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Like many major cities, New York has houses of worship and churches for every religion and denomination. Strolling through the city, you can appreciate the architectural beauty – regardless of your religious beliefs or spirituality. Spend a day exploring these historic buildings, or spend a few minutes visiting if you pass one in your travels.
Two of the churches on this list were instrumental in aid efforts following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, standing amidst the rubble to provide help and hope to New Yorkers during one of the city’s most challenging times.
All the houses of worship in New York showcased here have incredible historic significance within the city, distinctive architecture, and captivating stories if you dig deep. From the famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral with its iconic pipe organ to the historic Bialystoker Synagogue, these NYC churches and houses of worship are all unique – and distinctly New York.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
When I think of New York churches, this is the first that comes to mind. Situated in Midtown Manhattan just across from Rockefeller Center, the church draws 5 million visitors each year and has space for more than 2,000 worshippers per mass.
I’ve been visiting this church since I was a little girl, lighting candles for those who’ve passed and appreciating the size and beauty of the building, with 3,700 stained glass panels, including the famous 26-foot wide Rose window. Two of the 20 altars were designed by Tiffany & Co. The church’s recent $177 million renovation enhanced the cathedral’s beauty while preserving its history. Worth noting: The organ has 7,855 pipes, making it one of the world’s largest.
The Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral
Before St. Patrick’s opened in Midtown in 1878, there was The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, or Old St. Patrick’s. Granted “Basilica status” in 2010 for its rich and storied history, the cathedral sits on Mulberry Street between Prince and Houston. This was originally a working-class Irish neighborhood, and later part of Little Italy.
As Little Italy shrunk to be overtaken by SoHo and Chinatown, the Basilica remains a must-stop attraction for Irish and Italian Catholics – and anyone interested in church history.
St. Patrick’s Basilica is one of the only churches in the U.S. with catacombs under the nave. Since 2017, you can tour the catacombs by candlelight, as Karen mentions in her article, “50 Unusual Things to Do in New York.”
Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood
Moving south to Little Italy you’ll find the Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood. Another Roman Catholic church, it is the National Shrine Church of San Gennaro and plays a big role in the 11-day San Gennaro feast every September, when the statue of San Gennaro is carried from the church and up Mulberry Street following a special mass in honor of the Patron Saint of Naples.
St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church
Pre-dating any of these Roman Catholic churches is St. Peter’s Church at Barclay and Church streets in the Financial District. Founded in 1785, it is the oldest Catholic church in New York State. The Parish also opened the first Catholic School in 1800.
The building was reconstructed in 1836 in the Greek Revival style and in 1965 was declared a landmark. Situated just north of the World Trade Center, the church played a crucial role in the September 11, 2001 attack as a staging area for first responders. The body of Rev. Mychal Judge was laid at the altar after he was found at Ground Zero.
For a short time after 9/11, the cross found at Ground Zero stood in front of the church. After that cross was moved to the 9/11 memorial, sculptor Jon Krawczyk created a new cross, crafted of highly reflective, wavy metal to carry St. Peter’s Church into the future. St. Peter’s is also home to the Catholic 9/11 Memorial. If you’re in the area, perhaps visiting the 9/11 museum, it’s worth stopping in to appreciate the architecture and serenity of this historic building.
St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church Wall Street
Constructed in 1766 on the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street, St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church has a rich New York history as part of the Parish of Trinity Church Wall Street. George Washington was said to have worshipped in the chapel following his inauguration as first President of the United States.
The Episcopal Church earned the moniker “The Little Chapel That Stood,” when it survived the 9/11 terrorist attacks completely unscathed. Like St. Peter’s Church, St. Paul’s also played a critical role in 9/11 rescue and recovery efforts due to its location immediately opposite Ground Zero.
It is impossible to step into the sanctuary and not feel the love, fellowship, and acceptance that became such an important part of the church’s identity following 9/11. People of all faiths came together during the 9-month relief efforts. Today, St. Paul’s continues to host many interfaith prayer events, while the Chapel of Remembrance within the church pays tribute to those lost during the attack. In 2016, St. Paul’s Chapel underwent a restoration, including the return of the 7-foot-10-inch, 500-pound statue of St. Paul.
Cathedral of St. John the Divine
So many of New York City’s churches are simply breathtaking in their stature and architecture. This is true of The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, part of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. The sixth largest church building in the world, the cathedral sits near Columbia University and Riverside Park.
If you’re in the neighborhood, I highly recommend the Vertical Tour of the church to learn more about the building’s gorgeous, towering architecture and get an up-close view of the intricate stained glass, not to mention the view of the Manhattan skyline from the rooftop. New Yorker trivia: Actor James Gandolfini’s funeral was held at the Morningside Heights cathedral.
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
Movie fans may also want to visit the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church at the corner of Central Park West. You might immediately recognize the building as the house of worship crushed by the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in the original Ghostbusters movie.
Before its Hollywood history, the church was notable in its own right, a stunning example of gothic revival architecture with intricate mosaics and gorgeous stained glass.
Declared a national landmark in 1966, the Bialystoker Synagogue was constructed in 1826 in the late Federal style, and was first designed as a Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1905, it became a synagogue primarily for Polish immigrants. The building has a rich New York history steeped in legend and mystique. It may have been part of the Underground Railroad, its attic forming the perfect hiding place for runaway slaves.
One fact? Jewish mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel worshipped there. A plaque recognizing the mobster, as well as one for his father, Max Siegel, still hangs in the building.
Flushing Quaker Meeting House
Also in Queens, the Flushing Quaker Meeting House on Northern Boulevard in Queens has been the place of worship for the Religious Society of Friends for more than 300 years. You can take a tour of the historic meeting house and graveyard every Sunday at noon. Built in 1694, the meetinghouse retains its traditional Quaker design with simple architecture and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1967. (Click to read more about Flushing!)
Whether you are a history buff or simply want to learn more about the Quakers in Queens’ early past, the Flushing Quaker Meeting House is worth a stop. Plus, there are lots of other things to do in the area, including a visit to Flushing-Meadows Corona Park and the Queens Museum, one of my favorite museums in New York City.
Mahayana Buddhist Temple
The site of New York City’s largest Buddha statue, the Mahayana Buddhist Temple is at the same time a top tourist attraction and place of worship and serenity. Sitting at the edge of the Manhattan Bridge, the space is not nearly as ornate or distinctive on the outside as some of the world’s most breathtaking Buddhist temples. The inside, however, combines artistic prints of the Buddha’s life, and a 16-foot tall golden Buddha statue seated on a lotus flower. You can leave offerings for family members who have passed on, and even get a fortune reading for just $1.
Whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs, stepping into the Temple from the busy streets of Chinatown provides a sense of peace and well-being. Just be aware: The temple closes at 5:45 PM, and proper attire (no bare shoulders or knees!) is required.
Manhattan New York Temple
One of the newest houses of worship on this list, the Manhattan New York Temple was constructed in Columbus Circle opposite Lincoln Center in 2004. A temple for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), often known as the Mormon church, the building was the second Mormon temple built in New York State.
A 10-foot statue of the angel Moroni on the temple’s spire makes the building unmistakable amidst other Midtown New York landmarks. The door handles are crafted in the shape of the Statue of Liberty’s torch, making the temple uniquely “New York.” It’s worth a look and a photo op if you’re in the area—and with so much to do around Columbus Circle, it is definitely a stop you’ll want to make if you’re vacationing in New York.
The 1887 Eldridge St. Synagogue
The Eldridge St. Synagogue, one of the first synagogues of the old Jewish Lower East Side, is both a house of worship and a museum. The Museum at Eldridge Street opened to pay tribute to Jewish history in New York and preserve the memory of the synagogue. The synagogue itself still holds Orthodox services, including for Jewish holidays.
The Museum offers tours daily and has “pay-what-you-wish” pricing on Mondays between 10 AM and 5 PM. Take in the exhibits that capture Jewish history as well as the history and restoration of the synagogue, which has been declared a National Historic Landmark.
Due to Manhattan’s ever-changing borders, the Museum at Eldridge Street now sits in the neighborhood of Chinatown. Each June, the museum presents its Egg Rolls, Egg Creams and Empanadas festival, celebrating the diversity of the New York and the Chinese, Jewish and Puerto Rican immigrants that have called Lower Manhattan home.
The Ganesh Temple of Queens
One of the most unique temples in New York is the Ganesha temple in Flushing, Queens. This Hindu temple was the first traditional Hindu temple in the United States. It’s quite recent, however, it’s definitely worth a look inside if you’re dressed appropriately (no shorts, vegan-friendly clothes, and arms covered). Non-Hindus are welcome inside as long as they observe Hindu customers and avoid taking photos within the shrines. (Within this temple, you can head to the basement canteen for scrumptious dosas.)
Any other churches or religious institutions in New York City that you’d recommend visiting?
Whether your passion lies in learning about the architecture, history, or the people of New York, houses of worship across the city hold secrets and insights you may not even begin to imagine.
Take a day or two to explore these landmarks and you’ll be hard-pressed not to uncover some exciting facts while also discovering a sense of inner peace amidst the bustle of the city. What’s your favorite religious institution in New York City?