It rises angularly above a rugged spur, one-quarter of the way up a shrubby, salmon-colored butte 1,000 feet high. It’s anchored in the red rock by the base of a concrete, 90-foot cruciform, wedged deep between two pinnacles. Photos don’t do justice to Chapel of the Holy Cross—your first glimpse in person will leave you in awe and might be the inspirational highlight of your vacation travel to Sedona, Arizona.
This magnificent structure is 90 minutes north of Phoenix, just outside Sedona in the northernmost portion of the diverse Coconino National Forest. Most of your drive will be up Interstate 17; then it’s on to Arizona Highway 179 before Chapel Road winds you to the shrine’s parking lot. Highway 179 is the famous, 7.5-mile route through the spectacular red rocks. It’s one of only 30 All-American Roads, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Chapel of the Holy Cross is officially Roman Catholic, managed by the Diocese of Phoenix as part of a local Sedona parish. But it invites and embraces visitors of all beliefs. A parish church with its own congregation when it opened in 1956, the chapel hasn’t been home to a regular Catholic liturgy in decades. Today the only organized activity is an ecumenical Taize Service every Monday afternoon—30 minutes of readings, prayers sung in extended repetition, and meditation. The public is invited, including visitors on vacation, but the chapel and its gift shop are open for several hours every day in case you prefer to explore on your own at a quieter time. Just don’t confuse “at a quieter time” with “in solitude”—visitors drop in daily from opening till closing, individually on hikes and by the busload. Most visitors must walk to the entrance up a winding ramp from the parking lot, but young children and the disabled may ride to the large entrance garden patio aboard a shuttle.
Inside, the chapel is small and sparsely appointed. Spiritual banners hang from slanted walls that narrow the room from floor to ceiling. Seven rows of pews on either side of a center aisle face a small, simple altar, with additional bench seating along both walls. Banks of red-cupped votive candles flank the altar, behind which is a sectioned, floor-to-ceiling window and a direct view of Cathedral Rock. Long ago, a large symbol of the Crucifixion hung behind the altar. But the sculptor had used broad artistic license, and the interpretation was so shocking and controversial that eventually someone had it secretly removed and, many believe, destroyed.
How Chapel of the Holy Cross Came to be Built: A 24-year Journey
As much as a testament to spirituality and faith, Chapel of the Holy Cross also is a testament to patience and persistence. It opened in 1956 after more than a year of construction, but was conceived a quarter-century earlier. Marguerite Brunswig Straude was a wealthy sculptor and philanthropist. Devoutly Catholic but also a believer in the interrelationship between art and high religious calling, she had a vision in 1932—she “saw” a cross on the brand-new Empire State Building. Inspired, she set out to build a skyscraper cathedral and collaborated on plans with Lloyd Wright, son of the eminent architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
They reached an agreement to build their church in Budapest overlooking the Danube, but the onset of World War II ended their dream. A decade or so later, Straude revived her quest in response to her mother’s dying wish. Working with new collaborators, she scaled her idea to a chapel in the red rocks of Sedona. One last obstacle remained, and it wasn’t small. The selected site was on government land and work could not begin without a government OK. For a while, bureaucracy threatened the project. But Straude finally turned to her friend, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who spoke with the Secretary of Interior and got her the permit.
Everything about Chapel of the Holy Cross is fascinating, from its setting to its architecture to its backstory. It deserves its Award of Honor from the American Institute of Architects and it status as one of the Seven Man-Made Wonders of Arizona. And no matter your beliefs, it deserves your time and attention.