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Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea, Key West

Top 5 Churches in Florida

From the northeast corner of Florida in centuries-old St. Augustine to the southwest tip of the state in Key West, I was continually impressed by the inventory of beautiful churches in the Sunshine State. Founded by deeply Catholic Spanish missionaries, Florida teems with an abundant legacy of these striking houses of worship. These are my favorites.

#1 Sacred Heart Catholic Church (Tampa)

Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Tampa, FloridaThe white limousine pulled up in front of Sacred Heart Catholic Church just as I arrived. This wonderful Romanesque structure, now wedged against a boring and banal office tower / parking garage, was one of the key buildings I wanted to see in downtown Tampa, and it didn’t disappoint. Having celebrated its 115th birthday in 2020, Sacred Heart is one of the oldest churches in Tampa and one of the city’s most beautiful buildings. Replacing the original wooden church in 1905, the current granite and marble building, which cost $300,000 to construct, features a trio of arched entrances, an impressive rose window, and a dome reaching up 135’. Before I became an unintended wedding crasher, I hurried inside to take a look around before the bride and groom showed up. I quickly decided that the soon-to-be Mr. and Mrs. had chosen an excellent setting for their nuptials. From the solid oak pews and doors, to the porcelain tiles, to the Carrara marble altar, to the murals of the Four Evangelists in the pendentives of the dome, to the huge organ, this church boasts a spectacular interior. The arches and the columns, both short and tall, with highly detailed capitals, strike particularly beautiful notes. Masterfully sculpted Stations of the Cross line the walls between some of the church’s 70 stained-glass windows. Designed by the famed Munich company Franz Mayer & Co., the windows include St. Patrick preaching (with an unusual twist: his garments are red, not green) and the Resurrection Window, a triptych with, in the central panel, Jesus floating over His tomb, carrying a heavenly banner and raising His hand in a benediction, flanked on one side by a panel depicting the Virgin Mary, the not-so-virgin Mary Magdalene, and Martha, and on the other by a panel portraying two soldiers fleeing from the opening tomb. After a century of care under the Jesuits, the Franciscans assumed responsibilities for the church and parish, and I have no doubt that this church will continue to shine for brides and grooms, and out-of-state visitors, for the next century.

#2 Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine (St. Augustine)

Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, Florida“America’s First Parish” (the congregation was founded in 1565) in America’s oldest city, the current Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine was named a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1970. The 1797 structure suffered a massive fire in 1887, and the current building is a reconstruction by the endlessly talented James Renwick, Jr. And I couldn’t wait to see what he did. Located in the city’s historic center, the cathedral sports a soaring bell tower sporting four bells (including one from the previous church, inscribed with the year 1682) and four clock faces. The red Spanish-tile conical roof is topped with a silver cross. Adjacent to it, I entered through the main portal with neoclassical elements, Spanish Mission–style gable with four mission bells, and a statue of the eponymous saint standing in a niche. Inside, I found a wide, open space with lovely pews and a pitched red ceiling with decorated timbers in the elegant truss systems. As I marched forward, I was impressed by the vibrant stained-glass windows capturing scenes from the life of St. Augustine as well as the dramatic Stations of the Cross and the blue and white tiles in a side chapel depicting such scenes as the Nativity and the Flight from Egypt. The sacristy glows with golden trim, statues, and symbols of the four evangelists on the pulpit. The large Blessed Sacrament Chapel features a splendid mosaic of the Last Supper, right down to the folds in the tablecloth. Behind me, up in the choir loft, a huge mural depicting the first Mass celebrated by city founder Pedro Menendez, complete with Spanish soldiers, Timucuan Indians, and a Spanish galleon. And, last, there’s the reliquary of St. Augustine himself, a three-foot tall golden bust that houses a tiny shard of bone from the saint, who died in 430.

#3 Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea (Key West)

Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea, Key WestOn a particularly sudorific day, just a few blocks off Duval Street in a quiet neighborhood, I took a seat in the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea and enjoyed the refreshing cross-ventilation provided by a series of open doors below simple stained-glass windows along both side aisles. One of the oldest Catholic parishes in Florida (and one of the most beautiful buildings in Key West), this church, completed in 1905 and light on decorative details, features twin silver spires; a white and powder blue (the color often associated with Mary) airy interior with slender columns supporting arches with soffits that resemble waffles; and a grotto outside with an abundance of candles. Above the altar, the only stained-glass window with a figure, St. Mary, lets in a kaleidoscope of colorful light. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, the church was elevated to the status of minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. When you’re done appreciating this church and its peacefulness, you can purchase a memento from the only Catholic gift shop within 100 miles.

#4 Gesù Church (Miami)

Gesù Church, Miami, FloridaIn a city of flashy modern skyscrapers, Gesù Church presents an eye-catching contrast to Miami’s modernity. With a congregation dating back to 1896 (the city’s oldest Roman Catholic parish), the current church building, constructed in the Mediterranean Revival style, was completed in 1925. Repainted in a deep salmon pink (as opposed to the original putty color) with white trim and a pair of medallions with the alpha and the omega, the façade sports a massive arched portico under an Arabesque tower. The wide-open interior, under an unsupported arched, embossed ceiling, can seat 800 worshippers comfortably. All along the nave, wonderful sculpted Stations of the Cross alternate with 30’-tall stained-glass windows from Germany that depict key moments from the lives of Jesus and Mary. In the sacristy, the reredos features a statue of Christ flanked by St. Pius V, the pope who approved the mission to Florida, and St. Francis Borgia, the general of the Society of Jesus who began that mission. The chancel, baptismal font, and altar are both of white Italian marble (the latter featuring a bas relief of da Vinci’s Last Supper), and the mural above the altar shows Jesus welcoming people of all races from around the world. Up in the broad choir loft with the pipe organ, the rose window tapped an appropriate source for its images—with St. Cecilia, the patroness of musicians, in the center, surrounded by eight cherubim playing medieval instruments.

#5 St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (Key West)

St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Key WestAnother major Key West house of worship, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church stands right in the midst of the action on Duval Street. It’s a crisp white structure with a graceful corner bell tower and red entry doors typical of an Episcopal church. Inside, I admired the intricate wooden ceiling and the highly detailed stained-glass windows. The fourth version on this site (two previous churches were destroyed in hurricanes, a third by fire), the current building dates back to 1912. Of course, with a history of more than 100 years, there’s bound to be a ghost story or two, and St. Paul’s is reputedly haunted by the ghosts of one of the island’s founders as well as a sea captain, a man obsessed with driving pirates out of Key West, and a handful of children who died in a fire when a former pastor, in a jealous rage over his wife’s infidelities with the deacon, set fire to the church without knowing they were inside.

Five Runners-Up

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