. “We’re an institution unlike any other in Washington in that we lift up the role of faith in America through art, architecture and stained-glass windows. The carvings in the stone throughout the building tell a uniquely American story.”

Visitors to the cathedral will see American themes in place such as the “Space Window,” a stained-glass window that commemorates the Apollo 11 moon landing, complete with a piece of moon rock brought back from the expedition. Throughout the cathedral, guests find statues of American statesmen such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Other artwork represents inspirational figures such as Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The cathedral is an active Episcopal church, and interested groups can attend a Sunday-morning worship service that features music by the cathedral choir. At other times of the week, the cathedral staff can take visitors on behind-the-scenes tours.

“It takes you up to areas that aren’t typically open to the public,” Weinberg said. “You get a closer look at the stained-glass windows that are higher up in the building. If it’s pleasant weather, you can go out onto our balconies all over the building to get a closer look at the stonework on the facade.”

St. Patrick’s Cathedral
[ New York ]
In any other city, the stone spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral would tower over the surrounding structures. But in Manhattan, the building is dwarfed by the giants of steel and glass that stand around it.

That doesn’t mean that St. Patrick’s goes unnoticed, though. Built more than 130 years ago, this cathedral is the most notable religious landmark in New York and is visited by more than 5.2 million people each year.

On the outside, St. Patrick’s is one of the country’s premier examples of American Gothic Revival architecture. The main entrance to the cathedral, which faces Fifth Avenue, consists of a pair of large bronze doors, each weighing more than 20,000 pounds. Carvings in the facades of the doors represent saints and distinguished people from the New York area.

Tours of the cathedral showcase interior areas such as the Altar of the Sacred Heart, where a painting of the Lady of Guadalupe reflects the importance of Catholicism throughout the Americas. Visitors will also see the baptistery and the sanctuary — both designed by renowned architects of the 19th century — and the special “Lady Chapel,” used for constant prayer and adoration.

St. Joseph Cathedral
[ Sioux Falls, S.D. ]
The largest city in South Dakota, Sioux Falls enjoys many of the amenities typically found in urban centers. Among them is St. Joseph Cathedral, a beautiful 94-year-old church that recently underwent an extensive renovation project that brought it back to its original splendor.

Workers built the church from 1915 to 1918, setting it on a high hilltop that is visible throughout much of the city. The building was designed by a French architect who used a blend of Romanesque and French Renaissance elements. Artistic flourishes include stained-glass windows, bas-relief elements and numerous pieces of statuary. A $16 million renovation began in 2008 to shore up architectural elements of the interior and replace many surfaces with beautiful pink marble imported from Italian quarries.

Groups can schedule private tours of the cathedral with guides who point out notable artistic and symbolic elements of the building. Travelers with an interest in arts and music may want to coordinate their visit with the cathedral’s Sacred Arts Series, a program of music, drama and lecture events that highlight the role of the arts in American religion.

During the holidays, travelers can plan to attend Christmas at the Cathedral, a popular musical production featuring the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, the cathedral choir, and soloists and actors from around the country.


Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.