You have already done all the “must-dos” and “must-visits“. Now, you’re looking for alternative things to do in New York. This is where I step in and suggest you visit the best churches in New York. Get out of the box and learn about the city’s, and even the country’s, history and art. You won’t regret it!
St. Paul’s Chapel, where old and current history meet
St. Paul’s Chapel has had a long and fascinating history. It survived the Great Fire of 1776, which broke out days after the British invasion of New York during the Revolutionary War. The church was intact after the September 11 attacks, even though it’s very close to the site of the attacks. Can we say it’s a lucky building?
St. Paul’s was built in 1766 and its design closely resembles that of the church of
St.-Martin-in-the-Fields in London. The nave is white, with lots of natural light coming in from the plain windows. The focal point is the Glory altarpiece, which represents the giving of the Ten Commandments to the Israelites. I was transported to 18th-century England as soon as I stepped into the church.
George Washington attended a religious service here after he took the oath of office on April 30, 1789. Another historical object is one of the earliest known depictions of the Great Seal of the Unites States adopted in 1782. The vestry of Trinity Church commissioned this paiting in 1785.
However, the most moving feature of St. Paul’s Chapel is the 9-11 memorial altar at the back. St. Paul’s served as an emergency ministry for rescue workers and volunteers in the days following the attacks. They kept a pew with scratches done by all the gear first-responders have to wear. They felt so tired that they crashed on the pews as they were. I found this very sobering.
Where: at Broadway and Fulton Street, Lower Manhattan
When: Every day from 10 am to 6 pm.
How: train line 6 to Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall; metro lines A C E to Chambers Street station or A C 2 3 4 5 to Broadway/Nassau Street station.
Trinity Church Wall Street, the last resting place of Alexander Hamilton
A short walk separates St. Paul’s Chapel from Trinity Church Wall Street. The current iteration of this Episcopalian church was consecrated in 1846. Designed in the Gotic Revival style, this is the third building on this site. A restoration project is underway since May 2018 to rejuvenate the church.
We visited the church on a cruel winter day. We were looking for a place to shelter from the wind and happened upon Trinity Church. A service was about to start, so we decided to stay. After the service, morning coffee was served to the homeless people who were also seeking protection from the cold.
The churchyard is older than the current building and it has historic significance. Alexander Hamilton is one of the historic figures buried here.
Fun fact: Trinity Church is the location of some scenes from the 2004 movie National Treasure starring Nicholas Cage and Diane Kruger.
Where: Broadway at Wall Street, Lower Manhattan
When: Every day from 7 am to 6 pm.
How: J Z trains to Broad St staiton, R 1 to Rector St. station, 2 3 4 5 metro lines to Wall Street station.
St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, NYC’s first Catholic cathedral
St. Patrick’s is New York’s oldest Catholic church, completed in 1815. It was also the first Catholic cathedral for the growing Catholic community until 1879, when it was supplanted by St. Patrick’s on 5th Avenue.
True to the Gothic Revival style, the interior features vaulted ceilings and a beautifully carved altar screen. It inspires serenity.
Pope Benedict XVI designated Old St. Patrick’s a basilica on March 17, 2010. I think the choice of date was anything but random!
The catacombs comprise 35 crypts of prominent New York families and five clerical vaults. You can only visit the catacombs if you do a guided tour.
Where: 263 Mulberry St., Little Italy (entrance on Mott St.)
When: Mass times: Monday through Friday 8 am, 12;12 pm, Saturdays 5:30 pm, Sundays 9:15, 10:15, 11:30, 12:45 pm, 7 pm in English, Spanish, and Chinese.
How: N Q R W trains to Prince St. station, B D F M trains to Broadway-Lafayette St. station.
The magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral
St. Patrick’s is New York’s best-known church. Many important events have taken place here, like the memorial mass for the victims of the 9-11 attacks or Babe Ruth’s funeral. I really appreciated how splendid a building this is when I saw it from the 25th floor of a nearby hotel. The spires soar to the skies, the intricate carvings boggle the mind, the stone looks radiant.
The doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral opened in 1879, although the cornerstone had been laid in 1858. It’s difficult to picture this part of town as the outskirts of the city, but that’s what it was at the time. The Civil War had interrupted the construction, which resumed after the conflict ended.
The cathedral sparkles after an intense restoration and preservation work. The neo-Gothic interior is simply magnificent. You can’t miss this architectural gem.
Fun fact: St. Patrick’s is energy efficient.
Where: 5th Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets
When: 6:30 am to 8:45 pm daily
How: E M metro lines to 5 Avenue/53rd St. station, B D F M trains to Rockefeller Center station.
St. John the Divine, the world’s largest cathedral
St. John the Divine is the cathedral church of the Episcopal Diocese. At 601 feet long, it’s the largest cathedral in the world. As is the case with many cathedrals and basilicas around the world, St. John the Divine is work in progress. Construction started in 1892 and it still continues.
The design is eclectic and has elements of the Romanesque, Byzantine and Gothic styles. Each of the magnificent stained glass windows is dedicated to an activity, like medicine or sports. At the ground level, the windows depict historical and scriptural figures carrying out that endeavour. On the upper level, we see the patron saint(s) of such activity, and Christ is in every rosette window.
I did the Vertical Tour and I thoroughly recommend it. I got to see parts of the cathedral you don’t normally see, like the triforium or even the roof. And the views of Manhattan are amazing.
Where: 1047 Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street
When: Mondays through Fridays 9 am to 5 pm, Sundays 12:30 to 2:30 pm
How: 1 B C trains to 110th Street/Cathedral Parkway station, Upper West Side
St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue
There is a place for reflection and faith in the hustle and bustle of 5th Avenue: St. Thomas Church. The current building is the fourth on this site and hosted the first service in 1914. It was designed in the French High Gothic style. The splendid reredos, or altar screen, was inspired by those of English Gothic cathedrals.
When I visited St. Thomas, I opened the door and a shrill noise, like an alarm, sounded. I was petrified. But the warden said not to worry, they were tuning, or voicing, the organ. Phew! They organise concerts, coral worship services, and Sunday organ recital series.
Two things stood out to me: the icon of St. Thomas, a gift from the community of Exeter Cathedral in England, and the figure of Our Lady of 5th Avenue. Very fitting indeed.
Fun fact: St. Thomas church won the Moses Award for outstanding preservation work in 2017.
Where: 5th Avenue at 53rd St., Midtown
When: 7:30 am to 6:30 pm daily.
How: E M trains to 5th/53rd St. station, B D to 7th Ave/53rd St. station
I loved visiting these New York churches for their history and art. They showed me a different side of the cuttroat city: the power of community and faith (other people’s, not mine). I hope you enjoy them too.
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