Years ago, when I was new to the publishing business, I was given responsibility for religious books at a major New York firm. My portfolio was commercial, not academic. Just the same, I’d go every year to one or another meeting of Christian eggheads, and I’d develop associations under the rubric of “what-if?” or “who knows?” Nothing ever panned out. I did make a few friends, although they were other commercial publishers, and that did lead to something.
This little “what-are-we-doing-here?” band of brothers always set aside one night in our shared travels for drinks and dinner, and a day for visiting churches or shrines.
I recall especially the time we were in St. Louis and heading to our dinner gathering, when, from the highway, we caught a glimpse of the city’s Cathedral Basilica, with its green-tiled dome and – in the days before GPS – figured out how to get there. The doors were locked, and we managed to rouse Archbishop John L. May himself from cocktails to give us a tour of the magnificent interior. It never hurts to ask.
Thomas J. Craughwell’s new book, 101 Places to Pray Before You Die, would have been a fine companion in those journeys I and my pals made forty years ago, although his entry on the Basilica is about the “Old Cathedral” in St. Louis, a church I’ve never seen and which dates to 1764. The one my friends and I visited was dedicated in 1914 and consecrated a dozen years later. The Old Cathedral, as Mr. Craughwell describes it, is lovely (much like St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City), and still shows the 18th-century sensibility that built it.
But Mr. Craughwell’s book is not exactly what you might think. Its title picks up on a lately popular publishing trend that began in 2003 with Patricia Schultz’s numerically more ambitious 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, a bestselling Baedeker to the whole wide world. (The word “Baedeker,” which now is applied to any sort of guidebook, comes from the last name of the 19th-century German publisher who was the first to widely market travel guides.)
Ms. Schultz’s book, which reached #1 on the New York Times list, was followed by an expanded sequel focused exclusively on the United States and Canada. Smart marketing. In the case of Mr. Craughwell’s 101 Places to Pray Before You Die, it might seem that the sequel has come first: his book is wholly about America, which in the era of terrorism abroad and economic downturn at home is probably also smart marketing.
And there certainly are 101 churches and shrines worth going out of your way to visit right here at home. The book is cleverly subtitled: A Roamin’ Catholic’s Guide. (Had I been asked, I’d have suggested, at least a “burst” on the cover to the effect: U.S.A. Edition. That would have prevented the possibility of somebody buying the book online just before a trip to Rome, only to discover. . . .Well, that won’t happen to TCT readers.) With the success of this book, Mr. Craughwell may be encouraged to do Canada, Mexico, Europe, and who knows where else.
101 Places to Pray is alphabetically organized in fifty-one chapters by state (the District of Columbia is included) and by locale. Some states have just one site; others have many. New York, for instance, has thirteen. Of course, the distance between the Basilica and National Shrine of Our Lady of Victory in Lackawanna in Western, NY and the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in N.Y.C. is nearly 400 miles, and similar distances between sites in other states suggest this is a guidebook to be saved for visits divided by many years.
Summertime vacations are often occasions of family driving trips, just for fun or to include college visits, and I cannot think of a more affordable ($13.99 on Amazon) accompaniment to such journeys than 101 Places to Pray Before you Die.
Yet I also can’t help observing – in a flipped paraphrase of Pascal’s famous aperçu – that Mr. Craughwell should have taken more time to write a longer book. Of course, I don’t know what publisher-imposed constraints may have been in play, but only nine sites in New York City? And six of them revolve around Al Smith (a great man, to be sure) and, with one exception, none of those six are places you’d be likely to pray, as, for instance, the Fulton Fish Market.
In its five boroughs, New York City has nearly as many churches as it has Chinese restaurants. Well. . .okay, there are probably six-thousand Chinese restaurants and only 500 Catholic churches, but many of them are must-sees, including: St. Peter’s in lower Manhattan, the first-ever Catholic church in New York (although the current building is not the original) and a place to which victims were brought on 9/11; the domed St. Jean Baptiste on the Upper East Side, which – despite its name – is an extraordinary example of the Italian Renaissance Revival style, especially in the apse; the Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton down on State Street, noted for its Georgian Revival architecture and its almost austere interior. I could go on.
Here’s a hope for the very talented Mr. Craughwell: he and his publisher, Franciscan Media, should tackle this marvelous idea with gusto, expanding the list as far as it’s possible to sensibly take it – in the United States and beyond. Ms. Schultz’s book in its latest edition is more that 1200 pages. So just a thousand more pages to go for the next edition of Places to Pray Before You Die. Let’s give Herr Baedeker something he could be proud of.