Twelve Churches Not to Miss When You Visit California

Many beautiful, historic churches reflect the Golden State’s rich Catholic heritage.

California is home to many beautiful Catholic churches, reflections of the faith of their people. As summer is here and California is a favorite destination of tourists, the following is a profile of 12 Catholic churches in the Golden State—one in each of its 12 dioceses—not to miss when visiting. It is just a sampling of the impressive churches California has to offer; many others could have been selected for the list.

The Chicago area is the next region to be featured in this “Churches Not to Miss” series at Catholic World Report. What is your favorite Chicago-area church (including suburbs)? Email your suggestions, with a description of what makes your church special, to


Carmelite House of Prayer

20 Mount Carmel Dr., Oakville, California 94562

(707) 944-2454

carmelite house of prayer, oakvilleThe Carmelite House of Prayer was originally a mansion built to be the home of a wealthy industrialist, David Doak. Its landscaping was done by John McLaren, designer of the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Doak died in 1921, the same year the mansion was completed. A benefactor, Noel Sullivan, bought the mansion and 29 acres of surrounding property and donated it to the Discalced Carmelites in 1955. It was used as a house of formation until 1981, when the facility was designated as a house of prayer and retreat center. 

It is located in Northern California, in the Diocese of Santa Rosa. There are six priests and two brothers who live at the House of Prayer currently. Penance and prayer are themes of the community; members are typically orthodox, experienced, and pious. The grounds are beautiful and serene, and the community tries to maintain the peace and quiet necessary for the cultivation of prayer. Visitors are welcome, either for Mass and confession or for retreats and days of recollection. 


Immaculate Conception Church

P.O. Box 302, Downieville, California 95936

(530) 289-3102

immaculate conception church, downievilleDownieville is located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, northeast of Grass Valley and Nevada City in the Diocese of Sacramento. It resembles a small Vermont town; it’s at the bottom of a valley surrounded by mountains covered with pine and oak trees. Two rivers come together in the middle of town. 

Immaculate Conception is a quaint little church, and a City of Downieville landmark. It is a Gold Rush-era parish, established in 1852. The original church burned down in 1858, and the current building was erected the same year. The community was once bustling with active timber and mining industries. Both have closed down, and most of the younger families have moved away (Downieville is the county seat, so government is still a growth industry in the area!). It is a tourist destination, with mountain biking, hiking, fishing, and skiing. A few decades ago, when the local economy was better, the church was filled to capacity; today, it draws about 15 or 20 seniors (kids and young families are a rarity in Downieville, so the seniors will love it if you bring yours to church). 

Volunteers keep the church open. Its features include a traditional white wood altar with gold trim. If you go up for the day, keep in mind that the town has no restaurants or grocery stores, so bring some food. There are no priests in residence at Immaculate Conception, but a priest comes in to celebrate Mass on Sunday. 


St. Joseph Chapel, Santa Teresita Medical Center

819 Buena Vista Street, Duarte, California 91010

(626) 359-3243

st. joseph chapel, santa teresita medical center, duarteSanta Teresita is east of Pasadena, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It is operated by the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart, whose Motherhouse is in Alhambra. They wear the full habit and are faithful to Catholic tradition. 

Mother Maria Luisa Josefa, or “Mother Luisita,” founder of the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart, established Santa Teresita in 1930. It was originally a sanatorium for women with tuberculosis, later became a hospital, and is today an assisted-living facility for the elderly. Its grounds are well-maintained and have a strong Catholic character. The chapel is a prominent feature on the grounds, and is beautiful house of worship offering pious liturgies. Although it is called a chapel, it is actually comparable in size to a parish church. Masses are held for residents daily and on weekends; visitors are welcome.

The sisters are orthodox, cheerful, and welcoming to visitors of all stripes. Young single women can visit and get a taste of religious life. Santa Teresita is undergoing an extensive renovation to better serve its residents, and patrons are always needed. If you’re so inclined, ask the sisters what you can do to help. 


Serra Chapel, Mission San Juan Capistrano

31520 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, California 92675

(949) 234-1360

serra chapel, san juan capistrano,Serra Chapel is California’s oldest church. It was built by the Spanish padres shortly after Mission San Juan Capistrano’s founding in 1776. Father Junipero Serra himself celebrated Mass there. The church was used for storage in the late 19th century, but was restored to its original use in the 1920s. It is today part of the Diocese of Orange, about an hour’s drive south of Los Angeles. 

The church art and architecture has undergone an extensive renovation and is beautiful. The Stations of the Cross, older than the Mission itself, have been restored and properly lighted. The retablo, or altarpiece, has also been restored. New chandeliers have been installed. Although most of the parish’s liturgical and sacramental life occurs at the much newer and bigger basilica church (take a stroll over and see its beautiful Golden Retablo), Serra Chapel is still very much in use as a house of worship. It also boasts a side chapel shrine, St. Peregrine’s Chapel, which draws many cancer patients on pilgrimage each year. Mass is celebrated in Serra Chapel both on weekdays and Sundays.


National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi

610 Vallejo Street, San Francisco, California 94133-3917

(415) 986-4557

national shrine of st. francis of assisi, san franciscoThe Shrine is located in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, in the city’s North Beach region, not far from Fisherman’s Wharf (the famous Saints Peter and Paul Church is two blocks away). The church began as St. Francis Parish in 1849, the year before California became a state and San Francisco was incorporated as a city. The church was first a small wooden shack, and was then replaced by an adobe structure. Bishop of Monterey Joseph Alemany used the church as his cathedral for three years and held California’s first ordination to the priesthood there. 

The current church building, a Norman Gothic church, was completed in 1860. The church survived the 1906 earthquake, but was severely damaged in the subsequent fires. A new church was rebuilt within the original church walls; it was rededicated in 1919. It was scheduled for closure 20 years ago, but the archdiocese opted instead to make it a shrine. Hence, it is no longer a regular parish church. 

It is an attractive structure, featuring unique stained glass windows, colorful murals, and beautiful statues. It is also home to relics of St. Francis, St. Clare of Assisi, and St. Anthony of Padua. It welcomes pilgrims and visitors for prayer and meditation. It is a California historical landmark, and was named a shrine in 1999. There are indulgences associated with visiting the shrine; see the website for more information. 

Father Gregory Coiro, OFM Cap, is the shrine’s rector, and will often be on hand to greet you. You are in the city of San Francisco, so parking can be a challenge; the shrine has no parking lot.  Look for free street parking, or else use one of the nearby parking garages that charge $3 per hour. 


Shrine of St. Therese

855 E. Floradora Ave., Fresno, California 93728

(559) 268-6388

shrine of st. therese, fresnoThe Shrine of St. Therese is a historic parish, established in 1919. It was originally named Our Lady of Victory, in thanksgiving for the United States’ victory in World War I, but was re-named for St. Therese of Lisieux after her canonization in 1925, the first church in the world dedicated to the Little Flower. 

The current church was built in 1956, and is beautiful inside and out. Its interior includes 50,000 pounds of marble, of different types and colors, shipped from Italy. The altar area alone has five different kinds of marble. It houses a relic of St. Therese donated by Mother Agnes of Jesus (Pauline Martin), a sister of the saint. There are also many beautiful statues, paintings, and other images.


San Carlos Cathedral

500 Church Street, Monterey, California 93940


san carlos cathedral, montereySan Carlos is one of California’s historic churches. It was founded as a mission by Father Junipero Serra in 1770. The mission was moved a year later to Carmel, but the church remained as a chapel for soldiers of the Monterey presidio. The current sandstone church was completed in 1794. It is the oldest continuously functioning church in California as well as the state’s first stone church. 

It is a beautiful church, built in the Spanish colonial style. It was elevated to the status of a cathedral in 1849. It was dedicated as a national landmark in 1961. Herbert Hoover was married there in 1899 (Hoover was Protestant, but as there was no Protestant minister available at the time, the parish priest was given a special dispensation to perform a civil ceremony).

There is a heritage center on-site staffed by knowledgeable docents. The docents can take you on a tour and show you the historic buildings, beautiful grounds, artifacts, and old photos. The beach is just a few blocks away, so take a stroll over and enjoy the ocean.


Our Lady of the Rosary Church

1668 State Street, San Diego, California 92101

(619) 234-4820

our lady of the rosary, san diegoThe centerpiece of San Diego’s Little Italy, Our Lady of the Rosary Church, was founded in 1921 and served Italian tuna fishermen. It houses many beautiful frescoes, stained glass windows depicting the 15 original mysteries of the Rosary, statues, and paintings.

Italian artist Fausto Tasca painted much of the interior art for the church, including a large crucifixion mural above the altar and the Last Judgment in the rear of the church. As it was painted during the era of Mussolini, fascist sympathizers are among the damned in Tasca’s Last Judgment.

One of the parish’s most infamous members was Frank “Bomp” Bompensiero, a Mafia hitman, who had his funeral there in 1977 (himself a victim of a “hit”).

The parish is popular with tourists. Enjoy farmers’ markets and street festivals outside on weekends. There is metered parking around the church, or free parking on Sundays for Mass attendees.


Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph

80 South Market Street, San Jose, California 95113

(408) 283-8100

st. joseph cathedral, san jose

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph is located in downtown San Jose. It is a minor basilica and the cathedral church for the Diocese of San Jose. It is also the first parish established in California not affiliated with a mission, although it was staffed with Franciscan priests (Jesuits would later take over staffing). 

St. Joseph’s Church was first built of adobe at its current site in 1803. Earthquakes damaged it and a subsequent church built there, and a third church was destroyed by fire. Construction on the current church began in 1876. It was dedicated the following year. The portico was completed in 1884; the large dome was completed in 1885. A major renovation of the church occurred 30 years ago; in 1985 it became a cathedral. Pope John Paul II made it a minor basilica in 1997. It is a California historical landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has beautiful stained glass windows, statues, and other artwork. It also has an 1886 Odell organ, one of only four instruments of its kind still surviving in the United States.

There is no parking lot. You can park on the street in metered parking Monday through Saturday (it is rigorously enforced; the City of San Jose is struggling with a $115 million shortfall). Sundays are free. You can also park in nearby lots not owned by the church and pay a flat fee for parking.


St. Joseph the Worker Church

1640 Addison Street, Berkeley, California 94703

(510) 843-2244

st. joseph the worker, berkeley

St. Joseph the Worker Parish is one of the Diocese of Oakland’s historic churches, established in the 1870s, about the same time the city of Berkeley itself was incorporated. The current church building is just over a century old. It’s an attractive structure, both inside and out. It has beautiful stained glass windows, carved Stations of the Cross, and statues. 

The parish was a center of liberal protest and political activism in the 60s and 70s. Today it is led by a solidly orthodox pastor, Father John Direen, and Sunday Masses are said in English, Spanish, and Eritrean.


St. Anne Church

Kennebec Hill, Columbia, California

For docent tours, Judy Wilder, (209) 532-9422 or Marcia Watts, (209) 533-3662

st. anne church, columbiaSt. Anne’s is a historic church, built by gold miners in 1856. It originally had a school. It is located just outside of Columbia State Historic Park, east of Stockton and a few miles north of Sonora. It is a parish mission of St. Patrick Church in Sonora of the Diocese of Stockton.  

It was the first church in California made of brick, and was constructed in California’s Gold Rush era. Interior features include a traditional altar and altar rail, original pews, a confessional, and baptismal font. Behind the altar are angels painted by James Fallon, who was from a family prominent in the area during the 19th century. The church has arched windows on all four sides with a three-story belfry. Its bell was cast in New York, brought around Cape Horn, and delivered by wagon. In front is the church cemetery.

St. Anne’s has been closed and stripped twice, but dedicated preservationists in the era have re-opened it. It underwent major restorations in 1926 and from 1979-1982.

Mass is celebrated at St. Anne’s four times a year:  Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July, and the Feast of St. Anne (July 26). There’s also an occasional wedding or funeral. It is cared for by Save Our St. Anne’s, a group of volunteers. Tours are held on weekdays, 10 am to 3 pm. School groups are especially welcome. The church is normally locked, so call and make an appointment to see it.


San Secondo d’Asti

250 N. Turner Avenue, Guasti, California 91743

(909) 390-0011

San Secondo d’Asti, GuastiThis is a traditional and beautiful parish in the Diocese of San Bernardino. It was built by an Italian immigrant, Secondo Guasti, who oversaw vineyards in the region. He built the church in 1926 to resemble the 17th-century wood-and-stone structure in his village in Asti, Italy. He donated it to the local diocese in 1935. 

The church is built in the California mission style, has a bell tower, and is surrounded by rose gardens with fountains. The church is attractive inside and out, and is served by a faithful pastor, Father Louis Marx.

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About Jim Graves 238 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.

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