Holy shrines, towering churches and museums of biblical proportions are among America’s most popular attractions for travelers, particularly faith-based groups. Some of the most famous religious attractions are staples for group itineraries, but lesser known or newer faith-based attractions can offer just as much value for visiting groups, in addition to smaller crowds and extra perspective.
For a spiritually enriching experience, groups should check out these faith-based attractions around the country.
Blessed Stanley Rother Shrine
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Stanley Rother was a Catholic missionary priest from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City who served a parish in Guatemala and was the first American-born priest to be beatified. He learned Spanish and the local indigenous language, Tz’utujil, to serve his parish and became a beloved figure in the Santiago Atitlan community from 1968-81. This was a volatile time in Guatemalan history, with government and guerilla forces engaged in a civil war that ultimately led to the persecution of the church. Rother’s name was added to a death list, but he remained in Guatemala to serve his parishioners. He was murdered in his parish in 1981, and the Vatican later voted to recognize him as a martyr for the faith. He was beatified in 2017, and a shrine to him in Oklahoma City was dedicated in February 2023; his body is entombed under the chapel’s altar.
The shrine is Oklahoma’s largest Catholic church, with seating for 2,000 parishioners. Its Spanish Mission style pays homage to the parish Rother served in Guatemala. Visitors to the church can take guided tours to see the shrine’s gorgeous architectural and design features, from its hand-carved altar and reredos to its mural and statues of Rother. The shrine’s museum teaches about Rother’s life growing up in Oklahoma, his assignment as a missionary and his martyrdom. Also on the shrine’s campus, its Tepeyac Hill mimics the one in Mexico City, with statues of holy figures and great views of the church and the city.
“It’s kind of an escape to come to a very special, holy place where folks can reflect and pray and learn about Blessed Stanley but also inspire them to do great things themselves,” said Miguel Mireles, executive director of the Blessed Stanley Rother Shrine.
Biblical History Center
In the heart of the Bible Belt, groups can experience firsthand what life was like during biblical times at the Biblical History Center. This living history museum in LaGrange, Georgia, about a 40-minute drive from Atlanta, teaches visitors about the ancient Middle East and is visited by over 17,000 people annually.
The museum was founded in 2005 by an archaeologist with the goal of illuminating the historical and cultural context surrounding the Bible to encourage a more complete understanding of it. The museum has a gallery with 250 artifacts on loan from the nation of Israel. There’s also an archaeological garden with 24 life-sized exhibits that transport guests to the ancient world. The museum is not affiliated with any specific denomination or religious organization but instead is centered around the artifacts and archaeological evidence from the ancient world.
“It’s all focused on archeological findings that have taken place over the years and historical accuracies,” said Carlos Cantu, executive director of the Biblical History Center.
Groups can tour the center to see its range of interactive exhibits and experiences. Though the museum does offer a self-guided option that allows visitors to move through the gardens with a book at their own pace, the signature group experience is recommended to let them enjoy it to the fullest. This involves a guided tour of the gallery and the gardens that breaks down exhibits and brings the experiences to life.
Group experiences can end with what the museum refers to as a “compressed Seder meal.” (A Seder meal is a traditional five-course Jewish meal; while “compressed” refers to the meal being shortened from a traditional four hours to one.) This meal would be akin to the Last Supper. The entire group experience takes about three hours.
While the Revolutionary War was brewing on one side of the continent, a Franciscan Missionary, Father Junipero Serra, was founding something else entirely on the opposite side: the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, often known simply as the Carmel Mission. Often referred to as a founding father of California, Serra was responsible for the creation of nine Spanish Missions in this region. He was known for the zeal with which he taught the indigenous population Christian doctrine and for his pioneering mission work on the West Coast. He selected the location for and oversaw the building of several churches in Carmel from the 1770s until his death in 1784. While he didn’t live to see the building of the permanent stone basilica in 1797, Serra’s body was entombed there. He was canonized in 2015.
Today it’s the most authentically restored mission in northern California, one of the oldest stone structures in California, and a national and state historic landmark. It’s still an active parish, and a shrine to Serra can be found on site. Groups can visit the basilica for a guided or self-guided tour to appreciate the historic masonry and landscaped grounds. They can visit the basilica’s museum and store and see Serra’s grave.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is an idyllic village known for its arts and culture, as well as its scenic white-sand beach. It also offers visiting groups an abundance of locally owned restaurants and shops just blocks from the basilica.
New York City
New York City is packed with massive, historic churches for groups to explore among their dizzying plethora of group tour activities. But an equally impressive and worthy tour stop is Temple Emanu-El, the first Reform synagogue in the city.
The synagogue’s origins trace back to 1845, when its congregation was formed by a small group of German-Jewish immigrants. The colorful, stately temple along Fifth Avenue, where the congregation worships today, was built in 1929 and will impress history buffs and architecture-enthusiasts alike with its colorful interior and vast size. The lofty main temple is 103 feet high, 175 feet long and 100 feet wide; it was an early example of the architectural practices of using a steel-framed structure to nullify the need for support columns.
Docent led tours are available for groups. They’ll learn about the history of the temple and the congregation it serves and see its stunning design, which includes more than 60 stained-glass windows packed with Jewish symbolism and storytelling. Other notable features along the tour include the largest synagogue organ in the world with more than 10,000 pipes, some of which are an impressive 35 feet high; the temple’s east-facing ark, with its glass and marble mosaic arch; an ornate, gold- and jewel-toned art deco mural; and the colorful, hand-painted and gilded plaster ceiling, which has been painstakingly restored.
Groups can also visit the temple’s Bernard Museum of Judaica for memorabilia. Following a synagogue tour, they can explore the rest of the nearby fabled Fifth Avenue stores and attractions.
Chapel in the Hills
Rapid City, South Dakota
Groups will find an unlikely sight in the forested land of South Dakota’s Black Hills near Rapid City: a wooden stave church against a backdrop of tall trees. The Chapel in the Hills was built in 1969 to perfectly replicate Norway’s Borgund Stave Church, which was built in 1150 and is the most complete stave church still standing in the country.
A religious radio host in the 1960s decided to build the church to expand his ministry and radio show; the architectural style pays homage to the original Lutheran Norwegian settlers in the Dakotas and surrounding areas. One of the only differences between the Borgund Stave Church and the Chapel in the Hills is the presence of electricity that allows the chapel to host evening services.
“You feel your soul at ease when you walk the property grounds,” said Tyson Steiger, director of sales and services at Visit Rapid City. “It’s peaceful and unique in all regards. It’s not a roadside attraction. It’s free to go there. It is one of those places that’s the real deal.”
The chapel’s campus also features a serene prayer walk with statues and a visitor center, as well as an authentic grass-roofed stabbur constructed in Norway. Groups can arrange guided tours of the church to learn about its history and the history of the church it replicates. They’ll also enjoy the Norwegian architectural features and hand-carved wooden details. The church hosts services welcoming guests on Wednesday evenings during the summer, but groups can arrange private services and events as well. The chapel is just a couple blocks from Canyon Lake, a lake on Rapid Creek with a lodge, a pavilion and plenty of outdoor recreation in the Black Hills. After exploring the chapel, groups can enjoy a day on the lake or a meal at the lodge.