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Catholic heritage sites in New York and D.C.

Image:  Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington
Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order founded by Mother Teresa, pray during a Mass celebrating Mother Teresa's Beatification at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.Gerald Herbert / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pope Benedict XVI will visit Washington and New York April 15-20, with a schedule that includes plans for a Mass at the new Nationals Park, dinner at the White House, a speech at the United Nations, a visit to Ground Zero and Mass at Yankee Stadium.

Both cities and their surrounding areas are rich in Catholic heritage. Here are a few sites worth visiting.

New York: Any tour of Catholic history here must include St. Patrick's Cathedral, the cavernous, awe-inspiring, gothic-style church on Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st streets, near Rockefeller Center. This is the central church of the New York Archdiocese. The bronze doors bear carved images of New Yorkers who have been canonized.

Before the Fifth Avenue cathedral was built, the diocese was based at Old St. Patrick's Cathedral, at 233 Mott St. near Prince Street in Little Italy. The building was completed in 1815, and old tombstones fill an adjoining graveyard.

New York's earliest Catholic church, St. Peter's, dates to 1785, when one priest served the city's 200 Catholics. It is located at Barclay and Church streets, a block from the site of the World Trade Center.

"This church was damaged by parts of the plane on 9/11, and is the church where they brought the body of Father (Mychal) Judge," said Archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling. Judge was a beloved Fire Department chaplain killed outside the twin towers. A piece of debris from Ground Zero shaped like a cross stands outside the church.

Elizabeth Bayley Seton, who founded the U.S. order of the Sisters of Charity and America's first parochial school, converted to Catholicism at St. Peter's in 1805. She was a widow with five children who had once lived with her husband at 8 State St., where today you'll find the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine in Our Lady of the Rosary Church. The church is near the Staten Island Ferry terminal.

Seton was canonized in 1975, becoming the first U.S.-born saint. But the first naturalized American to achieve sainthood was Frances Xavier Cabrini, an Italian immigrant who was canonized in 1946 and is called the patroness of immigrants. Part of her remains are preserved under glass at the St. Frances Cabrini Shrine at 701 Fort Washington Ave. near 190th Street in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood. Her birthday and feast day are celebrated there annually — this year July 12-13 and Nov. 8-9. Worshippers visit to pray for healing and other intercessions. For group visits, call 212-923-3536; no charge but donations are welcome.

Near the Cabrini shrine is Fort Tryon Park. Here you'll find The Cloisters, which house 5,000 works of art, including the famed Unicorn Tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, saints' relics and paintings. Among the most important works is the 15th century painting "The Annunciation Triptych." The Cloisters was assembled from portions of five separate Medieval European cloisters. It is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which also has an extensive Medieval collection at its main building at 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

Other Catholic sites of potential interest in New York include St. Malachy's Church, 239 W. 49th St., known as the "Actors' Chapel," where an 11 p.m. Saturday night Mass attracts theater-goers and cast members getting out from Broadway shows; the Pauline Book and Media Center at 150 E. 52nd St.; the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, on Park Avenue near 84th Street, where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' funeral was held; and St. Joseph's Church on East 87th Street at First Avenue, historically a German-speaking church. The pope, who is German, plans to be at St. Joseph's April 18 for a meeting with Protestant and Orthodox Christian leaders, Zwilling said.

Influential Catholics who lived in New York include the writer Thomas Merton, who was baptized at Corpus Christi Church on 121st Street and Broadway, and who once lived at 35 Perry St. in the West Village; and Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement. She is buried on Staten Island, in the Resurrection Cemetery, and lived her last years at Maryhouse, at 55 E. Third St., a "hospitality house" that still provides services to the poor. The Catholic Worker newspaper headquarters are at St. Joseph's House at 36 E. First St.

Washington D.C. area: The Washington area's connection to Catholic history spans nearly 400 years. Just 60 miles from the city, a large cross in St. Clement's Island State Park, Md., marks the spot where the first Mass in English-speaking North America was celebrated in 1634, according to Kim Cullins, a spokeswoman for St. Clement's Island Museum. Maryland was then a new colony with a Catholic governor. The area is now part of the Archdiocese of Washington.

St. Mary's County — where St. Clement's Island is located — includes the Newtowne parish, which dates to 1640, and St. Ignatius Church, which was built in 1798 but includes an older chapel from the 1600s. Grounds include an old cemetery, outdoor prayer area and a hilltop view of two rivers.

Back in Washington, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at 400 Michigan Ave., NE is one of the largest churches in the world, according to Archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs. The church is dedicated to Mary, and its chapels include different representations of Mary from cultures around the world. The basilica is adjacent to Catholic University.

President Kennedy's funeral was held at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, and the famous photo of John Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's casket was taken there. Gibbs added that an annual Mass is held there on the Sunday before the Supreme Court session opens each October "to pray for the justices and others in the administration of justice." The cathedral is located at 1725 Rhode Island Avenue, NW.

Another noteworthy church is St. Augustine at 15th and V streets, NW. The parish was founded by emancipated black Catholics 150 years ago, and today the church is known for an outstanding gospel choir.

The Franciscan Monastery at 1400 Quincy St. NE, "is one of the hidden treasures of Washington and is particularly beautiful in the spring," said Gibbs. "It contains replicas of the shrines of the Holy Land and peaceful gardens." Tours are offered Monday-Saturday at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., and on Sundays at 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Tours are free, but donations are welcome. Groups should call ahead, 202-526-6800

The land the U.S. Capitol was built on was originally owned by a prominent Catholic, Daniel Carroll of Duddington, Md., Gibbs said. Catholics honored with sculptures in the Capitol's National Statuary Hall Collection include Junipero Serra, an 18th century priest who founded missions around California; Esther Pariseau, also known as Mother Joseph, a 19th century pioneer missionary who founded schools and hospitals in Washington state and the Northwest; and Joseph Damien de Veuster, a priest who cared for lepers in Molokai, Hawaii, in the late 1800s and was later made a saint.