Most beautiful or unusual place of worship

We asked readers the following at the suggestion of Greg Stathakis of Santa Barbara, California.
What is the most beautiful or unusual place of worship that you have seen (outside of North America and the Caribbean)? It can be of any faith, from cathedral to mosque, but should still be in use. Be as specific as possible about its location, state approximately when you were there, and describe what it was that impressed you.
Following are responses received. If you have another to share, write to Standout Place of Worship, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail (include the address at which you receive ITN).

Two of the most beautiful places of worship that we have visited are only a few kilometers apart in the Valley of the Grand Chartreuse in the Isère area of France. This small mountain town, St-Pierre-de-Chartreuse, is 27 kilometers north of Grenoble.

On the outskirts of town stands a Carthusian monastery. Here are the monks who know the secret formula for the liqueur Chartreuse, which they make in the nearby town of Voiron. There is a museum adjoining the monastery that one can visit, and it is possible to tour the liqueur factory in Voiron, but one Sunday morning we sat in on Mass by the monks in the small chapel which is part of the complex. It is a quiet, magnificent setting, surrounded by the high Alps.

In the tiny village itself is a Catholic church that has been decorated inside with the modern paintings of a local artist, Arcabas. The walls are covered in paintings illustrating the Psalms — all very contemporary. The altar and other pieces in the church have been designed by him also.
We pur­­­chased litho­graphs of

two of the paintings and think of their wonderful setting each time we look at them on our wall. We have visited the valley three times, most recently in fall 2004.
Linda & Peter Beuret
Santa Barbara, CA

In naming the most beautiful place of worship, my favorite is certainly the Matisse Chapel in the hill town of Vence in Provence, France. However, I was witness to a Buddhist ceremony in Bhutan that remains fresh in my mind, even though it happened in 1992.

Among the 12 people in my Geographic Expeditions tour group was a couple who had brought with them a container of ashes of a dear Buddhist friend of theirs. Through our guide and a local monk, arrangements were made to inter the ashes in a chopa high on a hill overlooking one of the beautiful valleys of Bhutan.

The day of the ceremony was clear, with fleecy white clouds, a slight breeze and a view that went for miles. The monk performed a short ceremony with incense and bells, and the container of ashes was placed in a niche of the chopa.

The setting was ideal, and I often think of this unknown-to-me woman resting in peace amidst these idyllic surroundings, with the passing monks bestowing their blessings.
Barbara Malley
New York, NY

The most interesting and unique church we’ve seen in our travels around the world is Temppeliaukio, an evangelical Lutheran church built in 1969 near the center of Helsinki, Finland.

It is also known as the Rock Church, as it is quarried into bedrock. The only part of the structure that is visible from the outside is the copper dome.

It is absolutely beautiful inside and features various kinds of colored rock formations, with water running through from cracks in the rock. The décor is contemporary Scandinavian in feeling.

It is a very active church, with regular services, concerts and recitals. It can seat 750 people. Over 170,000 people attend church functions there annually, and visitors number over half a million each year. We visited this church in March ’03.
Nancy Logan
Jamestown, RI

So much of the world’s wealth has gone into places of worship over the past millenniums that it is truly difficult to choose the most beautiful or unusual place of worship, so I will just tell you what place of worship affected me most: the Great Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, on our visit in May ’05.

The largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world, it is absolutely beautiful both inside and out. There is a feeling of great space inside since it is shaped and decorated more like a basilica than a synagogue. There is a very impressive organ, which is played on the Sabbath by non-Jews (Liszt and Saint-Saëns both played it in the 19th century).

However, it was not the synagogue’s beauty that left the lasting impression but its history. The Nazis left the Jewish population of Hungary alone until 1944, but then they rounded up many of them to process them and send them to the concentration camps. They built a wall around the synagogue and made it into an improvised jail, so it is a place to remember great sadness and inhumanity.

But it is also a place to remember all of those wonderful Christians who helped save Hungarian Jews. Many of their names are inscribed in the courtyard of the museum on four pillars. Likewise, the area priests helped to hide the Torah scrolls in a nearby cemetery. They survived the war in good shape.

While we were touring the synagogue, the stage was being set for a performance. We asked about it and were told there would be a klezmer concert that evening. We bought tickets and attended, but to our surprise it was a holocaust memorial concert, with no klezmer music.

The place was packed, probably with most of the 80,000 Jews who live in Budapest. I believe that we were the only non-Hungarians there. All the singing and talking was in Hungarian, including the words to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” But somehow it didn’t matter — the impact was the same.

At one point a poem was being read while a vocalist was humming a sad tune. Although I didn’t understand the words, tears were running down my face. I could feel the history in the synagogue.
Nili Olay
New York, NY

Personally, I do not think any list of “most beautiful places of worship” would be complete without including the masterpiece in the Vatican City in Italy: St. Peter’s of Rome.
Built from 1656 to 1667, it is the height of Italian Renaissance.
I have visited as a child, as a young adult and as an adult. On each visit, the scale and impact still amaze me!
Cynthia Rignanese
Lake Wales, FL

The most beautiful place in which I have ever worshiped is the Abbey on Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland.

I was born in Scotland but never managed to see Iona until I went back on a visit several years ago. The impact was immediate and will never be forgotten.

I went to the Sunday morning service just because it was being held at the time of my visit. Halfway through the sermon, I felt as if I had come home. To my horror, I started sobbing just as we all were supposed to turn and greet each other. I managed to get through that and went to catch the ferry. I get back to Scotland often, so it wasn’t homesickness.

I decided I had to go back and spend more time there. In May ’03 I signed up for a week’s stay in the Abbey, and off I went. It is not an easy place to get to. From Glasgow, the nearest big city, it is several hours by train or bus to Oban. From there to Mull takes an hour by ferry, followed by a bus on a one-track road for an hour and a quarter to Fionnphort (pronounced fee-own-fort) and then the ferry across to Iona, about 10 minutes. All in all, it’s a 6- to 7-hour journey, but it’s worth it. I am going back.

My week on the island was wonderful. We had services in the Abbey twice a day and were treated as part of the Iona community. Being part of that meant we worked and helped in cooking and serving the meals, while some of us did the cleaning.

The best thing that happened was that we were asked to sing in the choir, and for a week I sang my heart out, learning new songs and hymns by ear since I don’t read music.

One night at the 9 p.m. service there was a storm. From where we sat in the choir we could hear the thunder and see lightning through the high window above the altar. As I wondered about it, I suddenly felt warm and protected, as if someone had put their arms around me. Fanciful, yes, but true.

On Tuesdays, come hail or shine, there is a pilgrimage around the island. It is only approximately three miles long by two miles wide, but the walk is seven miles. I wanted to go the full distance, but arthritis in my feet held me back after five miles.

We got to the points of interest and held a small service at each one. When we reached the rock-strewn bay where St. Columba is supposed to have come ashore in the year 563, we had another service and lunch, which tasted great in the fresh (and I mean fresh) air.

There were many things to do, but the services in the Abbey were the highlight of my visit. I am not particularly religious and don’t go to church here in America, but Iona is special. It is nondenominational though originally it was Catholic.

There has been a church on Iona since St. Columba landed there, and while the original churches have wasted away due to being made of wood and wattle, parts of the 12th-century buildings are to be found all over.
The island’s weather is Scottish — rain, hail, warm sunshine. . . and that’s all in one day.

You can write to the Bookings Office, The Iona Community, Isle of Iona, Argyll, PA76 6SN, Scotland; phone 01681 700404, fax 700460 or visit

I am in no way soliciting business for the Abbey; they have all the guests they can handle. But Iona is a beautiful place. I just wanted to share the peace and serenity I get when I go there.
Gean Anderson
Olmsted Township, OH

On Dec. 24th almost 20 years ago, my husband, Tom, and I visited a marble marvel, the Bahá’í House of Worship in New Delhi, India. We are not members of the Bahá’í faith but went to see this “Taj Mahal of the 20th Century,” which was dedicated at that time. Our dearest friend, now in Tahiti, is a Bahá’í, and we gave her the booklet we purchased showing this incredible edifice.

There are no straight lines in this building, which consists of white-marble lotus petals unfurling skyward. There are three rows of nine petals; the lowest form the nine entrances. The blossom “floats” on nine pools. It is stunning!

Up to 3,000 people can be contained within this glorious structure. It is unique and the most beautiful and unusual place of worship.
Tom Russell
Raleigh, NC

Deep in the heart of the Masai Mara in Kenya, my wife, Barbara, and I were staying in a remote camp called Kichwa Tembo. Tembo is Swahili for “elephant,” and kichwa means “head.” The year was 1992, but we know the “church” is still there.

The facilities consisted of several acres of stony grassland surrounded by a single strand of electrified barbed wire. There were no permanent buildings, only a collection of fairly large tents built on platforms several feet off the ground. About 50 yards in front of our tent, beyond the electrified fence animals roamed freely on the nearby plains.

We could hear lions roaring and elephants trumpeting. Giraffes stuck their heads over the wire and ate from the branches over our tents. Monkeys were everywhere, begging for handouts or taking them by stealth.

As we sat down to eat our evening meal, the small group we were traveling with decided to sing a table prayer. Once done, we sat down to eat. Almost immediately our server came up to us and asked if we were a Christian group. Following our affirmative reply, he softly, and with great hesitation, invited us to a prayer session out behind the cook shack following the meal and the washing of dishes.

About 8 o’clock that evening we felt our way toward the rear of the cook tent. There was no light except for the nearly full moon that illuminated the miles and miles of grassy plains. The sounds of animals were all around us, and we could see shadowy movements beyond our protective fence.

We came upon a large roaring fire surrounded by perhaps 20 of the bearers, cooks and servers of this remote station. They rose as we arrived and welcomed us to their evening church service.

Scripture was read in both Swahili and, for our benefit, English. Their leader spoke movingly of God’s grace and His love of all creation. It was easy to become involved so far from what we call civilization.

When the service concluded, we all rose, held hands and sang the hymn “Kumbaya.” It was difficult to hold back tears.

Harry Hubinger
Danville, CA