Houston’s Houses of Worship

Seeking the Light Within: A Day in the Life of a City of Faith

From cathedrals to mandirs, the doors are always open at these nine spiritual spaces.

By Steven Devadanam March 1, 2016 Published in the March 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Houston

1150 Brand Ln., Stafford

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North America's first traditional mandir features 33,000 individual stones hand-carved in India.

Image: Scott Dalton

If God is in the detail, surely the divinities must smile on North America’s first traditional Hindu mandir. The gleaming white shrine and architectural marvel—built according to the eons-old Hindu architecture method of Vastu Shastra—features 33,000 individual stones hand-carved in India, painstakingly reassembled on the Stafford compound.

Past the shimmering reflecting pool and twin babbling fountains, at the top of the white stone steps, glass doors lead to the all-white inner sanctum of murtis—sacred images of deities and beloved gurus—while Hindu bhajans, or songs of devotion, emanate from white speakers. The micro-view of each intricate carving is stunning; the macro-view of the temple at dusk, breathtaking.

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The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir even has its own souvenir shop for visitors.

Image: Scott Dalton


Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

1111 St. Joseph Pkwy., Downtown

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Deacon Leonard Lockett offers communion during Sunday mass at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

Image: Scott Dalton

“How awesome is this place!” reads the sign outside the Roman Catholic cathedral, quoting Genesis 28:17. At 32,000 square feet, this mega-structure of limestone and white marble encompasses an entire downtown Houston block. Equally looming is the presence of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, a rising media and clergy star who’s been tapped for international executive leadership by Pope Francis.

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Prayers are offered to the Virgin Mary at the Co-Cathedral.

Image: Scott Dalton

But there is intimacy within the colossal, Romanesque sanctuary that seats more than 1,800. In quiet faith, parishioners dab their fingers in holy water, bowing to the massive centerpiece crucifix. Before mass, the slightest footstep elicits a canyon-esque echo, fading away to reveal whispers of prayer.

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Parishioners fill the pews at Sunday mass in the Co-Cathedral.

Image: Scott Dalton


Congregation Emanu El

1500 Sunset Blvd., Museum District

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Rabbi Oren Hayon cradles a Torah scroll at Congregation Emanu El.

Image: Scott Dalton

The simple, striking architecture of this congregation’s 1940s-era building is a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright—a perfect match with the reform synagogue’s approach, a modern take on Judaism. The sanctuary is one of the few in the South to feature an organ, and the temple was one of the first in the nation to house an art gallery, a regular fixture during FotoFest.

But most modern of all is the congregation itself, says Rabbi Oren Hayon (only the sixth in Emanu-El’s existence): “We have LGBT families, Jews of color, new Jews and blended families,” he says. “I think we’re a modern, accurate depiction of urban Jewish culture in the world today.”

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Rabbi Hayon uses a silver yad to follow the text while reading from Emanu El's Torah scrolls.

Image: Scott Dalton


Fifth Ward Church of Christ

4308 Stonewall St., Fifth Ward

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Members of the Fifth Ward Church of Christ arrive in their Sunday finest.

Image: Scott Dalton

The updated, earth-toned building just off the East Freeway is a symbol of a renewed Fifth Ward. Congregants dress to reflect that vitality: men in tailored suits, women in hats worthy of the Kentucky Derby.

Inside, Pastor Gary Smith strides the length of his stage and even into the crowd, preaching common-sense faith and empathy over smug piety, and eliciting laughs, too: He’s funnier than a Friday-night comic.

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Gary Smith preaches to the congregation at Fifth Ward Church of Christ on Sunday morning.

Image: Scott Dalton

In keeping with Church of Christ tradition, the congregation is the choir. Worshippers effortlessly fall into their soprano, alto, baritone and bass hymnal parts, executing perfect, fluttering vibrato as they greet one another and scribble tithe checks. It's a stunning, glorious, joyful sound.

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Church of Christ members follow along in their own Bibles during service.

Image: Scott Dalton


Gurudwara Sahib of Houston

5512 Breen Dr., Antoine Corridor

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The Guru Granth Sahib (the central religious text of Sikhism) is carried into the worship hall at the Gurdwara Sahib.

Image: Scott Dalton

The scholarly Sukhchain Singh, a former law and English professor (and banker) leads the Katha—lessons of principles and history based on the 10 historic Sikh Gurus—to hundreds of Indian Sikh devotees each Sunday at this large white temple in North Houston.

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Men and women typically sit on opposite sides of the worship hall in the gurdwara.

Image: Scott Dalton

Worship includes kirtan—traditional, devotional call-and-response hymns accompanied by a harmonium and tabla drums—and a langar, in which followers and visitors alike share a free vegetarian meal. A trip here offers a window into the enigmatic, egalitarian religion: reverence, self-discipline, and service to humanity are the faith’s pillars.

“We are spirit-warriors,” says the thickly bearded Singh. “To be Sikh is to seek God, and serve and protect the innocent, at all times.”

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Worship at the gurdwara includes kirtan—traditional, devotional call-and-response hymns accompanied by a harmonium and tabla drums.

Image: Scott Dalton


St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Church

24 Tidwell Rd., Northline

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Father Lubomir Kupecz uses holy water to make the sign of the cross on a worshipper's forehead at St. Vladimir's Russian Orthodox Church.

Image: Scott Dalton

Tuzik, the old, adopted guard dog, yawns at arriving worshippers who view this church’s bright, metallic gold dome and cross as a beacon among the rush of traffic on Tidwell Road in Northline.

Lubov Stukalova is among the city’s 2,000 first- and second-generation Orthodox Russians who attend services here and consider St. Vladimir’s a community center as much as a reminder of life before the Soviet Union collapse. “To me, it is home,” she says simply, gesturing to the church’s hand-carved wooden altar, brass candle stands, statues and portraits of Orthodox saints.

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Parishioners light candles and offer prayers inside St. Vladimir's.

In an effort worthy of Michelangelo, church leader Father Lubomir Kupecz, who’s also an iconographer, is raising funds so that he himself may paint an altar mural featuring Orthodox and Biblical imagery.

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Father Kupecz is raising funds to paint an altar mural featuring Orthodox and Biblical imagery.

Image: Scott Dalton


Trinity Lutheran Church

800 Houston Ave., Sixth Ward

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Organist Carla Barrows plays the instrument at Trinity Lutheran Church that boasts over 3,000 pipes.

Image: Scott Dalton

Established in 1879, Trinity heads a mission to provide daily meals for downtown’s homeless, many of whom fit their entire worldly possessions under the pew as they join Sunday worship alongside families who drive to this historic congregation from across the city.

The church is known for its music, with the mammoth organ—which boasts more than 3,000 pipes, some of them 20 feet high—serving as chief instrument of faith. Its powerful C major chord produces a pew-vibrating, body-rumbling blast that Trinity CFO Ron Lacy describes simply as “transcendent.”

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Parishioners take communion during Sunday worship service at Trinity.

Image: Scott Dalton

As added music outreach, each morning at 7:45, the church’s 25 carillon pipes serenade beleaguered Houstonians rushing to judgment at the neighboring City of Houston Municipal Courts.

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An acolyte carries the cross into Trinity's sanctuary at the beginning of Sunday service.

Image: Scott Dalton


Vietnam Buddhist Center

10002 Synott Rd., Sugar Land

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Monks lead a Sunday service at the Vietnamese Buddhist Center.

Image: Scott Dalton

Like a spiritual Statue of Liberty, the center’s 72-foot polished concrete sculpture of Quan Âm is a pillar of healing for Vietnamese communities displaced from their homeland—indeed, for anyone seeking refuge from life’s struggles.

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A reclining Buddha rests on the grounds of the Vietnamese Buddhist Center.

Image: Scott Dalton

The sprawling grounds are tranquil, incense-infused, transporting: A bridge over a pond leads to various shrines and sculpture gardens featuring the aforementioned Quan Âm (one of Buddhism’s most revered divinities, or bodhisattvas), a sleeping Buddha, and a three-story pagoda housing a traditional gong.

Though the Center’s main sanctuary is being rebuilt after collapsing in 2014, undaunted Vietnamese worshippers attend Sunday services and Tuesday and Friday chants in the Dharma Hall. Buddhist or not, all are invited to meditate amid the palm trees and ethereal icons.

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Devout lay-practitioners are wear light blue or grey robes inside the pagoda at the Vietnamese Buddhist Center.

Image: Scott Dalton


Islamic Da’wah Center

201 Travis St., Downtown

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In 1994, Hakeem Olajuwon purchased the Doric-columned Houston National Bank with the aim of preserving the grand monolith and creating an urban Islamic center. It became Houston’s first downtown mosque upon opening in 2002, as well as the city’s first da’wah center, which welcomes non-Muslims. Hundreds pack in each Friday for prayer, while others attend daily tours to marvel at the 40,000-square-foot structure.

A new library, built in 2015, merges modern and Islamic design with white marble, traditional arches, mashrabiyas (ornate wooden latticework) and teak furnishings. That, along with a planned Islamic art and history center, says executive director Ameer Abuhalimeh, will “present Islam in its purest form: moderation, balance and mercy.”

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The Library of Islamic Knowledge is now open to the public at the downtown Da'Wah Center.


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