Catholicism first came to California in 1769, when the Spanish Franciscans under the leadership of Blessed Junipero Serra, whose feast day is July 1, began establishing the California mission chain. Many other religious orders and ethnic Catholic groups would come to California in the decades following and build magnificent houses of worship in which to pray, celebrate Mass, receive the sacraments and learn the truths of their faith.
Today, California is home to many beautiful and historically significant churches, which are a must-see for visitors.
Sts. Peter and Paul was established in 1884 in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. The original church was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire; the current church was built in 1924.
It is known as “The Italian Cathedral of the West” and has served as the home church and cultural center for San Francisco’s Italian-American community. It has become the home church for the city’s Chinese-American Catholic community, as well.
It is magnificent both inside and out, cutting an impressive figure on the San Francisco landscape. Inside it boasts a beautiful altar with statues; above the altar is a dome painting of “Christ All Powerful” created by Italian artists Ettore and Giuditta Serbaroli.
Also inside are many decorative side altars, shrines, stained-glass windows and side chapels. The church has a replica of Michelangelo’s famous Pietà and a statue of La Madonna Addolorata (Our Lady of Sorrows), patroness of Sicily.
Sts. Peter and Paul has made cameo appearances in many movies, including Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and The Dead Pool. Baseball great Joe DiMaggio, who grew up in the neighborhood, married his first wife (not Marilyn Monroe) and had his funeral in the church. It is located opposite Washington Square, and its loud bells can be heard ringing throughout the neighborhood.
St. Timothy is one of Los Angeles’ most beautiful churches. It was completed in 1949 in the Spanish Renaissance style. Its interior includes a gold-leaf altarpiece, believed to have been made in Spain in the 1600s.
Two of its statues, one of the Virgin Mary and the other of St. Joseph, were acquired from Twentieth Century Fox Studios. They appeared in the 1946 motion picture The Jolson Story, in a scene set at St. Mary’s Home for Boys.
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 the ornate gold-plated tabernacle.
Carpenters from Twentieth Century Fox built the pews located in the nave of the church. It has 67 stained-glass windows and many old oil paintings.
San Buenaventura Mission was founded in 1782, the last to be founded by Blessed Junipero Serra himself. Work on the historic church began in 1792 and was completed in 1809. The main church seats about 365; there is also a small Serra Chapel within the church.
The chapel’s interior is quaint and attractive; the grounds are beautiful, as well. The mission has a colorful history. In 1812, the priests and Native American neophytes had to flee the mission temporarily because of a series of earthquakes and an accompanying tidal wave. The Mexican government seized control of the mission in 1834 and eventually sold it to private parties. The Catholic Church regained control of the property in 1862, after President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation declaring the Mexican government’s actions unjust and illegal.
Holy Family is a historic church, and pretty inside and out. Located a short drive west from Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, it was founded in 1907, making it Glendale’s oldest Catholic parish. The current church was completed in 1921.
Holy Family has many beautiful works of art, including statues, frescoes, paintings and stained-glass windows. Above the main entrance there is a sandstone carving of the head of Christ crowned with thorns, created by the Italian sculptor Joseph Conradi. The carving bears the inscription consummatum est (It is finished).
Some interesting historical notes: One of its pastors, Father Michael Galvin, served as pastor nearly 50 years (1923-1972); the front exterior of the church was heavily damaged in the 1971 Sylmar earthquake; in 1991, in what Glendale police deemed a hate crime, vandals broke stained-glass windows to enter the church and smashed the heads of three treasured statues; Father James Stephen O’Neill, the parish’s founding pastor, provided for the spiritual needs of St. (Mother) Frances Cabrini and her Missionary Order of the Sacred Heart nuns who were located in nearby Burbank.
Five Wounds in San Jose was named in honor of the Portuguese people who originally built it. In fact, some Masses are still celebrated in Portuguese. It is a beautiful church, ornate with impressive artwork.
The church was dedicated in 1914, and the structure was completed in 1919. It has been designated a historic landmark by the city.
Prince of Peace Abbey is a Benedictine monastery founded in 1958. It is located on a hill in the city of Oceanside, north of San Diego, and offers great city and valley views.
The abbey church is contemporary — the only contemporary-style church to make this list — but “faithful traditional,” which is well done with much artwork.
An adoration room is separate from the church, for those who wish to spend some quiet time with Our Lord.
The centerpiece of San Diego’s Little Italy, Our Lady of the Rosary was founded in 1921 and served Italian tuna fishermen. It houses many beautiful frescoes, stained-glass windows depicting 15 mysteries of the Rosary, statues and paintings.
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.