The Oldest Structures in Many States are Catholic

The age of each church is interesting, but the sense of the tradition is breathtaking.

Mission San Xavier del Bac in Tucson, Arizona
Mission San Xavier del Bac in Tucson, Arizona (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

America is still young. When we look at our architecture we are inevitably reminded of this, but it doesn’t make the antique any less valuable. As an American abroad in Europe, I’m stunned by the condition of rooms that popes sat in 800 years ago, or walls erected by Etruscans more than 2500 years ago.

Yes, it’s exciting, but I’m still delighted by the preserved structures we have in the States. I can remember the first time I walked into a California Mission basilica in San Diego — the feeling of standing on Tradition as a Catholic was magnifying. So, I decided to see what’s the oldest building in other states and was impressed to learn that many of the oldest structures in every state are Catholic churches. Here’s a list in case you want to visit or make a special pilgrimage.

Arizona: Mission San Xavier del Bac (Tucson) — 1797

Residents of Arizona can head to Tucson to see one of the oldest buildings in their state. Mission San Xavier del Bac was established in 1692 by Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino. Construction of the surviving building began in 1783 and was completed in 1797. The Catholic church is still used today. A comprehensive restoration effort began in 1992 and continues today.

Mission San Juan Capistrano in California
Mission San Juan Capistrano in California

California: Mission San Juan Capistrano (San Juan Capistrano) — 1782

The Serra Chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano was built in 1782 and is currently recognized as the oldest building in the state of California. The mission was founded as the seventh of nine missions established by Saint Junípero Serra.

Mission of the Sacred Heart in Idaho
Mission of the Sacred Heart in Idaho

Idaho: The Mission of the Sacred Heart (Cataldo) — 1853

Construction on the church at Idaho’s Sacred Heart Mission, also known as the Cataldo Mission, was completed in 1853 by the combined efforts of Catholic missionaries and members of the Coeur d’Alene tribe. Because there were limited resources available to construct the church, the interior walls are decorated using fabric and painted newspaper, and the chandeliers are made of tin cans.

Mission Concepción in Texas
Mission Concepción in Texas

Texas: Mission Concepción (San Antonio) — 1716

Established in 1716 in East Texas as Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de los Hainais, Mission Concepción moved to its current San Antonio location in 1731. The stone church was completed and dedicated in 1955 and is thought to be the oldest unrestored church in the United States. In 2015, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I’ve learned something after living as a Catholic in various locations overseas for some years: Time matters. I realize it’s almost vain and, in a way, worldly to say that. I think to myself, “Shouldn’t I value every church the same way, old or new?” And my answer to myself is a bold, underlined and highlighted “no.” 

The age of the church is interesting, but the sense of the tradition is the piece that’s breathtaking. Why else do we go on pilgrimage? To walk where saints walked. Seeing the hills and maybe the olive trees that Christ prayed in or around. Or being awestruck by the frescoes that my heroes were also inspired by — that’s what I’m after.

Knowing that I’m passing on the Catholic tradition as Paul did (2 Thessalonians 2:15), perhaps not apostolically but as a father, friend and writer, and sharing some of the same surface area as my predecessors — well, there’s something more to time and space than that. If you agree, just be sure to appreciate the history that’s around you — not just the wonders extant in Europe.

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