Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
I’m a lifelong Southern Californian, and have had the opportunity to visit the many beautiful and unique Catholic churches our state has to offer. For Catholic travelers looking to enrich their faith, we have many splendid and inspiring (as well as quaint!) churches that are well worth a visit. Here are a few I heartily recommend you visit when traveling through our state. Keep in mind these are just a few of many I could have listed.
#1. Serra Chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano
Serra Chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano would classify as quaint, but still beautiful and a must-see. It is the original chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano, Orange County, California’s only mission. It is a long, narrow building made of adobe, and contains centuries-old Spanish artwork.
The mission itself was established in 1776, the same year as our nation’s founding, and construction on the chapel began shortly afterward. It is the state’s oldest church, and Spanish padre St. Junípero Serra, founder of the first nine of the state’s 21 missions (Capistrano was the seventh), himself said Mass there.
The church was used for storage in the late nineteenth century, but was restored to its original use in the 1920s. Much renovation on the chapel has been done in recent years: the Stations of the Cross, older than the Mission itself, have been restored and properly lighted. The retablo, or altarpiece, has been restored. New chandeliers have been installed.
The chapel is known for its St. Peregrine Chapel, a side chapel with a statue of St. Peregrine, patron saint of cancer patients. Many afflicted by the disease and their loved ones have traveled to the shrine seeking the saint’s intercession. Many notes of thanks have been attached to its walls.
Mass is still celebrated regularly in the chapel, although most services are held in the Mission’s larger, newer Basilica Church on the other side of the mission’s nine-acre site. Take a walk to the Basilica to enjoy its magnificent Golden Retablo/altarpiece installed by the Mission’s previous pastor, Fr. Arthur Holquin.
The chapel is part of the Diocese of Orange, and located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego.
#2. National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi
If you’re in the San Francisco Bay area, San Francisco has no shortage of beautiful churches. A great one to start with is the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s located in the North Beach section of the city, alongside Little Italy and Chinatown and not far from Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s located in a busy part of the city, with much hustle and bustle outside, but the shrine itself offers a peaceful oasis.
It’s a Norman Gothic church, with tall columns, beautiful stained glass and magnificent murals and statues. It is home to relics of St. Francis, St. Clare of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua. Alongside the main church is La Porziuncola Nuova/Little Portion, a replica of the church St. Francis restored in Assisi.
The church itself was a San Francisco parish established in 1849, the year before California became a state and San Francisco was incorporated as a city. It began as a wooden shack, later replaced by an adobe structure. Bishop of Monterey Joseph Alemany used the church as his cathedral for three years and held California’s first ordination to the priesthood there.
The current structure of the church was completed in 1860. It survived San Francisco’s famous 1906 earthquake, but was severely burned in the subsequent fires. A new church was rebuilt within the original church walls and was rededicated in 1919. It was slated for closure in recent decades, but the Archdiocese of San Francisco opted to make it a shrine with a Franciscan priest on-site to staff it. It has been named a California historical landmark.
When you’re done, walk two blocks over to see the fabulous Saints Peter and Paul Church, the so-called “Italian Cathedral of the West.”
#3. St. Timothy Church
St. Timothy Church in Los Angeles is one of the City’s most beautiful churches from a bygone era. Completed in 1949, some of the Spanish Renaissance church’s most impressive features include a gold leaf altarpiece, oil paintings and 67 stained glass windows.
The parish was home to many artisans from MGM and Fox movie studios, and these parishioners created many of the church’s decorative features, including many paintings and the ornate gold-plated tabernacle, with gold and silver collected from parishioners. Carpenters from Twentieth Century Fox built the pews located in the nave of the church.
Among its most famous pastors was Auxiliary Bishop John J. Ward, who served 1963-96.
#4. Our Lady of the Rosary Church
Another California church that offers a visual feast for the eyes is the gorgeous Our Lady of the Rosary Church, centerpiece of San Diego’s Little Italy. It was established in 1921 to serve Italian tuna fishermen. It is home to many beautiful frescoes, stained glass windows depicting the 15 mysteries of the rosary, statues and paintings.
Italian artist Fausto Tasca painted much of the interior art for the church, including a large crucifixion mural above the altar and the Last Judgment in the rear of the church. As it was painted during the era of Mussolini, fascist sympathizers are among the damned in Tasca’s Last Judgment.
One of the parish’s most infamous members was Frank “Bomp” Bompensiero, a Mafia hitman, who had his funeral there in 1977 (himself a victim of a “hit”).
You’ll see many tourists visiting; after Mass enjoy farmer’s markets and street festivals outside on weekends.
#5. The Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park is a pretty, historic little church built in the New England style. It is located in the southern end of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
Nativity began as a mission church in 1872, and became a parish in 1877. The initial church was enlarged and modified and officially dedicated in 1888. Other elements were added through the years, including an impressive rose stained glass window in 1900. Fortunately, the 1906 San Francisco did little damage to the church (while wrecking the rectory!).
The church is built in the cruciform style and made of redwood painted white. Its many impressive features include beautiful stained glass windows and hand-carved side altars; it is surrounded by attractive landscaping, including palm and oak trees. It was placed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1981. It is an outstanding place for prayer, and offers Eucharistic adoration 24/7.