In the late 1980s, I lived in Brooklyn. I had a pretty nice, reasonably priced, one-bedroom apartment, but my neighborhood was, to be charitable, tired. On weekends, there was nothing of interest to keep me there, so I got in the habit of taking the subway under the East River to Manhattan.
The indispensable handbook to planning my weekend escapes was the American Institute of Architects Guide to New York City. It gave me an in-depth view of the history of New York City and an in-depth view of the evolution of architecture and design in the city. So I explored historic districts such as Greenwich Village, Murray Hill, Lower Manhattan, and even that tourist mecca, the South Street Seaport, which displaced the old Fulton Fish Market. (It’s nice enough in an outdoor shopping mall kind of way, but I say bring back the fish.)
One of the surprises of the AIA Guide was the editors’ enthusiasm for Catholic churches and shrines in Manhattan. The main reason? When we Catholics build a church or chapel, we tend to fill it with cool stuff. We hire artists, sculptors, wood-carvers, and stained glass designers to make our churches beautiful.
In Manhattan there are many churches that are just plain red brick outside, the kind of place that you might breeze right by without giving it a second look. But the AIA editors instructed me to step inside and see wonderful things, such as the massive mural of the crucifixion over the high altar of St. Stephen’s Church, which was commissioned from the Italian immigrant artist who painted the murals in the US Capitol. I was directed down to the Battery where, from the front steps of the little chapel built on the site of Mother Seton’s home, you get a wonderful view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
And at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, up one aisle and down the other I found row upon row of statues of the saints, standing amid banks of real candles. I love Old St. Patrick’s, so I’m going to give it a little extra space. For more than two hundred years Old St. Patrick’s has welcomed wave after wave of newcomers to America, from the Irish (during the Civil War, the Irish Brigade considered St. Patrick’s their spiritual headquarters), to the Italians who gave us the annual Feast of San Gennaro, to the Chinese who attend Mass at the old cathedral today.
I’ve always liked tracking down the unexpected, and the AIA Guide directed my footsteps. One of my favorite walking tours was to the sites associated with Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic to win the nomination for president (he lost). Smith’s old neighborhood, once heavily Irish, is part of Chinatown now, but it still has the feel he would recognize—streets teeming with immigrants, tiny, crowded shops run by entrepreneurs from the old country, and noisy, crazy traffic. So Al Smith’s neighborhood has changed, but not really.
I’ve tried to bring my joy in the unexpected to my book. Yes, among the more than one hundred places to pray in your lifetime, you’ll find plenty of cathedrals and churches, but also destinations that might have gotten away from you. The National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother in Portland, Oregon, is not only holy ground, it is also home to a splendid botanical garden where every month of the year something is blooming.
Myles Keogh, an Irishman, fought in defense of the Papal States in Italy, then in defense of the Union during America’s Civil War, and then with the Seventh Cavalry in the Far West; he died with Custer and all his fellow troopers at the Little Bighorn. According to one story, Keogh was the last cavalryman to be killed by the Native Americans; a white marble marker identifies the place where he fell.
And after you’ve finished touring some of the grand mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, head over to Salve Regina University. Over the decades the college has acquired the estates of seven of Gilded Age America’s wealthiest families; their oceanfront mansions and outbuildings give an extra elegance, even opulence, to the life of students, faculty, and staff at Salve Regina.
Then there are the retreat houses. These days it’s fairly easy to find a quiet place to make a retreat, but I’ve selected houses that offer a little something extra. The Vikingsborg Guest House in Connecticut overlooks the serene Long Island Sound. New Mexico’s Monastery of Christ in the Desert stands at the base of a soaring butte, at the end of a fifteen-mile-long unpaved road—you’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach this place. And accommodations at the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Enfield, New Hampshire, are in the Great Stone Dwelling House, one of the largest residences the Shakers ever built (the La Salette Fathers acquired the land and the buildings in the 1930s when the Shaker community in Enfield was dying out).
Although he was a lapsed Catholic, Irish author James Joyce was once asked to define Catholicism; he replied, “Here comes everybody.” I’ve tried to take that big tent approach in my book by including shrines and historic sites that have special significance among Latino Catholics (the sanctuary of Chimayo in New Mexico), Vietnamese Catholics (Our Lady of Lavang Shrine in Houston, Texas), and African American Catholics (St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, the first seminary founded specifically to train and ordain black men to the priesthood).
I’ve included a driving tour of sites associated with Venerable Frederic Baraga, the aristocratic Slovenian priest and later bishop who worked himself to exhaustion ministering to his largely Native American congregation in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Even northern Midwest winters couldn’t stop him: in foul weather he pulled on his snowshoes and trekked across the drifts to bring the sacraments to his people. In his old age, he made a concession to his infirmities and made the same trips by dog sled.
Especially touching, from my perspective, are the shrines erected by families, such as Our Lady of Ephesus House of Prayer in Jamaica, Vermont, and the monumental statue of Our Lady of Peace Shrine in Pine Bluffs, Wyoming. The heroic devotion and heroic self-sacrifice of these families is inspiring.
My goal here is to introduce you to great Catholic sites that you might have overlooked when planning an itinerary. In Philadelphia, after you’ve seen the Liberty Bell, walk a couple blocks to Old St. Joseph Church and make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. In Chicago, take the architectural cruise along the shore of Lake Michigan; then on Sunday morning, go to one of the sung Masses at the St. John Cantius Church, where the music is sublime. And in San Antonio, Texas, after exploring the Alamo, head over to the St. Ferdinand Cathedral where the remains of the heroes of that desperate battle lie buried.
I hope this travel guide will convince you to include a Catholic site or two the next time you travel. I’ve visited more than a few of the sites in my book, but there are so many more I’d like to see. For you, this may be the starting point for a life-long interest in fascinating Catholic sites in America. For me, it’s my Catholic bucket list.