The South is home to some of the country’s most historic cities, such as St. Augustine, Florida, which is celebrating its 450th anniversary this year, and New Orleans, which will turn 300 in a few years. Correspondingly, the Southern states are also home to some of America’s most storied houses of worship, whether they belong to congregations that predate the country itself, such as that of New Orleans’ Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France, or whether they are more modern marvels like Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, which started a new style of Ozark church building.
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Although many churches and cathedrals arise from a group of faithful in need of a house of worship, when Thorncrown first opened, it was exactly the opposite: a house of worship still searching for a flock.
Jim Reed, who conceptualized the church, purchased the land on which it now stands in 1971 initially for a retirement home. After building his home, he became increasingly fixated on the idea of personally financing a chapel on the site that would allow visitors to experience the beauty of the forest from inside its walls. Reed teamed up with architect and professor E. Fay Jones, who encouraged Reed to stick with Fay’s extremely sculptural design despite his strong initial aversion to the style.
When the chapel opened in 1980, after Reed had briefly run out of funding and was in danger of not finishing it, it sat mostly empty, much to Reed’s dismay. But the innovative architecture, which he had almost rejected, began to bring in awards, including the American Institute of Architects Design of the Year Award, and visitors by the busload.
Based originally on the design of Paris’ Sainte Chappelle, Thorncrown has now inspired its own architectural style, which Fay dubbed “Ozark Gothic.” Open year-round, the chapel allows visitors to immerse themselves in the beauty of their favorite season, whether it’s the wildflowers of spring or the colorful leaves of fall.
“We have staff out there during all hours, and the chapel is open, ready for groups,” said pastor Doug Reed. All groups are greeted with a presentation about the chapel and a song from the chapel musicians, and though no advance reservations are necessary to arrange this welcome, Reed cautioned that after 3:30 p.m. Fridays through Sundays, there are often weddings taking place in the chapel.
Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France
The history of New Orleans’ Basilica of St. Louis is intrinsically tied to the city, and the site where the cathedral now sits has been occupied by a place of worship since the city was founded.
As the city changed from French to Spanish, back to French and, finally, to American hands, the architectural whims of different controlling parties each played a role in the structure that has come down to us today.
During the early days of New Orleans, attacks, flooding, fires and other calamities regularly wiped out the first structures in what would later be known as the French Quarter, and the city’s church was no exception. When a fire destroyed the entire block in the late 1700s, a new church was donated by a Spaniard from Andalusia and later decorated by an Italian painter. By the time the mid-1800s rolled around, the church was too small for the growing city, and it was once again swept away to build something more fitting for one of the busiest ports in America.
Today, groups can take prearranged tours of the cathedral as well as the adjacent Catholic Cultural Heritage Center and Old Ursuline Convent, a museum, National Historic Landmark and the oldest extant building in the Mississippi Valley, dating back to 1753.
Tours of each facility last approximately 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the number of questions from the group, said Stephen Lukinovich, business and communications coordinator for the cathedral.
“We can accommodate pretty much any size, as long we as know in advance,” he said. “But if you come during Mardi Gras or when there’s high traffic, it might be a little chaotic.”