Worship in unexpected style.
Celebration, contemplation, beauty, and joy–churches are meant to inspire and exude the best of human spirituality both inside and out. And worship takes many forms. From a church with murals of “secular saints”–like Anne Frank, Malcolm X, and Charles Darwin—to a replica of a 12th-century Norwegian stave church to a church eight feet wide, churches in the U.S. and Canada offer the unexpected. Here are some of the most extraordinary.
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St. Gregory of Nyssa
WHERE: San Francisco, CA
Murals of “secular saints” like Anne Frank, Malcolm X, Charles Darwin, jazz musicians Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane, Cesar Chavez, Margaret Mead, and Persian poet/mystic Rumi adorn the rotunda of this Episcopal church in the Potrero Hill neighborhood. The heroes of these 90 larger-than-life portraits were chosen by its congregation, whittled down from over 350 names submitted, to “celebrate those whose lives show God at work.” Lady Godiva, who rode naked to protest taxes on the poor in her town in 11th century England, and Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who issued exit visas to save Jews during World War II in Lithuania in defiance of government policy, are just a few among the reformers, writers, artists, scholars, and religious figures. Videos and printed biographies telling the story of each hero’s life are on the church website.
Chapel of the Holy Cross
WHERE: Sedona, Arizona
This striking, modernist-style church built into the red rocks of Sedona offers panoramic views from its floor-to-ceiling window of the Verde Valley. Inside its stark concrete walls are a 33-foot bronze sculpture of Jesus on the cross and four silk wall hangings depicting Creation, Heavens, Earth, and Life. Built in 1956, it was commissioned by Marguerite Brunswig Staude, a wealthy heiress and sculptor living in Sedona, who dreamed of building a church for decades and worked with Frank Lloyd Wright’s son on initial designs. The Catholic church she first tried to build in Los Angeles and then Budapest is a staple of tours of Sedona, a haven for spiritual seekers. Its location is believed by some to be one of the area’s many energy vortexes.
WHERE: Washington Island, Wisconsin
A reproduction of the Borgund Stave Church, built in 1150 in western Norway near Laerdal and the Sognefjorden–the country’s longest and deepest fjord–this wooden Lutheran church reflects this island’s strong Scandinavian heritage, mostly from Iceland. Tucked in the woods of Washington Island—with a population of 700–in northern Door County, it’s reached by a five-mile ferry across Death’s Door, where Lake Michigan and Green Bay meet. Norwegian stave churches borrow Viking shipbuilding techniques and combine pagan and Christian design elements. This means carved dragon heads (a pagan symbol to defend against evil) at the ends of prows extending from the roof, a dozen 18-foot support pillars (“stavs”), tongue-and-groove joining without nails, ribbed rafters, and a six-tiered gabled roof with almost 10,000 shingles.
WHERE: Garden Grove, California
The Crystal Cathedral, the megachurch for a Protestant televangelist who preached on TV’s most popular religious show during the 1980s (and the world’s biggest glass structure when it opened in 1980), re-opened in 2019 as a Catholic church. Designed by Philip Johnson and built of 11,000 glass panes attached to a nine-story steel frame, the most-recognized Protestant evangelical church emerged from a $72 million renovation and was renamed Christ Cathedral. About 11,000 white powder-coated metal sails now hang from the walls and ceiling to reduce the direct sunlight and, thus, heat, producing a striking “box of stars” effect at night thanks to exterior lights. A blackened steel, 1,000-pound crucifix is suspended above the altar, which now features Italian marble and stone. Orange County has changed too: The church campus televangelist Robert Schuller once called a “22-acre shopping center for God” now celebrates Mass in Vietnamese, Mandarin, Spanish, and English.
The Swedenborgian Church
WHERE: San Francisco, California
A wood-burning fireplace, whole tree trunk arches, wood-paneled walls, paintings of Northern California landscapes, Maplewood chairs with marsh reed seats, and candles in wall sconces lend a homey, rustic feel to this church in the affluent Pacific Heights. One of the earliest examples of the Arts and Crafts movement in California, this 1895 church is a National Historic Landmark, the only San Francisco house of worship so honored. Architect Bernard Maybeck, landscape painter William Keith, and the church’s first pastor, a friend of environmentalist John Muir, collaborated with other artisans to create a serene church for the Swedenborgian faith, founded by an 18th-century Swedish scientist, philosopher, and theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg. The church is known for its concerts and other cultural programs. A virtual Nature & Spirit symposium, a seven-week series in May and June, features an origami artist/NASA engineer and naturalist/painter on turning a love of nature and engineering into art, among other speakers.
U.S. Air Force Academy Chapel
WHERE: Colorado Springs, Colorado
The folded-metal design that looks like 17 jet fighter wings pointing skyward was so controversial when the church first opened in 1963, that its departure from traditional religious architecture was lambasted as “a deliberate insult to God the almighty” and “a social and spiritual fiasco.” It’s now Colorado’s number one man-made attraction, says Colorado Tourism. Back then, critics called the non-denominational church’s aluminum-clad steel-framed spires an “accordion,” where praying inside would be like worshipping in a “skating rink.” But the severe, sharply-angled exterior belies the colorful and welcoming interior. Stained-glass strip windows on the slanted walls allow colored light to pool on the floor with a jewel-toned effect because some of the glass slabs were deliberately chipped. An aluminum cross 46 feet high, with a startling resemblance to sailplane wings, is above the altar, where a mosaic is composed of semi-precious stones from Colorado and white marble from Italy. The most traditional items, the walnut and mahogany pews, have ends that look like World War I propellers. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, chosen by an architectural selection committee led by modernist architect Eero Saarinen, the chapel is now closed for the biggest modernist renovation project in U.S. history. Its four-year, $158 million renovations began in 2020.
WHERE: Eureka Springs, Arkansas
This glass, wood, and stone chapel nestled in a forest is on the list of the American Institute of Architects’ top 10 buildings in the 20th century. Its design–glass crisscrossed by wooden trusses and a colored flagstone and native stone floor–was lovingly nicknamed “Ozark Gothic” by its architect, E. Fay Jones, a Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice. It was inspired by Sainte-Chapelle, the 13th-century Gothic chapel in Paris famous for its stained-glass windows. For a natural, organic look, none of its building materials could be bigger than what two men could carry, Jones decided. It’s just outside Eureka Springs, a Victorian town in the Ozark Mountains whose whole downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Chapel by the Lake
WHERE: Juneau, Alaska
This log-cabin church built entirely from spruce logs is on the shore of pristine Auke Bay, right across from snow-covered Mendenhall Glacier, which you can see while inside. One of the most picturesque churches in an idyllic setting you’ll ever see, this Presbyterian church is a perfect place to admire the magnificence of nature. It’s 11 miles from downtown Juneau, the only state capital in the U.S. with no road access, reached by sea or air only.
Old Round Church
WHERE: Richmond, Vermont
This round or–strictly speaking–18-sided church, a half-hour from Burlington, was built from 1812-1814 for five Protestant denominations by the local carpenter and blacksmith, William Rhodes. According to legend, the round shape prevents the devil from hiding in a corner. Another story says Rhodes was inspired by an octagonal church in his parents’ New Hampshire town. Round churches are more common than one might think: the world’s most famous round one is in Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over what’s believed to be the burial place of Jesus. A 12th-century round church of the same name can be found in Cambridge, England. Vermont’s round church, owned by the Richmond Historical Society, is now mostly used for weddings, baptisms, meetings, concerts, and one Congregational Church service in September.
WHERE: Rancho Palos Verdes, California
Called the “Glass Church,” this glass chapel with floor-to-ceiling windows atop a bluff above the Pacific Ocean, shaded by redwood trees and flooded by natural light, is a stunner. A masterpiece of organic architecture with wood beams and local stone, it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, Lloyd Wright, who said he was inspired by the peace and sublime majesty he felt while sitting beneath towering redwoods. He also landscaped the grounds, bedecked with Italian stone pine, apple, and olive trees, and the soothing sound of water that trickles over stone and roses that bloom all year long. It may look familiar: the church was the site of the 2015 wedding in The Bachelorette and also starred in The O.C. and True Detective. On the National Register of Historic Places, the chapel is a Swedenborgian church.
Device to Root Out Evil
WHERE: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
This upside-down church balanced precariously on its steeple is a sculpture. Dogged by controversy for years, this white, New England-like church sculpture bolted to a foundation was rejected by New York and Palo Alto, and ultimately booted from Vancouver. It was initially proposed for New York’s Public Art Fund, for a permanent location on Church Street where the artist lived, and initially named “Church.” After that rejection, it was then vetoed by Stanford University’s president (even after the university approved it). Artist Dennis Oppenheim’s statement didn’t help things. “Turning something upside-down elicits a reversal of content and pointing a steeple into the ground directs it to hell as opposed to heaven.” First made from aluminum, galvanized steel, and rows of red Venetian glass for the 1997 Venice Biennale, it was finally installed in Vancouver in 2005. Later, it was moved to Calgary, then moved again. Since late 2019, it sits in a square flanked by high-rises in Calgary’s East Village district, courtesy of developer Calgary Municipal Land Corporation and Art to Public, a local public art consultancy.
Chapel of the Madonna
WHERE: Point Pleasant, Louisiana, on Bayou Goula
Called the world’s smallest church by local road signs, this white wooden church is a mere 64 square feet and contains five chairs and statues. It’s always open: look for the key in the wood box. A Catholic Mass is held here once a year on August 15–the Feast of the Assumption–because it was built by a poor sugar farmer in 1903 in gratitude for his sick son’s recovery after praying to the Blessed Mother. On the River Road (Highway 405) along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Chapel of the Madonna is just one mile north of Bayou Goula, where the first Mass in Louisiana was celebrated in 1700.
Our Lady of the Way
WHERE: Haines Junction, Yukon Territory, Canada
This church is a repurposed World War II Quonset Hut on the Alaska Highway surrounded by snow-capped St. Elias Mountains. Quonset Huts were semi-cylindrical corrugated steel structures that the U.S. military used for storage and barracks since they were lightweight, easy to build and transport, and pre-fabricated. They were named after Rhode Island’s Quonset Point Naval Air Station, where they were first built. After U.S. soldiers built the highway to connect Alaska to the rest of the U.S. through Canada in 1943–an amazing engineering feat given the temperature is often below-zero–a Catholic priest converted the abandoned hut to a church, cutting it in half to insert windows. Always open, it’s in a village where First Nations are over half the population.
WHERE: Independence, Missouri
The world’s only church shaped like a nautilus seashell is dedicated to the pursuit of peace. The winding church tower took 300 custom-made stainless steel panels and four years to build and was designed by HOK, one of the biggest architecture and engineering firms in the U.S. The church is the headquarters of the Community of Christ, which has given an International Peace Award to honorees ranging from safe-water to farm worker rights advocates since 1993. The church was formerly called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (RLDS), but has significant differences from the Salt Lake City-based LDS church.
Moorhead Stave Church
WHERE: Moorhead, Minnesota
This replica of a 12th century stave church in Vik, Norway fulfilled the dream of Gaylord Paulson, a research scientist who wanted to honor his Norwegian heritage and give back to his Moorhead/Fargo community after he retired. Thanks to 20 years of wood-carving experience, Paulson did the ornate hand-carvings on the exterior and interior himself, while a local log-home builder constructed the main building and a local architect donated his time. Made of local pine with a cedar-shingled roof, the 18-stave church is located at Hjemkomst Center, a Norwegian cultural center that also has a replica of a 9th century Viking ship.
Church by the Sea
WHERE: Madeira Beach, Florida
We hate to say it, but its tower looks remarkably like a chicken. A wide-eyed expression is due to the round windows, while the beak is thanks to Spanish-style red tile. This non-denominational church on the Gulf coast near St. Petersburg and opened in 1944 even features the unintentionally avian-looking logo on its website. More avian images: an unusual crucifix on its façade shows Jesus reaching down with one arm to cradle a white dove, and stained-glass designs depict seabirds (plus the ocean and religious figures). Beach baptisms are sometimes held, followed by hot dogs.