Some of my favorite stops when traveling are beautiful churches. I have found that some of the churches in the Midwest rival those I have seen in Europe in their beauty and architectural splendor, while others humble me in their simplicity. In my faith walk, I enjoy the history behind the churches and learning the stories that accompany them. Many of the churches I have toured have historical figures associated with them, which added greatly to my visits! In this article, I am starting south and winding west as I reveal amazing churches to check out.
1. Basilica Of St. Louis, King Of France
This cathedral in St. Louis, Missouri, was the first church established west of the Mississippi River. I visited this church several years ago. I remember that they refer to her as the “Old Cathedral” even though the newer one was built at the turn of the century.
A tract of land was laid out by St. Louis founders Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau as early as 1764. According to the basilica history, “From 1834-1843, seven Sunday Masses were held to accommodate the growing population of the area, with the vernacular portion spoken in the various languages of the inhabitants, including French, German, and English.”
In addition to the variety of languages in the city, St. Louis was also a crossroads for many Native Americans, including four Nez Perce chiefs who came to learn about Christianity in 1831. The cornerstone for the new church (the fourth one built here) was laid in August of 1831. The church was completed in 1834, with the interior completed in 1853. The church is of polished stone and is 136 feet long, 84 feet wide, and 40 feet high.
Pro Tip: There is also the Old Cathedral Museum to tour with artifacts of the Archdiocese. Items include a silver bell from 1779 and a nativity scene purchased after the Civil War.
2. Cathedral Basilica Of Saint Louis
The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis is known for its amazing mosaics. I recently toured the “New Cathedral” located on St. Louis’s Lindell Blvd. Architectural styles are Romanesque on the exterior and Byzantine on the interior. The church’s patron saint is Saint Louis IX, King of France, who the city is named after.
Archbishop John Glennon was the initial planner of the church in 1907. The story of the beginning of creation through the time of judgment is revealed through the amazing art in the cathedral domes. Scenes of North America’s Catholic past bring St. Louis history to life with the story of Father Marquette and more. For me, the most riveting aspect of the church is the mosaics. Created by 20 different artists, mosaics cover 83,000 square feet and contain 41.5 million pieces of glass! Installation of the mosaic tiles began in 1912 and was completed in 1988 by the Ravenna Mosaic Co.
Pro Tip: Tour the Mosaic Museum on the lower level to learn additional information about the construction of the Basilica and the installation of the mosaic artwork.
3. The Holy Family Church In Cahokia
Located in Cahokia, Illinois, the Holy Family Church is built of black walnut and is of a French architectural style called poteaux-sur-sol (or “post on sill”). The two or three times I have visited, sadly, I have only been outside and never have been able to arrange a tour. On the website, they describe the “post on sill” architecture: “the walls lean in about 8 inches and the floor slants approximately 12 inches going down to the altar. The chinking between the logs, except for the V section near the right-side chapel, was all replaced in the 1940s during restoration in preparation of the Parish’s 250th Anniversary.”
Built in 1799, it is estimated this is the oldest church west of the Allegheny Mountains. Established by missionaries from Quebec who arrived in December of 1698, they came to convert the Tamaroa people to Christianity.
This is the second log church; the first burnt. They built the church from salvaged logs and dedicated it on September 24, 1799. 90 percent of the black walnut timbers are original. On the website they share, “A wood expert estimates that these timbers are from trees that were growing here when Columbus landed in the New World in 1492.”
What a treasure! And they still offer mass on a regular basis.
Pro Tip: If you enjoy this architecture, stop by the Cahokia Courthouse while in town.
4. Cathedral Of The Immaculate Conception
Located in downtown Springfield, Illinois, this cathedral is built in a modified Greek Revival architectural style. The church dominates the Springfield skyline. In 1839, the church was founded as St. Mary’s. After the seat of the diocese was moved to Springfield from Alton in 1923, this cathedral church was built and dedicated in 1928.
The ceiling of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception took its original design from Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) in Rome. But part of the church is unlike any other: the stained-glass windows featuring Presidents Washington and Lincoln. Father Alford, who serves as the rector for the cathedral, said these are the only windows of this type that he knows of.
For years, the building also served as a school, but the school closed with decreased enrollment. While there are no scheduled tours, the church is open with services and confession every day. Father Alford shared that this is the people’s church for the diocese.
5. First Presbyterian Church In Springfield, Illinois
This church is very distinctive with its beautiful red doors! The First Presbyterian Church on 7th Street in Springfield, Illinois, became the home church for the First Presbyterian Congregation in 1872 after the congregation purchased the building from Third Presbyterian Church.
I toured this lovely church a couple of summers ago and viewed the pew that the Lincoln family sat in. Note that the Lincolns attended church at their prior building location, which was on the corner of 3rd and Washington Streets. This building was sold and later torn down, but they share, “the Lincoln pew remains and is on display in our church Narthex.”
Besides the Lincoln pew, there is the John Brombaugh Opus 35 pipe organ, which has attracted international attention since its installation in 2000. In addition, there are lovely Tiffany glass windows depicting biblical themes. The first was installed in 1895, and six more followed.
Rev. Susan Phillips added, “We are a congregation of the Presbyterian Church USA, founded in 1828, and church home to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. We are a faith community that is rooted and reaching. We are rooted in our rich history while we are reaching outward through nurturing the growth of our church family for the needs of the church today and the future.”
During the Pandemic, Rev. Phillips recommends emailing or calling ahead to schedule a tour.
6. Basilica Of St. Francis Xavier
Dyersville, Iowa, is where the movie Field of Dreams was filmed. On 3rd Sreet sits the beautiful Gothic church, the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier. Constructed from 1887 to 1889, the two spires of this church dominate the shape of the building.
Inside, attention is drawn to the high altar that is made of Italian marble and Mexican onyx. It is so unexpected to see such grandeur in this small town amid the Iowa countryside. The church is open to tour, and brochures are available inside!
7. The Little Brown Church In The Vale
Near Bradford, Iowa, I saw the beautiful Little Brown Church that William Pitts wrote the poem “Church in the Wildwood” about. The poem was later set to music. The church was built before the Civil War and is still open today. It is fun to tour this little church and learn the history that accompanies this lyrical story!
Bonus: Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building
Although not a church, Grant Wood’s awe-inspiring stained-glass window at the Cedar Rapids Memorial Building is still a sight to see. I saw this amazing site during a press trip years ago. Wood, a veteran of World War I, applied for the commission and design of the arch of the memorial building. It took him 2 years to complete the job. The Veteran’s Memorial Commission website describes the window. “The Memorial Window was designed in 1927 by the then relatively unknown artist Grant Wood. The Window stands 24 feet high and 20 feet wide and is made up of about 10,000 pieces of stained glass fitted together with lead, forming a stunning work of art…”
Pro Tip: If you’re a fan of Grant Wood’s work, tour the Cedar Arts Museum of Art and Grant Wood’s Studio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. One ticket gains entry to both places.
Here are beautiful churches, some that can hold hundreds and have towering spires, and others small and quaint. But all have the power to move you and bring pleasure and peace with their beauty!