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History

What Are the Oldest Churches in America?

By Jersey Griggs
Read time: 5 minutes

When European settlers first arrived in North America, one of the first orders of business for those mainly Christian pilgrims in the New World was the construction of local churches. More than 500 years later, many of these churches remain standing, and some still even welcome congregations every Sunday. From New England to the Southwest and the Caribbean, these are the seven oldest churches in America. 

7. Old Ship Church – Hingham, Massachusetts

Exterior of the Old Ship Church in Massachusetts
Photo credit: Yingna Cai/ Shutterstock

Located about 25 miles north of Plymouth on the Massachusetts coast, the Old Ship Church was established by a group of Puritans who hailed from Hingham, England. In 1681, the settlement’s 140 families raised enough money to build the town’s first chapel. With its distinct roofline resembling a ship’s hull, the church’s architectural style was reminiscent of the settlers’ native England.

Remarkably, the Old Ship Church is the last surviving 17th-century Puritan meeting house and, by some accounts, the oldest U.S. church in continuous operation. As one of the oldest wooden church structures in the country, both the frame and walls are original, with oak timber beams felled from the local old-growth forest. After undergoing renovations, the church was restored in the 1930s to its original design. Operating as a Unitarian congregation, the Old Ship Church is open to the public, with services on Sundays.

6. St. Mary’s Whitechapel – Lancaster, Virginia

Pathway leading to St. Mary's Whitechapel in Virginia
Photo credit: Mark Summerfield/ Alamy Stock Photo

Construction on St. Mary’s Whitechapel began in 1699. The church was originally funded by Captain David Fox, who bequeathed 20 pounds of silver and the necessary land to build it. Records reveal that the church’s builder was James Jones, the grandfather of President James Monroe. The chapel also has notable connections to President George Washington, as the south gallery was funded by Washington’s maternal lineage, the Ball family.

Although the church fell into disuse in the early 19th century, it still retains some of its original features, including the gold-lettered walnut panels behind the altar and a British silver chalice, gifted by St. Mary’s original benefactor, David Fox. Open to the public, St. Mary’s is an active Episcopal church today.

5. Old Trinity Church – Church Creek, Maryland

Tombstones in front of brick exterior of Old Trinity Church in Maryland
Photo credit: Jeffrey M. Frank/ Shutterstock

This humble church was first erected in 1671 by English settlers on Church Creek, a tributary of the Little Choptank River. Since then, it has been used by congregants as a place of worship, most often in the Episcopal tradition. With a graveyard that has been employed as a regional burial ground for over 300 years, the cemetery contains the graves of veterans from every American war.

Updated in 1853 in the Gothic style, and then restored again in the 1950s, the Old Trinity Church retains its original black walnut altar. The church is also known for its fine acoustics and has a west gallery that contains an organ, a common feature in English rural churches. With an active congregation, services are held every Sunday.

4. Jamestown Church – Jamestown, Virginia

Brick exterior of the Jamestown Church in Virginia
Photo credit: dbtravel/ Alamy Stock Photo

The fourth-oldest church in America was also Jamestown, Virginia’s fourth attempt at building a church. Members of the settlement — the first established by the English in North America — constructed three other churches between 1607 and 1617, two of which were destroyed by fires. The fourth church was a brick chapel built in 1639. Unfortunately, the church was subsequently burned in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 — only the bell tower was left intact and remains standing today.

As the last surviving above-ground structure from the original 17th-century settlement, the bell tower is located adjacent to Jamestown’s fifth and final church, completed in 1907 for the settlement’s 300th anniversary. The church — an ode to Jamestown’s history — contains remnants of the colony’s former churches, including the cobblestone foundations of the 1617 church and the brick foundations of the 1639 church.

3. San Estevan del Rey Mission Church – Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Adobe facade of the San Estevan del Rey Mission Church in New Mexico
Photo credit: Design Pics Inc/ Alamy Stock Photo

Built in 1629 at the Acoma Pueblo, the San Esteban del Rey Mission Church is a symbol of the fraught relationship between the Spanish colonists and the Acoma peoples, an Indigenous group from the Southwest. The mission church’s primary goal was to convert the Acoma to Christianity during the 17th century. While some of the Indigenous peoples assimilated, many of them fought against the Spanish to retain their ancient  traditions.

Utilizing seven-foot-thick walls and several vigas — long pieces of timber transported 30 miles on foot by the Acoma — construction of the church lasted 12 years. Today, the church and pueblo are well-preserved and remain on the Acoma Pueblo reservation, with guided tours available from the Acoma Tribal Council and Administration.

2. San Miguel Mission – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Courtyard and adobe facade of the San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Photo credit: pmphoto/ Shutterstock

According to oral history, San Miguel Mission — the oldest church in the contiguous U.S. — dates back to 1610, which was around the same time when Santa Fe was founded. The Tlaxcalan Indigenous peoples, who originated in Mexico and later allied with the Spanish, most likely constructed the adobe church. A portion of the church’s original walls still stands to this day, although many repairs have been necessitated over the centuries.

Throughout its 400-plus year tenure, the church has had many iterations: a place of worship for Indigenous peoples, a community gathering space, an infirmary for missions, a military chapel, and a sanctified Catholic church. San Miguel Mission is still used regularly for religious services; visiting hours are available daily, with docent history talks five days a week.

1. Cathedral of San Juan Bautista – San Juan, Puerto Rico

Image of the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Puerto Rico with San Juan in background
Photo credit: Russell Kord/ Alamy Stock Photo

The oldest church in America was built in 1521, when Puerto Rico was still under Spanish rule — and a mere 28 years after Christopher Columbus landed on the island. By the turn of the century, Puerto Rico was established as Spain’s first major colony in North America. As devout Catholics, the Spanish colonists built the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista out of stone to make it more durable than their first church, which had been destroyed by a hurricane.

At over 500 years old, the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista remains in use today and is open daily to visitors. Although it’s undergone renovations, it retains the same 16th-century Spanish colonial architecture from when it was first constructed. The church also contains the marble tomb of Juan Ponce de León, the colony’s first governor, and the statue and shrine of the Virgin of Providence, the patroness of Puerto Rico.

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