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New York City is one of the world’s most ethnically and religiously diverse metropolises. With a massive immigrant and out-of-state population, nearly every major religion found in America can also be found in NYC, making it a top destination for a spiritual trip. New York’s churches, synagogues, and temples are part of the city’s history, with religious institutions contributing some of the city’s oldest standing buildings.
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The history of New York City would be incomplete without a look at its spiritual sites. The city’s cathedrals, synagogues, and temples set the tone for early life in the bustling American metropolis, and their presence today signify the important role religion still plays in the lives of its citizens.
This 19th century cathedral with a Tuckahoe marble-clad exterior occupies an entire Manhattan block between 5th and Madison across from Rockefeller Center. Aside from being a prominent New York City landmark since its opening in 1879, it is considered an American symbol of Roman Catholicism. With space for 3,000 people, St. Patrick’s is North America’s largest decorated Neo-Gothic-style Catholic cathedral. A massive renovation project that cost nearly $200 million and concluded in 2016 allowed the cathedral to refresh the building’s facade and restore its 10,000 pound front doors.
Central Synagogue has remained in continuous congregational use longer than all but one other synagogue in New York State. Built in the early 1870s and since deemed a National Historic Landmark and an official New York City landmark, its Moorish Revival design mirrors that of Budapest’s Dohány Street Synagogue. Beyond its historical significance, Central serves the Reform Judaism community in Midtown Manhattan and holds Shabbat, holiday, children’s, and healing services.
Where can you find the largest Buddha statue in New York City? That would be at Mahayana Buddhist Temple in Chinatown, where Canal Street meets the Manhattan Bridge. The golden 16-footer sits on a lotus flower and is probably worth the trip on its own. But there’s plenty more to the temple than that. Visitors can learn about the life of Buddha through prints depicting his life, pay tribute to lost and loved ones, and have their fortune read for a dollar. Public services are held on weekends — and yes, there’s a gong.
Built in 1776, St. Paul’s Chapel is New York’s oldest public building in continuous use — and it’s picked up quite a few stories along the way. Back in 1789, when NYC was America’s capital, new president George Washington and members of congress prayed there on Washington’s Inauguration Day. The chapel held high status in New York, but it wasn’t until a few centuries later that it would be nicknamed The Little Chapel That Stood. Why? Located across from the Twin Towers, St. Paul’s didn’t incur a single damage during the 9/11 attacks. In the days and months that followed, recovery workers used the church as a resting place during long days of labor.
Congregation Emanu-El set the standard for Reform Judaism in New York. In its early days in the 1800s on the Lower East Side, Emanu-El made waves by bucking some of the long-held norms in the Jewish tradition. It was among the first to replace Hebrew, first with German, then with English. It installed an organ to introduce music to its worship experience, a practice not allowed in Orthodox synagogues. But Temple Emanu-El’s most significant — and controversial — change was to eliminate the “mechitza”, a barrier that historically separated men and women. Today, the synagogue continues to innovate and embrace change.
St. John’s Church is unfinished. Originally constructed beginning in 1892, only two thirds of the original design was completed. After several stylistic adjustments and work delays, the incomplete church, now being built in a Gothic Revival style, opened in 1909. Monetary complications delayed construction further, and little progress has been made since its original opening. In 2001, a fire damaged part of the cathedral, and even after renovations and reopening in 2008, the building remained unfinished. All this makes it even more amazing that St. John the Divine is the fifth largest church in the world. Find the sprawling cathedral across from Morningside Park just a few blocks from Columbia University.