Faith on the Road: Vacation Opportunities to Visit Remarkable Churches

Stop by some amazing sacred places — on holiday.

Our Lady of La Leche Shrine and Mission Nombre de Dios in Florida (above); the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in New Mexico — whose Mary statue, the oldest in the country, is shown — and the Mother Cabrini Shrine in Colorado (writer Patti Armstrong is shown) are just some of the history-filled sacred spaces in the United States with deep Catholic roots.
Our Lady of La Leche Shrine and Mission Nombre de Dios in Florida (above); the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in New Mexico — whose Mary statue, the oldest in the country, is shown — and the Mother Cabrini Shrine in Colorado (writer Patti Armstrong is shown) are just some of the history-filled sacred spaces in the United States with deep Catholic roots. (photo: Public domain, EQRoy/ and Patti Armstrong photos)

One of the blessings of our Catholic faith is the extensive opportunities to keep our Sunday obligation and to visit some amazing sacred places, too — including on vacation.

For instance, this past spring I tagged along on my husband Mark’s business conference in Orlando, Florida, and we discovered the Basilica of Our Lady of the Universe Shrine. It was so breathtaking, we returned for a second visit before heading home. The basilica, which was built to serve the many Catholic tourists at Disney World, is now itself among the top 10 tourist attractions in Orlando.

Regardless of your destination, look ahead to see where the Catholic churches are, and perhaps you will discover some amazing places of beauty and historical significance. Check out to find Mass, confession and adoration times at nearby churches. Also use this valuable database when on the road, by clicking “Mass Near Me,” to find a daily morning Mass en route (recheck websites or call churches regarding weekday Masses to double-check that a church’s schedule hasn’t changed).


Discover Catholic History

The faith roots of American Catholicism are deep.

On a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico (which means “Holy Faith” and was founded in 1607, 23 years before the Mayflower landed), my husband and I encountered the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. The original church was built in 1626 and the current one constructed between 1869 and 1886. It is right off Santa Fe’s plaza and houses the oldest statue of the Blessed Mother in the U.S. Our Lady of the Rosary, La Conquistadora, was carved from Spanish willow and was brought to Santa Fe by Franciscan missionaries in 1625.

Also in Santa Fe, built around 1610 by Tlaxcalan Indians, is the oldest continuously operating church in the United States, San Miguel Chapel. The original dirt floor and sanctuary steps were left uncovered during a 1955 restoration. The church contains many historic pieces, including a carved statue and a painting of San Miguel (St. Michael) from the 1700s.

Although the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe has been desacralized (it’s in private hands now), we went to see its staircase, which is believed to have been built in 1878 by St. Joseph himself. After completing the architectural wonder — 33 steps built without nails and with materials not from the local area — he left town without payment. The sisters had prayed a novena to him after they were told that it would be impossible to construct a staircase in the small space in order to get to the choir loft.

On a trip to Florida, we discovered Our Lady of La Leche Shrine and Mission Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine. On the feast of the Blessed Mother’s nativity, Sept. 8, 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed with five ships to this “New World” and proclaimed this site for Spain and the Church. A 200-foot cross stands over an outdoor altar commemorating the first Mass to occur in North America, which was celebrated upon their landing more than 450 years ago.

The first documented Mass was at St. Augustine on Mary’s birthday that year. There was a liturgy of thanksgiving (including a meal with the local Timacuan Indians, half a century before Plymouth Rock) at the behest of explorer Menéndez de Avilés, and the Mass was celebrated by Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales. The settlers began the devotion to Our Lady of La Leche that continues today, building the first American shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the early 1600s.


Mission Churches

There are many mission churches in the United States, such as:

St. Francis Xavier Church, Leanardtown, Maryland, 1640;

St. Ignatius Church, Port Tobacco, Maryland, founded in 1641;

St. Francis Xavier Shrine (Old Bohemia), Warwick, Maryland, 1704; 

San Felipe de Neri, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1706;

Cathedral of San Fernando, San Antonio, Texas, 1738;

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, San Diego, 1769;

Cathedral Parish of St. Augustine, St. Augustine, Florida, cornerstone laid in 1793;

Mission San Juan Capistrano, California, 1776;  

Mission San Francisco de Asis, San Francisco, 1776;

Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo, Monterey, California, founded in 1770, with the current church completed in 1795;

Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tuscon, Arizona, founded by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692; construction of the current church took place 1783-1797;

Cahokia Holy Family Catholic Church, Indiana, founded  in 1699 by Canadian missionaries; the current log church was built in 1799.


Catholic Immigrant Churches

Generations after the first settlers came to the New World, waves of poor European immigrants followed.

St. Frances Cabrini is a religious sister who came from Italy, initially to care for the Italian immigrants in New York City, before launching out into the rest of the country. Mark and I only learned of the amazing miraculous spring at the Mother Cabrini Shrine last year. Mother Cabrini had stopped in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Golden, Colorado, (15 miles west of Denver and 20 miles south of Boulder) while checking on Italian immigrant miners. She negotiated a deal for the land in 1910 to use as a summer camp for the Queen of Heaven Orphanage for girls in Denver. In 1912, the sisters complained to the future saint that they were dying of thirst because water had to be hauled from the stream at the bottom of Mount Vernon Canyon. A sign at the shrine explains that Mother Cabrini struck a rock, and fresh spring water came forth. The spring has never stopped running, and pilgrims are free to take their fill. The shrine also has a grotto, a convent, a prayer walk with Stations of the Cross and a chapel with daily Mass.

The Catholic immigrants also left their mark in other cities throughout the U.S., with magnificent churches built to give glory to God for generations to come. Don’t miss historic churches in the cities you visit. A favorite of mine in Detroit is the St. Bonaventure Monastery, containing the tomb of the recently beatified  Blessed Solanus Casey. Some other notable immigrant-built churches:



Look for opportunities to visit shrines along your path, too. Churches designated as shrines have been determined to be of spiritual significance worthy of pilgrimage.

Find a list of all U.S. shrines at: A few notables:

Our Lady of Good Help, Champion, Wisconsin, is the only Marian shrine in the U.S. on the site of an approved apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Beware not to visit sites of claimed apparitions that have been condemned by the Church. If in doubt, call the diocese before you plan your trip.)

St. Anthony’s Chapel, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is dedicated to “The Wonder Worker” —  St. Anthony of Padua — and houses the largest public collection of relics in the world: more than 5,000.

— All Saints Shrine at Sacred Heart Byzantine Church, Livonia, Michigan, has 60-plus sizable relics, including the cassock, stained with blood, from the wound St. Pope John Paul II received on the day he was shot by a would-be assassin in 1981.

The Shrine of St. Joseph, St. Louis, Missouri, is the site of two Church-authenticated miracles.

— The Basilica and National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, at Holy Hill is located at the peak of beautiful landscapes in Hubertus, Wisconsin.

— The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C., is the largest Roman Catholic church in North America — and one of the 10 largest in the world.

— The National Shrine of the Divine Mercy, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, is dedicated to the Divine Mercy devotion.

— The Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs, Auriesville, New York, is on the site of the Mohawk village where St. Isaac Jogues and two companions were martyred on U.S. soil in the 1640s. They are the only canonized American martyrs and, together with five Jesuit priests killed on native missions in Canada, are known as the North American Martyrs.

From simple country churches to majestic big-city cathedrals, visits to sacred spaces while on vacation  turn a road trip into a “faith trip.”

Patti Armstrong

writes from North Dakota.