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5 Amazing Catholic sites not to miss in Illinois

5 Catholic sites in Illinois

Alexander Lukatskiy | Shutterstock | Wikipedia | Collage by Aleteia

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 01/08/24

There are over 780 Catholic churches in Illinois, each with some unique feature, including many shrines and sites of special devotion. 
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Illinois may not have been the first Catholic state in the United States, nor is it the state with the highest percentage of Catholics, but the Catholic Church is alive and well here in the Land of Lincoln. More than one third of adults in the Chicago metro area identify as Catholic, and overall, the state is home to about 3.5 million Catholics. 

While the first Catholics in Illinois were French missionaries in the 1600s, the Catholic population of the Prairie State boomed in the 1840s with an influx of Irish immigrants during the height of the Irish famine. Since 1890 great numbers of Polish, Lithuanian, and Italian Catholics helped to establish Chicago as a major Catholic city in the U.S.

The Church here in Illinois is at somewhat of a pivot point. The Archdiocese of Chicago has shrunk by 24% in the past few decades, leading to many churches closing. 

Dozens of wonderful sites to choose from

As I write about Catholic sites in my home state, a disclaimer seems in order. Many, many beautiful and majestic sacred sites had to be left off this list. There are over 780 Catholic churches in Illinois, each with some unique feature, including many shrines and sites of special devotion. 

I could easily have filled a list of 15 or 20 Catholic sites not to miss in Chicago alone, and it was so hard to leave the city’s basilicas and cathedrals off this list! But I hoped to include sites from various parts of Illinois, not just Chicago, and to focus on sites of special historical significance. 

If you’d like to learn more, check out this thorough Catholic bucket list to see the many other wonderful holy places in the Chicago area. And if you’re in the area, I highly recommend booking a trip with Catholic Church Tours to learn about the amazing local sacred sites of Chicago and the Midwest.

Holy Family Catholic Church, Cahokia

This simple and humble church building holds great significance for all American Catholics, especially those living in Illinois. Holy Family Church is the oldest continuously operating parish in the United States, having existed in this spot as a Catholic parish since 1699.

Missionaries from Quebec arrived in Cahokia on December 8, 1698, for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and offered the first Mass on the banks of the Mississippi River. They settled there and built the first log church, which was dedicated on May 14, 1699. 

The original structure burned in 1740 and the structure standing today was built from the logs salvaged from the original church.  It was dedicated on September 24, 1799, and is the oldest church west of the Allegheny Mountains. 

National Shrine and Museum of St. Therese, Darien

The Order of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, a province of the Order of Carmelites, is headquartered on this Carmelite Campus. The Campus features several spiritual destinations and is the home of the National Shrine and Museum of St. Therese, as well as over 40 beautiful acres of grounds, statuary, and holy spaces.  

Highlights of the Museum include several first-class relics of St. Therese, photographs of her, paintings of scenes from her life, a special Prayer Gazebo, and a full-sized exact replica of her convent cell which includes several second-class relics. Children will love seeing her childhood toys and photos of her as a child!

Mass is celebrated on weekdays at the Shrine building just across from the Museum and Carmelite Gift Shop.  The Shrine features special prayer areas for the Infant of Prague and St. Therese, and the Carmelite Meditation Garden features a gazebo surrounded by a beautiful flowing pond and the Stations of the Cross. 

Between Holy Mass, the museum, and the grounds, this site is a lovely place for a visit. I have fond childhood memories of praying the Rosary and enjoying picnics on the grounds with my parents.

National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, Belleville, Illinois
National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, Belleville, Illinois

The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, Belleville

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate operate the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, one of the largest outdoor shrines in North America. Each year, over one million people visit the 200 acres of natural beauty on the Shrine grounds.

The shrine’s history is connected to the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, Italy, and to the ministry of “the flying priest of the Arctic,” a pilot priest who brought medical aid and supplies to remote Oblate missions. 

This vast and majestic holy site offers something for everyone, with sacred spaces that include the following:

  • A visitor center and museum
  • Several gardens designed around spiritual themes
  • A two-acre children’s playground
  • The shrine church itself
  • A mothers’ prayer walk
  • A fathers’ memorial wall
  • Lourdes Grotto
  • Amphitheatre
  • Our Lady of Guadalupe Hill

There are nearby campgrounds and hotels, and the shrine itself offers a guesthouse for overnight visitors. 

National Shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe at Marytown, Libertyville

A ministry of the Conventual Franciscan Friars of St. Bonaventure Province, the National Shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe at Marytown includes a Retreat House, Conference Center and the Marytown Gift Shop and Bookstore, an educational Holocaust exhibit, relics of St. Maximilian and several outdoor shrines, all set on 15 acres of beautiful land. The grounds are a sanctuary of Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, which has been ongoing since 1928.

At the center of Marytown is the Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, considered one of the most beautiful pilgrimage sites in the nation. It is referred to as the “Third City of the Immaculate,” modeled after the evangelization centers created by Kolbe at Niepokalanów, Poland, and Nagasaki, Japan.

The shrine is dedicated to promoting the witness and life of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar, priest, scholar and patriot martyred in the Holocaust at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. St. John Paul II referred to him as the “prophet of the civilization of love” and a “Martyr of Charity” for Kolbe’s exemplification of love without limits.

National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Des Plaines, Illinois
National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Des Plaines, Illinois

National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Des Plaines

A site beloved by Chicago’s huge population of Mexican American Catholics, this shrine is the centerpiece of annual celebrations and parades around the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12. 

The site is the most visited shrine in the USA dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the second most visited in the world after the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico. 

Every year, the feast day celebrations include a parade of about 800 riders on horseback and thousands of pilgrims bringing flowers and offerings to Our Lady. 


I couldn’t resist sharing these two other rare and significant sites!

The National Shrine of the Poor Souls, Berwyn

St. Odilo Church is the only parish in the United States dedicated to the Souls in Purgatory. 

A side altar houses the shrine, where people can light candles and add names of their dead to a book from which their intentions will be remembered in shrine Masses.

It was founded and sanctioned as the Shrine of the Poor Souls by His Eminence, George Cardinal Mundelein in 1928, with a special indulgence of 200 days granted upon each visit to the shrine.

St. Mary of the Angels, Chicago

St. Mary of the Angels is one of only two churches in the entire United States that is operated by Opus Dei. At the request of Cardinal Bernardin, then Archbishop of Chicago, the priests of the Prelature of Opus Dei assumed responsibility for the parish in 1991. 

At the time, the church building was closed and slated for demolition due to deteriorating conditions. When Opus Dei assumed responsibility for it, a major campaign began to restore this stunningly gorgeous and historic building. 

The dome, the roofs and the stained-glass windows were among the many needed repairs, and at last, in 1999, the 100th anniversary of the parish, the church’s interior decoration was fully restored with the installation of new lighting, new doors and a new sound system. The 26 roof angels, fully rebuilt, are now all present and accounted for, gleaming cheerfully from St. Mary’s rooftops. 

And as St. Mary of the Angels has the longest aisle of any church in Chicago, today the fully restored church is a highly popular site for weddings and other special sacred events. 

Catholic historyPilgrimagesTravel
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