A Pick of Top 10 Churches
Among the riches of our faith is the great diversity of our churches. Here Southern Cross editor GÜNTHER SIMMERMACHER picks his Top 10 favourite churches.
There is something quite daunting about choosing one’s Top 10 churches. To begin with, by what standards does one decide? Aesthetical value? Historical weight? Personal sentiment?
In choosing my ten “favourite” churches, I have gone mostly for sentiment: places that are for one reason or another embedded in the happy vaults of my memory.
So this is a very subjective list. A ranking of ten “greatest” or “most awe-inspiring” or “most historic” churches might look quite different. Such lists would certainly include the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem — our faith’s most sacred shrine — and St Peter’s basilica in the Vatican, a place where even after numerous visits, one can always find something new rewarding.
I have further narrowed down the selection by nominating only Catholic churches—with one exception. Moreover, I have allowed myself only one church per country since I could as easily compile Top 10s of my favourite churches in the Holy Land, Italy, Germany or, indeed, South Africa.
With apologies to all the wonderful churches I am omitting, here is my Top 10, in no particular order:
Church of All Nations, Jerusalem
Located at the foot of the Mount of Olives in the Garden of Gethsemane, the church of All Nations is an architectural marvel by the master church builder Antonio Barluzzi. Its alabaster windows let in little light, the ceiling resembles the starry night sky that watched over that gut-wrenching final night Our Lord spent on earth.
At the altar is the rock on which Jesus prayed so desperately. Around it is a low iron-fence representing the crown of thorns.
It is here, in the place of Jesus’ most tormented prayer, where the pilgrim can kneel down and bring his or her anguishes and hopes to God in the most emotional of settings.
Holy Redeemer Church, Cape Town
The church of the Holy Redeemer in the Cape Town suburb of Bergvliet is an elegant house of God, especially after more recent renovations gave the interior an attractive, warm colour scheme. The stained-glass windows in this Redemptorist church are worth a visit, if one is in the neighbourhood.
But nobody would place this church, built in the 1930s, in a world Top 10 of churches without invoking personal sentiment, and so it is here: this is the church where my wife and I pledged our love and life to one another almost a quarter of a century ago. And for that, the church of the Holy Redeemer occupies a very special place in my heart.
Much as I love Gothic churches with columns so high that they seem to puncture the stratosphere, I’m also a sucker for the lavish vitality of rococo design.
The Wieskirche is a pilgrimage church, due to a miraculous statue of the scourged Christ, in a rural area in Upper Bavaria. This church, built in the 1740s, isn’t commercialised — just two souvenir kiosks in the parking lot — and so has an atmosphere of peace and devotion. During Masses, tourists are forbidden to walk around; this is above all a place of worship.
The interior of this church is ornate, with much gold paint and bright frescoes whose playful lightness contrast the serious theological message they convey.
St Anthony of Padua Church, Istanbul
In these troubled times for Turkey, my mind often returns to the church of St Anthony of Padua. Located just off Istanbul’s main shopping street, Istiklal Avenue in the Beyoglu/Galata district, it provides an instant oasis of peace from the city bustle.
This was St John XXIII’s “parish church” when he was the papal nuncio in Turkey, and his statue presides over the church’s courtyard. The church incorporates three saints who are very special to me: Ss Anthony of Padua, John XXIII, and Maximilian Kolbe, who is present there in the form of a bronze bust sculpted by Turkish artist Sermin Guner.
Annunciation Church, Alba de Tormes, Spain
After Our Lady, the three most significant woman in the Catholic Church saints are St Clare of Assisi, St Catherine of Siena and St Teresa of Avila. All three were immensely strong women who gave transformative leadership in times when women barely had legal standing. I have been blessed to have visited the tombs of all three of them.
That of St Teresa in the convent church in the small Spanish town of Alba de Tormes, near Salamanca, touched me in particular.
The tomb of St Teresa looms over the altar, in the position where the Carmelite reformer had her sickbed installed during the illness that culminated in her death, so that she’d not miss the Eucharist.
This church is in the itinerary for The Southern Cross‘ pilgrimage to Portugal and Spain in May-June 2017 (itinerary & details).
Santa Croce, Florence
Florence’s Duomo has the iconic exterior, but inside it is rather austere. By contrast, the nearby Franciscan basilica di Santa Croce is not particularly remarkable in its facade but utterly breathtaking inside, with artworks by Giotto, Donatello, Cimabue, the two Gaddis and so on. One doesn’t know where to look first.
The church has many tombs, including those of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and the composer Rossini (guides might not even bother to point out the tomb of the latter, because there is so much else to show!). For the history buff, this church is a treasure.
This is still a parish church — I have been fortunate to have had Sunday Mass there. Imagine having Mass every week, or every day, in such a church, surrounded by great art and history!
Saint-Séverin Church, Paris
Notre Dame cathedral is imposing; Sacré-Coeur is astounding; Holy Trinity is graceful. All three, and so many other churches in Paris, are very beautiful and faith-inspiring in their own particular ways. But for me the nicest church in Paris is St Séverin, which often is overlooked in the bustle of the tourist-packed Latin Quarter.
Perhaps it is this oasis-like quality that attracts me to this sober Gothic church. If not that, then maybe it’s the magnificent stained glass windows, both ancient and modern, which are among the best I’ve seen.
St James Church, London
Before Vatican II, Saint-Séverin in Paris was the French centre of liturgical reform. Hop over the channel, and I might go for Latin Mass at St James church, or the “Spanish Place”, in Marylebone.
I was last there about 30 years ago, when I lived in London, but the impression of the intense devotion of the congregation at Mass there has remained with me, together with the smells-and-bells beauty of the Latin Mass, and that magnificent organ.
The church is known as “Spanish Place” because it was the chapel of the Spanish ambassador’s palace during Elizabethan times. For London’s ill-treated Catholics at the time, it was a place of refuge.
St Anthony Church, Lisbon
I love St Anthony of Lisbon and Padua. If I were to compile a Top 5 of my favourite Italian churches, the basilica with his tomb in Padua would feature. But here we have the church of his birth in the Portuguese capital.
This lovely, compact baroque-rococo church was built in 1767, after the great earthquake that destroyed Lisbon 12 years earlier, on the site of an earlier church that marked the place of the saint’s birth in 1195. The spot of St Anthony’s birth can be visited in the plain crypt.
This church is also in the itinerary for The Southern Cross‘ pilgrimage to Portugal and Spain in May-June 2017 to observe the centenary of the Fatima apparitions.
St Simon the Tanner Church, Cairo
The one non-Catholic church on this list, St Simon the Tanner church features on account of being unique. Built into a cave on Cairo’s Mokattam Mountain, it can hold more than 20,000 people. And it often is filled to capacity, a sign of the devotion of the much put-upon Christians of Cairo.
This is the main church among several other cave churches that form part of the St Simon the Tanner monastery complex on top of the mountain ridge which, according to tradition, lifted in a miraculous earthquake due to the prayers led by the eponymous saint. The entire complex is decorated with biblical scenes carved into the rock by a Polish monk. There is no other place like it.