Founded on the principle of religious freedom, Pennsylvania is home to more "first" places of worship than any other state in the nation, including the first Church of the Brethren, the first Methodist Church, the oldest Mennonite Church and the oldest German Reformed Church in America.
Below we’ve gathered a collection of sacred spaces in Pennsylvania, where visitors can discover history, architecture and inspiration.
Antiochian Village, Bolivar
This conference and retreat center with three churches is situated on 300 acres near Ligonier in the Laurel Highlands. Visit the gravesite of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, the first Orthodox bishop to be consecrated on North American soil; or check out the free museum.
Arch Street Meetinghouse, Philadelphia
The active Quaker meetinghouse has dioramas highlighting the history of the early religious sect (also known as the Society of Friends), showings of films about William Penn, displays of Quaker artifacts, and rotating special exhibits.
Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Hanover
Established in 1741 as Conewago Chapel (derived from an American Indian word meaning “the place at the rapids”), the place of worship was expanded in 1768 and served as a headquarters for Jesuit missionaries. The basilica’s stained-glass windows and murals date back to the mid-1800s.
Basilica at St. Vincent College, Latrobe
St. Vincent College’s basilica lays claim to a few important firsts: Founded by a Bavarian monk from Germany in 1846, the church is the first Benedictine Monastery in the nation and the first Catholic parish west of the Allegheny Mountains.
Beth Sholom Synagogue, Elkins Park
The only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Beth Sholom (Hebrew for “house of peace”) has a stunning glass pyramidal tower, which represents the giving of the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai. Schedule a tour of the structure, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2007.
Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn
The main building of this 1928 cathedral features Gothic architecture, while the northern and southern buildings emphasize an early Romanesque style. Examine the hand-blown glass windows, which were created at a studio established in Bryn Athyn to duplicate the textures and colors of medieval stained glass.
Cathedral Parish of St. Patrick, Harrisburg
The marble altar in this cathedral, designed with Romanesque and Renaissance styles, was inspired by the altar at the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica. Appreciate the church’s majestic granite columns, spacious aisles, and detailed frescos.
Cathedral of St. John Gualbert, Johnstown
This 1895 cathedral has several distinctive qualities, including a 170,000-pound steel foundation, a 3,200-pound bell that survived a fall from the church’s tower during the 1889 Johnstown flood, and a pipe organ donated by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
Christ Church, Philadelphia
Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross, and George Washington were among the worshipers at Christ Church, the first parish of the Church of England in Pennsylvania and the birthplace of the American Episcopal Church. Learn the church’s history and tour the burial grounds – the resting place of Franklin and other Declaration of Independence signers.
Endless Mountains Mormon Monument, Oakland
Surrounded by the natural splendor of Susquehanna County, the Mormon Monument commemorates John the Baptist’s bestowment of the Aaronic Priesthood upon Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Oliver Cowdery in 1829. The rite involved baptism in the Susquehanna River.
Ephrata Cloister, Ephrata
In 1732, German settlers seeking spiritual goals beyond earthly rewards founded the Ephrata Cloister, one of America’s earliest religious communities. Tour the National Historic Landmark, a collection of European-style structures where nearly 300 members worked and worshiped in the mid-1700s.
First Presbyterian Church of Carlisle
Housed in the oldest public building in Carlisle, the church served as a 1774 meetinghouse for men who called for united action by the colonies against England. Many Revolutionary War icons attended services at the church, including President Washington and James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Himalayan Institute, Honesdale
Established in 1971 by Himalayan teacher and humanitarian Swami Rama, the organization offers programs and activities to help patrons realize their full potential and live in harmony with the larger world. Plan a trip to the tranquil Retreat Center or sign up for a program at the Total Health Center, which pairs modern medicines with holistic therapies to relieve stress, chronic conditions, and more.
Hindu Jain Temple of Pittsburgh, Monroeville
The temple is the first unified Hindu-Jain (representing the ancient Indian religions of Hinduism and Jainism) place of worship in North America. The ornate, adobe-colored building has a peaceful interior, the perfect place for quiet reflection.
Maya Lin’s Peace Chapel, Huntingdon
The site, designed by architect Maya Lin in 1989, is located within the 170-acre Baker-Henry Nature Preserve. Surrounded by the rolling hills of central Pennsylvania, the Peace Chapel encompasses two sites for serene contemplation.
Most Blessed Sacrament Church, Bally
Established in 1741, Most Blessed Sacrament Parish is Pennsylvania’s oldest existing Catholic church. Bally, a small borough near Pottstown, was settled by Catholics and Mennonites in the early 1700s.
Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia
Founded in the late 1700s, this monumental church is one of the nation’s first African-American denominations. Visit the National Historic Landmark’s museum to see artifacts like the church’s original pews and the tomb of founder Bishop Richard Alan.
Old Economy Village, Ambridge
Learn the history of the Harmony Society, a communal society that settled in Pennsylvania to freely practice their religion in 1824. Open April through December, this National Historic Landmark’s Visitor Center has rotating exhibits and an introductory film; other attractions include an 1800s store and post office, community oven, and cabinet and blacksmith shops.
Olmsted Manor Retreat Center, Ludlow
Situated in the Allegheny National Forest, Olmsted combines sacred spaces with Christian hospitality to provide a 300-acre expanse for personal or group retreats. Stay in the Tudor mansion, reflect in the labyrinth, or stroll the exquisitely manicured grounds.
Pennsbury Manor, Morrisville
The reconstructed home of Pennsylvania founder and religious-freedom champion William Penn sits on 43 verdant acres on the Delaware River in Bucks County. Take a guided tour of the house to catch a glimpse of Penn’s life during the 17th century.
Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple
While the large Mormon temple is still under construction in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood, guests can check out the temporary visitors’ facility adjacent to the construction zone. The facility will be completed in 2016.
Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia
This 1871 synagogue was designed by prominent Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, who designed more than 500 buildings in the area. Admire the building’s Moorish-style architecture and qualities inspired by the Synagogue of Florence.
St. Mark’s and St. John’s Church, Jim Thorpe
Priceless Tiffany windows, an impressive marble altar, and an original Otis elevator are just a few unique characteristics of St. Mark’s and St. John’s Church, two separate 1800s-era parishes that merged in 1980. Take a guided tour of the church to see all of the special qualities and learn about its generous benefactors.
St. Peter Cathedral, Erie
The stately Gothic cathedral was completed in 1892 and has a 265-foot central tower, two 150-foot twin towers, and stained-glass windows depicting the birth of Jesus, the Crucifixion and other Biblical scenes. Architect Patrick Keely designed St. Peter along with more than 600 churches and 21 cathedrals in the eastern U.S.
Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center
The headquarters of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, Villa Maria’s community center offers 726 acres for spiritual reflection and nourishment of the mind and body. Take a guided walk through the site’s labyrinth, visit the working farm, or plan a family retreat.
Villa of Our Lady Retreat House, Mount Pocono
The Pocono Mountains are a perfect setting for this spiritual property, which offers quiet, prayer-filled retreats for individuals from all walks of life. The site has 40 private rooms, a beautiful chapel, and a grotto dedicated to Our Lady of the Poconos.
Photo Credit: flickr/R'Lyeh Imaging