Just about everywhere I travel, churches and cathedrals rise to the top of my list of things to see. From London to Montreal, Helsinki to Buenos Aires, and most places in between, these houses of worship continually impress me with their architecture, art, history, serenity, symbolism, and music. But it occurred to me one day that I had never made this a priority in my hometown. So, over the course of two years, I scoured Manhattan and visited almost all of them, from the massive St. John the Divine (famous for its ongoing incompleteness) to the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava just weeks before it was destroyed by a fire. These are my favorites.
#1 St. Patrick’s Cathedral
It’s no surprise that the most famous church in all of New York City tops my list of favorites. And, after a $200 million clean-up and restoration, it has never looked better. This national landmark (since 1976) and New York landmark (1966) is both a working parish church and the seat of the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. As the latter, St. Patrick’s Cathedral serves as the final resting place of the past nine archbishops of New York, all of whom are entombed in the crypt under the high altar. The church has also been the scene of requiem and memorial masses for the likes of Babe Ruth, Vince Lombardi, Celia Cruz, Ed Sullivan, Robert F. Kennedy, Andy Warhol, Joe DiMaggio, and William F. Buckley Jr. Designed by the supremely talented James Renwick Jr., who based it on Cologne Cathedral (one of the world’s most beautiful), the largest decorated neo-Gothic Catholic cathedral in North America was completed in 1878, following a work disruption during the Civil War. Additions by Renwick and others followed, including the archbishop’s house and rectory, a Lady Chapel, and the soaring twin spires that, at 329.5 feet high, became the tallest structures in New York and the second-highest in the United States when they were added in 1888. Standing before this mammoth structure on Fifth Avenue that occupies an entire city block, you can’t help but be awed by its size and beauty. Able to accommodate 3,000 people, the cathedral stretches 332 feet long and 174 feet wide at the transepts. Its lacy marble façade features buttresses and rose windows, arches and pinnacles, trefoils and crockets — everything you’d expect to see on a Gothic cathedral in Europe. On your way in, make sure to note the bronze entrance doors, each of which weighs 9,200 lbs: The statues that decorate them include both well-known figures like St. Joseph and St. Patrick and lesser-known people, including Ven Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American woman to be canonized by the Catholic Church.
Inside, expect to spend a couple of hours inspecting the cathedral’s grandeur. Cluster columns support Gothic arches. Carved bosses cap intersecting ribs on the nave’s groin vault ceiling. The organ, with more than 9,000 pipes, rests below a fantastic rose window. About 4,000 stained-glass panels throw colored light all over the cathedral through windows filled with religious and Biblical figures and symbols, including the clerestory windows heavy on a beautiful deep blue. An ornate solid bronze baldachino rises nearly 60 feet above the high altar. Rows of votive candles rise up to the fine Pietà that outsizes Michelangelo’s in Rome by a factor of three. A winding staircase ascends to the intricately carved pulpit, with a fancy sounding board above it. The fantastic sculpting of the Stations of the Cross along the side aisles won an artistry prize at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. In one of the many side chapels, a wonderful mosaic of Christ’s face on the cloth Veronica used even includes the folds and wrinkles in the material. What you might find most surprising and unexpected in the cathedral, despite its location in the heart of ultra-busy midtown Manhattan and its endless swarms of visitors that top more than six million per year, is its silence. Voices are instinctively lowered as people enter, an almost involuntarily reflex to the reverence the cathedral commands. And that makes your visit here, and your appreciation of all the cathedral’s visual stimuli, that much more beautiful.
#2 Grace Church
At first glance, you think you’ve been transported back to an English village in the 1800s. But, alas, no — you’re in Lower Manhattan, gaping at Grace Church, another masterpiece of James Renwick, Jr., who received the commission (his first) to design this church when he was all of 23. With its polychromatic stone exterior, frilly pinnacles, clusters of statues, crenellated roofline, refined stone tracery in the windows, and lovely spire, Grace Church makes a most handsome presence. Entering the church by passing under the tympanum with its carving of Peter healing the lame man, my eyes immediately focused on the sanctuary, but there’s so much more to take in on the way there.
I was happy to see Renwick acknowledged for his genius, with both a marble bust and a stained-glass window dedicated to his memory. The remarkable windows depict important scenes from both the Old and New Testaments, including Noah and his ark, the burning bush, Jacob’s dream, the three magi, and Christ in action. One of my favorites is the Mary window, depicting the Four Marys: the Virgin Mary; Mary, wife of Cleophas; Mary Magdalene; and Mary of Bethany. Making my way forward past the formerly private pews, rented for a fee and each with a door, I came upon the octagonal Baptistery, truly a work of art, with its carved marble base and oak canopy. Its eight sides signify both the dawning of the eighth day as well as the eight survivors of the Great Flood. The wonderful mosaic wall and floor around it feature, appropriately, wavy lines signifying water, complete with a few fish.
All around, keep an eye out for statues of angels, and lions and lambs. Precisely drawn figures — prophets, apostles, martyrs, and the Holy Innocents among them — cram the tremendous window over the high altar, the largest in the church (at 16 feet wide by 33.5 feet high). Under it, the carved marble reredos contains a Venetian mosaic panel, with Christ and eight disciples in the central panel and two of the four evangelists in the panels on either side. Just off the sanctuary, the hexagonal pulpit bears a great preacher of the early church at each of its points, including Stephen, Paul, and John the Baptist. On my way back, I popped into the Honor Room, with its ongoing list of head choirboys (since 1894) and choirgirls (from 1994), and windows illustrating Jesus’ parables, every one designed by a woman. Near the entrance, I came upon the memorial stone commemorating the life and tragic death of parishioner Edith Corse Evans, who gave up her seat on a lifeboat on the sinking Titanic to a woman who had children back home — an utterly selfless act that embodies the spirit of the church’s religious messages.
#3 Church of St. Francis Xavier
The first time I saw this church was at a wedding. As soon as I entered to celebrate my friends’ nuptials, I knew I would have to return here. Many years later, I did, and I was even more impressed, especially since its $15 million renovation and restoration project was completed. Gracing the Flatiron District, the Church of St. Francis Xavier opened in 1882. Designed by Irish immigrant Patrick Kelly (who designed more than 600 churches in his lifetime), the church received rave reviews from The New York Times, which stated that “the eye wanders in amazement.” That couldn’t be more true, starting with the façade — a wonderful neo-Baroque masterpiece in bluish-gray granite with a gabled portico and, above it, a statue of the eponymous statue and a bright brass IHS (a contraction of Jesus’ name in Greek) medallion.
Inside, however, is where you’ll be gobsmacked. The beauty begins at your feet in the narthex, with a gorgeous intricate mosaic cross. Stepping into the nave, I was struck by the rich use of materials from around the world — granite from Massachusetts, marble from Italy, onyx from Mexico — as well as by the nearly 50 fantastic murals. Looking up at the ornamental plasterwork on the ceiling, I followed a dozen painted medallions, noting the largest one depicting the saint’s apotheosis as angels carry him heavenward. I turned back to see the hand-carved oak organ casework before heading to the front of the church, past the hand-carved oak pews, to admire the apse. Toward the top, in between the ribs of the half dome, five statues (St. Francis Xavier, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, St. Joseph, and St. Ignatius Loyola) stand on pedestals. Below them, five magnificent murals depict the key moments of Christ’s life — the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, a rather dramatic Resurrection, and the Ascension. I was then attracted to a striking mural in the west transept, the Japanese Martyrs Mural, which depicts 26 Catholics being crucified for their faith in Japan in 1597. From there, I looped around the church to check out the extra-large Stations of the Cross, fantastic murals painted by a German immigrant. Below them, marble and onyx inlay and brass radiators embellish the walls; above them, arched stained-glass windows contain no figural elements at all — highly unusual for a Catholic church of this era. Rather, geometric shapes, quilting patterns, and flora crafted in fine detail allow a flood of vibrant colors into the church. Between the windows, a veritable who’s-who of 30 saints and their symbols stand on ornately carved corbels, everyone from Paul with his sword to Bartholomew with his knife, Jude with a club and Andrew with an X-shaped cross, Bridget with a crosier and Cecilia with an organ, Simon with a saw and Thomas with a carpenter’s rule. My favorite thing that really puts this church over the top is the gorgeous cream-colored carved ornamentation, from floriated column capitals to dentils and egg-and-dart moldings to brackets and spandrels, rich with vines and grapes, leaves, figures, and religious symbols. These painstakingly beautiful decorative elements help make the Church of St. Francis Xavier unforgettable.
#4 Trinity Church
If not for the churchyard surrounding it on three sides, this Broadway landmark in downtown Manhattan would have been obscured years ago by the skyscrapers all around it. Fortunately, you still get clear, open views of Trinity Church, one of the most important Episcopal churches in New York and one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in the United States. Since 1846, this glorious church, designed by renowned architect Richard Upjohn, has been a spiritual anchor for the neighborhood (and a key site for tourists), replacing the two versions that preceded it, lost to fire and razing, respectively. At just over 200 feet long and about 78 feet wide, Trinity can be appreciated from all four sides. Starting at the front, I looked up at the tower, with a spire pierced with small windows that reaches up 281 feet, which made Trinity the tallest building in New York City until St. Patrick’s steeples took the title. On the tower’s south face, under the clock in the diamond-shaped panel, I spied statues of two of the four evangelists, Matthew and Mark; the other two, Luke and John, show up on the north face.
I entered the church through the decorative bronze doors embellished with sculpted biblical scenes, including the banishment of Adam and Eve, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Stepping into the nave, my eyes were treated to one beautiful visual stimulus after another. To my right, the baptistery features an early Italian Renaissance triptych behind the ornate baptismal font. Above me, the much newer virtual pipe organ dates only to 2003, installed after the detritus of the fallen Twin Towers only a few blocks away made the pipe organ unusable. Walking down the nave under the intricate ribbed groin vault ceiling, my eyes were drawn to the stained-glass windows along the side aisles. Upon closer inspection, I found the pineapple design in the glass — an appropriate symbol, of hospitality, for a church that has welcomed everyone from Edward VIII and Queen Elizabeth II to ordinary citizens seeking shelter, and loved ones, after 9/11. The sanctuary at the end of the nave is dominated by a fantastic sandstone and marble reredos, with its row of saints, and the stained-glass chancel window featuring figures of Jesus, the four evangelists, and Peter and Paul as well as important Christian images: the alpha and omega, chalices, and bishops’ miters. On the right side of the sanctuary, an eagle-shaped lectern is used for prayers and lessons; on the left, the ornate pulpit is reserved for sermons and special addresses.
Getting back to that churchyard — a rarity in Manhattan: Make sure you explore it once you’ve completed your visit inside the church. Here you’ll find the graves of Robert Fulton, Alexander Hamilton, William Bradford (founder of New York’s first newspaper, the New York Gazette), and Hercules Mulligan — an Irish-American who used his position as a tailor to British officers and soldiers to spy on them and report back to the Continental Army, a dangerous endeavor that saved the life of George Washington on two occasions. You’ll also find the oldest gravestone in the cemetery, for a five-year-old boy who died in 1681, and a tombstone for an 18th-century fictional heroine. Once you conclude your loop around the churchyard, return to the main entrance, cross the street, and walk down Wall Street for a couple of blocks. Then turn around and look back at Trinity Church, with its view narrowed by encroaching buildings, and try to imagine Wall Street when it led to God instead of being devoted to money.
#5 Most Holy Redeemer Church
Tucked into the East Village, Most Holy Redeemer Church traces its parish roots back to 1844 and the church building itself to 1852. Consecrated by Bishop John Neumann (now a saint), the Roman Catholic church had been constructed to tend to the spiritual needs of the exploding German Catholic population in the neighborhood as a parish church. But Most Holy Redeemer looks more like a cathedral. I looked up at this limestone beauty from across narrow East Third Street. A mixture of Baroque and Romanesque styles, the church features a domed tower with four clock faces that remains one of the tallest structures in the area despite being shortened during a renovation in 1913. I spent a few minutes trying to count all the crosses embellishing the façade, from the top of the dome and four corner urns to the carvings in the blind windows to inside ornamental circles and in the scrolls above the entrance doors. The importance of the community was reflected in the grandiosity of the church’s interior. Soaring columns support the arches that separate the nave from the side aisles and then cross over the nave itself. Fantastic stained-glass windows allow streams of colored light to flow in, still unobstructed by lower buildings adjacent to the church on either side. Wonderfully carved Stations of the Cross are grouped in pairs above the marble wainscoting of the two side aisles, separated by statues of saints and Biblical figures standing on pedestals supported by angel brackets. The apse glows with golden murals that curve around the chancel, separated by heavily embellished columns. Above, in the half dome, angels are about to present Jesus with a crown while swinging censers. The front panel of the altar features the Last Supper scene, with Judas emotionally detached from the others while clutching his bag of coins, similarly treated in one of the stained-glass windows. All combined, Most Holy Redeemer is a most spectacular church.