Beyond theme parks and beaches, there are amazing places to explore faith in Florida. For the past several months, I’ve been wandering around this huge state, giving talks and signing books. From the northwest Panhandle to sunny Sarasota to historic St. Augustine, many beautiful churches and religious sites help keep the spiritual dimension of travel in focus.
For instance, the mecca of theme parks — Orlando — offers the stunning Cathedral of Saint James. Renovated in 2010, the Cathedral has fascinating stained glass windows made in Florida by the Conrad Pickle Studios in Vero Beach, FL. See if you can spot an animal in each window. Notice how the halos of each saint differ. You will want to bring binoculars to view the details of the beautiful Stations of the Cross high on the walls. Behind the altar stunning murals depict the life of Saint James, the patron saint of pilgrims.
Also in Orlando, you’ll find the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, off Vineland Avenue, near many hotels. This shrine serves tourists beautifully. Behind the sanctuary, a lovely Adoration chapel features daily confession (except Sunday). Noon Mass in the main church provides both a respite from the heat of the day and spiritual refreshment. Stroll about the fountains and bridges and check out the museum and gift shop. Before you visit, read more from my visit in 2019!
As you travel to south Florida, the “circus church” of Saint Martha in Sarasota and the Shrine to Our Lady of Charity in Miami offer examples of how churches incorporate the traditions of the populations they serve. The contributions of circus performers during the Great Depression helped finance the building of Saint Martha Catholic Church. Two restored circus wagon wheels flank the lovely sanctuary. Today the Church continues to host annual meetings of a circus and traveling show ministry among its other activities.
Across the peninsula in Miami, the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity honors the Cuban incarnation of the Virgin Mary. The Shrine reflects Cuban-American traditions and history. In particular, the fine mural behind the altar portrays the Cuban landscape, Cuban martyrs, and historic figures. This is one of the first shrines I visited during my Airstream travels and I write about it here. Enjoy a picnic with a Cuban sandwich and a fine view of Miami at the Shrine’s grounds overlooking Biscayne Bay.
As you circle back north along the Atlantic Coast, head for Saint Augustine. There, you’ll find the beautiful Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche at Mission Nombre de Dios. Refresh yourself with daily Mass at noon, then visit the museum and expansive grounds. A lovely outdoor Rosary walk completes your pilgrimage here. Nearby, visit the narrow streets and many stores of Old Town Saint Augustine. As you wander, be sure to include some peaceful time at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Augustine. The six-story bell tower is a landmark, beckoning the visitor to this gorgeous example of 18th century Spanish architecture. Inside, the brilliant red ceiling with open beams and murals of angels is striking. More murals above the entrance and on the sanctuary walls depict Florida’s Catholic history. Read more here about my visit to the Cathedral and Mission Nombre de Dios in 2019.
You’ll fully appreciate the size and variety of Florida as you continue to explore its northwestern beaches and towns in the Panhandle. Passing through Tallahassee, you’ll find the newly restored Co-Cathedral of Saint Thomas More that serves as the Catholic Student Center of Florida State University. Following a fire in 2019, the 36-foot tall wooden reredos (a wooden panel behind the altar) contains several large paintings. Carvings incorporate local flowers and trees. As this article points out, the renovations went far beyond restoration and greatly enhance this mid-twentieth century church.
Several hours further west, the modern Romanesque Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Pensacola is the other seat of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. Its simple white brick and marble interior is notable for the large modern window of Jesus above the altar and the beautiful tabernacle framed by a gold sunburst and kneeling angels. Before you leave Pensacola, include a visit to the lovely Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel. This Gothic Revival church dates to 1886 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Learn more about this Basilica and its amazing stained glass windows by reading this reflection I wrote about angels.
These are just a few highlights of shrines and religious sites reflecting faith in Florida. I’m working on a pilgrimage guide that will go into more detail about Florida’s Catholic history as well as the many smaller churches you can visit when exploring the state. God is always with us, even on vacation. When you include honoring Him in your travels, you will find a deeper renewal in all your journeys.