13 Churches to Visit Before You Die
· 25 min. read
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The recent fire at Notre Dame Cathedral got me thinking about how lucky I was to see such an incredible building ? and how lucky we all are that it's still standing. In honour of its survival, and the Easter Season (assuming I can get this out prior to Easter Sunday), I thought I would put together a list of some of the most beautiful churches I've seen in my travels ? and hopefully inspire you to see them too.
This article only lists churches I've been to, but there are countless others that people should visit too. Are there any other churches you think people should visit? How about temples or mosques? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
1. St. Paul's Cathedral (London, England)
St. Paul's Cathedral has been an iconic structure in London for over a millennium. The current cathedral was constructed in 1697 after the previous (fourth) cathedral was lost to the Great Fire of London in 1666.
(You may think 31 years was a long time to build a church, but just wait until you get to number 11 on this list!)
St. Paul's has one of the largest domes in the world and is the second largest cathedral in the United Kingdom. It was also the tallest building in London for over 300 years.
Because of its importance in the city and country, St. Paul's was a primary target for German air-bombers during World War II. Thankfully, scouters on nearby buildings defended the building using spotlights. The building suffered serious damage during the bombings, but it was never destroyed.
Although the cathedral is Anglican, it often has non-denominational events and services, and has been a gathering point in the city during many global tragedies. Tours of the cathedral are £20 (or about $34), which may seem like a lot, but there is a lot to see in the cathedral, including the crypt in the basement, or the Whispering Gallery in the dome.
2. Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Depot Chapel (Regina, Canada)
The RCMP Chapel in Regina was constructed in 1883 as a mess hall but was later transformed into a chapel in 1895. This chapel is the oldest building in Regina, and the second oldest church in the city.
Regina's RCMP Training Academy is the only RCMP training centre in Canada, so every officer (with brief exceptions) that dons the red serge attended service at this chapel. Only officers and invited guests can attend service at the chapel, but guests can tour the building during the summer and autumn months. Tours of the chapel and depot are covered by admission into the RCMP Heritage Centre, which range from $6 - $8 per person.
Although the chapel's walls are lined with plaques and memorials for fallen officers, the most iconic piece of the chapel is the stained-glass artwork of two officers near the alter.
3. Notre-Dame Basilica (Paris, France)
Notre-Dame has been on everybody's mind the past few days (or weeks, or months, or years, depending on when you read this) and the historical importance of this church is something that cannot be understated. Not only is Notre Dame a millennium old building, dating back to 1163, but it's also a cultural icon. Books, stories, films, songs and games have been based around Notre Dame.
The history of this building is vast, violent and thorough. While many were concerned about the 2019 fire that damaged the building, the biggest loss of the building's history occurred during the French Revolution in 1793. During the revolution, the church was taken over by followers of the Cult of Reason, and later the Cult of the Supreme Being. The Cult of Reason was a radical group that wanted a complete overhaul of French society. They beheaded 28 religious' statues in the building, believing they were statues of French monarchs and replaced statues of the Virgin Mary with statues of their Goddess of Liberty. They also plundered the building and attempted to melt down the bells.
Forty years later, by the 1830s, the building was still in operation but was dilapidated. Victor Hugo's book brought the church into the public eye, and money was allocated to repair and restore the building.
Notre Dame is said to contain relics such as the crown of thorns Jesus Christ wore and part of his crucifixion cross.
4. Notre-Dame Basilica (Montreal, Canada)
Built in 1824, this cathedral replaced the original building that was constructed in 1672. The original building was destroyed not because it was structurally unsound, or because of a devastating event, but because the congregation had outgrown it. This was identified as a serious problem when members of the congregation were forced to sit outside during a winter service and several succumbed to the weather.
The current building was the victim of arson in 1978 which resulted in the reconstruction of the church's chapel. The main nave, transept and chancel survived the blaze. Today's its dark oak wood and piercing blue stained-glass windows are known world-wide. Entrance into the church is free, and bilingual tours are provided hourly.
This cathedral is where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave the eulogy to his late father in 2000, and where Celine Dion was married in 1994.
5. Notre-Dame Basilica (Quebec City, Canada)
I promise this is the last Notre-Dame on the list.
This Notre-Dame is the third cathedral of its kind since 1647, with the second version being destroyed during The Siege of Quebec in 1759. The siege was committed by British forces to take the fortified city and conquer New France. The siege is documented by diary entries of pastors that lived at the cathedral. They wrote about cannon balls tearing holes through the walls, their attempt to save holy items and how everything else was burned.
Today the cathedral is both a place of worship, and as a museum for artifacts dating back to the days of New France. The basement is also an active crypt, but photography is prohibited.
6. Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico City, Mexico)
The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most iconic Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world, bringing in several million people each year. The basilica is one of the many churches and buildings in the area, as this area is where the Virgin Mary appeared before Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, the first indigenous saint of the Americas.
In 1531, Saint Juan was walking from his home to a Franciscan mission station at Tlatelolco. On his way there, he was stopped by the Virgin Mary and was told to build a chapel on the Hill of Tepeyac. Saint Juan would approach bishop Fray Juan Zumárraga at the mission station and told him of Mary's request. The bishop simply said he would think about it. Three times Saint Juan went back to the bishop, and three times the bishop didn't listen. Frustrated with the lack of progress, Saint Juan attempted to avoid the waiting Virgin Mary on his way to the mission station, but she intercepted him anyway. Saint Juan said he had failed her and was embarrassed, but the Virgin Mary promised she would perform a miracle and convince the bishop to build the chapel.
The next day the Virgin Mary sent Saint Juan up a hill to collect flowers and instructed him to bring them down to her in his mantel (which is an article of loose clothing worn at the time). He climbed the hill and found beautiful flowers in bloom, although it was winter, and flowers should not have been blooming. He brought the flowers down to Mary and she adjusted them. He was then sent him to go see the bishop. When Saint Juan arrived, he opened his mantle, poured out the flowers and the bishop saw an image of the Virgin Mary on his mantle. The bishop immediately agreed to build the chapel.
Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin's mantel is on display at the new (1974) basilica after the old one (1709) began to sink into the foundation.
These buildings sit on the remains of a temple for Tonantzin Coatlaxopeuh, an important Aztec goddess.
7. Templo de Santiago Apóstol (Tlatelolco, Mexico City, Mexico)
There's a good chance you've never heard of Templo de Santiago Apóstol, but that's because it's a story that isn't well known outside of Mexico City. Although it was built between 1604 and 1610, its story starts much earlier than that.
Prior to the church being built, the area next to it was a plaza used for Aztecan human sacrifice. Human sacrifice was common by the Aztecs, and it did not have the negative connotation we attach to it today. Instead, it was an honour and was thought to appease the gods.
In 1521 that all changed when Spaniard Hernán Cortés captured the Moctezuma II, the leader of the Aztecs. Following the capture, Cortés ordered the mass genocide of all Aztecs, with this location being the Aztec's last stand. When the battle was over, 40,000 Aztec warriors were dead, and their reign fell with them.
When the Templo de Santiago Apóstol was commission eighty years later, the architectures used the blood-stained stones that formally made up this Aztec plaza and used them to create the walls of the temple. This event, and many others that occurred in this plaza, is why many believe Mexico City is cursed.
8. St. Elijah's Church (Chernobyl, Ukraine)
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is known as the site of the world's deadliest nuclear disaster, but many confuse it as being the same as the nearby city of Chernobyl. Following the explosion, hundreds of communities around the plant were evacuated, but it was the nearby city of Pripyat that was drenched in radiation, not Chernobyl itself. Today Pripyat is abandoned, while Chernobyl is occupied by the military and the occasional tourist.
St. Elijah's Church is in Chernobyl, with many claiming it to be the reason why the city escaped the radioactive fallout. St. Elijah's Church sits between the plant and the city, and on the night of the explosion, a cloud of steam hurled towards it. Stories say that a tree that sits in front of the church's property miraculously caused the steam cloud to split in half and redirected it around the city. If this story is true or not is disputed, but this church and the city of Chernobyl are some of the few safe locations within the Exclusion Zone.
This church is the last of two standing churches in the Exclusion Zone and is the only one that is still in use. It contains the religious relics of many of the other churches in the area, including paintings, candles, Bibles, rosaries, and religious records. Photography within the church is prohibited, but all people are welcome.
9. Saint Sophia's Cathedral (Kyiv, Ukraine)
It's hard to pick Saint Sophia's Cathedral over the dozens of other beautifully stunning churches in Kyiv. St. Volodymyr's Cathedral belongs on this list, as does St Andrew's, St. Michael's, Kiev Pechersk Lavra and so many others. The reason I chose Saint Sophia's is because I got to go inside. I visited Kyiv on Orthodox Easter Sunday, so all the churches were busy or closed, while Saint Sophia's was still open.
Saint Sophia's was constructed in 1011, making it over a thousand years old. It survived the pillaging of both the Rus and the Mongols, and the various wars between Ukraine and Poland, and of many different religious factions. Various times throughout the past millenniums different groups, kingdoms or sectors helped repair the church and keep it for future generations. Nevertheless, the building was almost destroyed completely in the 1920s during an anti-religious movement by the Soviet Union. They wanted to destroy the building and make it into a park. Historians swayed the government not to destroy it, but the Soviets still confiscated the building from the church in the 1930s and turn it into a museum.
The church is still owned by the government, but only due to different religious sects claiming to have ownership of it ? with some of these claims bordering into violence. It operates under the Orthodox church, but they have restrictions on what they can do on the property.
10. St. Boniface Cathedral (St. Boniface, Winnipeg, Manitoba)
Saint Boniface is a unique addition to this list because it's the only cathedral that is partially destroyed.
The building was first constructed in 1818 in the form of a small log chapel. In 1832 the first cathedral was constructed, but in 1860 it was lost to a fire. A new stone cathedral was built in 1862.
Forty years later, St. Boniface had become the fifth largest city in Western Canada and the cathedral was deemed too small. A new cathedral was built in 1906, but in 1968, an inferno broke out inside the building, destroying it completely.
St. Boniface was, at the time, one of the largest cathedrals in Western Canada so it was decided to preserve the remains and build a new, smaller, modern St. Boniface Cathedral behind the remains in 1972.
St. Boniface is no longer one of the largest cities in Western Canada, but it does have the largest Francophone population west of Quebec. Louis Riel is buried on the grounds of this church.
11. Florence Cathedral (Florence, Italy)
Many cathedrals on this list took decades to built, but the Florence Cathedral took 140 years. Construction began during the Late Middle Ages when many cities were rivalling each other to see who could build the biggest cathedral. After Pisa and Siena created their massive structures, Florence began their project. It would begin construction in 1296 and be completed in 1436.
Italian architecture is done differently than most in the West, with the façade of the building not being added until the 19th Century, or several centuries after the inside of the church was completed. Additionally, the windows are much smaller and narrower than most European churches.
The biggest challenge in constructing this building was the dome, which was the largest the world had ever seen. When construction started on the church, architects had no idea how to build the dome and assumed by the time they got around to it (in about a century) technology would get to a point where such a thing would be possible. However, when the time came to build it, technology hadn't evolved that far. Instead, it took one of the greatest minds of the Renaissance, Filippo Brunelleschi, to create such a structure. Today, many simply refer to the entire cathedral by the name given to this impressive dome: Il Duomo.
12. The Pantheon (Rome, Italy)
The Pantheon was created in about 125, making it the oldest church on this list. It replaced an older church that was burned down previously, but dates to when that church was built or destroyed aren't certain. The building was a Roman temple but was not dedicated to any specific deity. Some speculate it was for all deities, while others believe it was dedicated to mankind.
In 609, Empower Phocas of the Byzantine Empire gave the Pantheon over to Pope Boniface IV. The Emperor requested that the "pagan filth" be removed from within the new church. He also requested that the church be dedicated to the Virgin Mary so that gods, "not demons", would be worshipped there.
It was this decision that saved the Pantheon from destruction during the fall of Rome later that century.
As the centuries rolled past, the church was used, and abused, by different groups, some stealing metal, stone or artifacts from the building, while others adding, modifying or building additions onto the structure. Although the building has changed much since its creation, it remains an iconic structure in Rome.
The building is still a Catholic Church to this day, and service is still held within it. The iconic dome, which was built nearly 2,000 years ago, is still one of the largest unreinforced concrete domes in the world.
13. St. Peter's Basilica (Vatican City)
Considered "the greatest of all churches of Christendom", St. Peter's is the largest church in the world.
The origins of the church date back to that of St. Peter, one of the original Apostles of Jesus. Following the crucifixion of Jesus, St. Peter and the Apostles travelled throughout the known world to spread the Word of God. In 64 AD, St. Peter travelled to Rome. Three months prior, the Great Fire of Rome had occurred, and many blamed the new growing Christian religion for the inferno. When St. Peter arrived, he was captured and crucified. St. Peter requested that he be crucified upside down because he was not worthy enough to die the same way as Jesus. He was executed in the Circus of Nero.
The area around the Circus of Nero was used as a cemetery for many people, including St. Peter. Following his execution, many early Christians wished to be buried near St. Peter, so they were buried here as well.
Three hundred years later, the attitude towards Christianity had shifted and Rome had become a Christian city. Between 314 AD and 340 AD St. Paul's Basilica was constructed over the former Circus of Nero.
St. Paul's, like many basilicas at the time, was built outside the main walls of the city. This left the basilica open to attack, which occurred in 846 AD when Muslim raiders attacked the city. They seized the basilica, stole gems, gold and relics and smashed open the grave of St. Peter.
Following the attack, money and funds were allocated to fortify the basilica, but by the 15th Century, it had begun to fall into decay. It was decided to build a new church, as well as rebuilt the grounds around it. The project started in 1506 and it wasn't completed until 1626. The project included building the new St. Peter's Basilica, St. Peter's Square and relocating an obelisk that was in the former Circus of Nero. This obelisk stood as a witness to the crucifixion of St. Peter a millennium and a half earlier and is named "The Witness" because of it. Today it sits in the middle of St. Peter's Square.
There is a lot of history when it comes to churches, and their importance in society transcends just religion. Their architecture, inspiration, legacy and influence has shaped our modern world. Many churches on this list have been destroyed, been set on fire, sacked, or vandalized. Although many people have Notre Dame on their hearts and minds following the most recent fire, in the history of the world, churches that are damaged only come back more beautiful than before.
I didn't mention a fraction of the churches I should have on this list, so there's probably many that I missed. Are there any churches you would like to see or have seen, that didn't make my list? Let me know in the comments below.
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Categories: Canada, France, Italy, Manitoba, Mexico, Quebec, Regina, Saskatchewan, Travel Tips, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Vatican City