Phoenix is home to a flotilla of funky churches and stunning sacred sites. Check out our ode to unique places of worship and the intriguing stories behind them.
4633 E. Shea Blvd., Phoenix
This Astroturf-toned architectural offspring of a pyramid and a spaceship spawns all manner of compulsive fantasies – barreling up its sides in a 4x4, sneaking in to spy on cultish rituals – but nothing you fathom could compare to its far-out founder, “Rainbow Prophet” Neal Frisby. In the 1960s, God allegedly bade the then-alcoholic, dope-smoking barber move from California to Phoenix and whispered in his ear the bizarre blueprints for a cathedral where he could preach his apocalyptic brand of brimstone. The edifice is rife with architectural footnotes referencing Revelation. Seven concrete layers, symbolizing seven great prophets and the Church’s seven ages, rise to a capstone reminiscent of the Eye of Providence on a dollar bill. The capstone represents both Frisby, who fancied himself the final prophet, and his followers, a rarefied group who would rise to heaven in the rapture, circa 1986. The multihued seats are a nod to Revelation’s rainbow-haloed angel (Frisby) who will reveal God’s secrets. Frisby’s ’80s evangelist TV show attracted worshippers from as far away as Nigeria to the 4,000-seat church, where he claimed to heal hundreds of people, even creating eardrums and backbones. The congregation dwindled as Frisby succumbed to senility, finally bequeathing his church to former Green Bay Packers wide receiver Robert Brooks, whom he’d met two months prior, before dying in 2005. Brooks tore down Frisby’s on-site house, renamed his parish The Trendsetters Church and continues to preach there.
Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church
2915 W. Northern Ave., Phoenix, 602-395-0421
With its carved dragon sentries and sweeping pagoda-style eaves, the Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church presents an intriguing aesthetic paradox – were it not for the twin crosses perched on the roof, one might enter it expecting to find dim sum carts and a bustling service staff, not holy communion. “The building would not be a church without the cross,” Father Joseph Nguyen told the Arizona Republic shortly before the church’s dedication in 2010. “This church would not be characteristic of the Vietnamese culture without the red-tiled roof, curving eaves and dragons.” Dedicated to the estimated 100,000 Vietnamese Catholics who perished in waves of persecution in the 18th and 19th centuries following the faith’s introduction to Vietnam, the north Phoenix church serves a congregation of more than 1,800 and holds services strictly in Vietnamese.
First Christian Church
6750 N. Seventh Ave., Phoenix, 602-246-9206, fccphx.com
“As the square has always signified integrity and the sphere universality, the triangle stands for aspiration... Here is a church where the whole edifice is in the attitude of prayer.” So said geometric genius Frank Lloyd Wright of the First Unitarian Society Church in Madison, Wisconsin. But he might have been speaking about the First Christian Church in Phoenix, if he had only known he designed it. Originally commissioned in 1950 by Southwestern Christian Seminary in Phoenix for a never-built university campus, the plans for the retro-futuristic/pseudo-Mesoamerican temple sat on a Taliesin West shelf for 20 years until church leaders asked Wright’s widow for permission to use them. Done in Wright’s preferred media – native stone and concrete – the 40-year-old church boasts a raft of Wrightious flourishes, including blue carpet-lined pews (representing Christian unity), a soundstage-like chapel, a saguaro-shaped cross, and Wright’s signature red tile, stamped with his autograph. Still, First Christian’s defining feature is undoubtedly its spear-like, 120-foot bell tower, planted into the grounds next to the church as if hurled from heaven itself.
Historic First Presbyterian Church
402 W. Monroe St., Phoenix
Anybody who’s been to Prescott is probably familiar with “Whiskey Row.” But Phoenix was once home to a row with a more sober sobriquet: the less-known, less-fight-and-fire-prone “Church Row,” located on Monroe Street between Second and Fourth avenues. Until the 1960s, this stretch accommodated half a dozen churches. Today, only one of the original “Church Row” chapels still stands: Historic First Presbyterian Church. Members not only attend the first church to be incorporated in Arizona (the church started in 1879) in an attractive Spanish Renaissance-style building, but they can also avail themselves of the full gymnasium on the third floor. The 60,000-square-foot building was completed in 1927 for around $400,000, and many of the original furnishings and fixtures remain, including the wooden pews, metal discs on the sanctuary floor (part of the original heating and cooling system), and a 1920s organ pipe – still booming devotional canons – outfitted with 2,188 pipes of various sizes and tones. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the church holds services every Sunday and rings its bell chimes every half hour, the last holy holdout on historic “Church Row.”
Asbury United Methodist Church
1601 W. Indian School Rd., Phoenix, 602-279-2369, aplaceforallpeople.com
Variously known as the “crown” and the “cupcake chapel,” this little puff-pastry of a church on Indian School Road and 15th Avenue has inspired bemused looks and drive-by double-takes since its first service in 1967. Architect Mel Ensign reportedly based its snack-cake design on the Old Testament “Rose of Sharon” pseudonym for Christ. “The crosses on top are life-giving stamens and pistils,” Ensign wrote. “The [chapel] is a seed-pod where life is regenerated.” Ensign’s notes also indicate that the chapel “represents a crown for kinship with Jesus.” Pastor Stephen Govett evinces a certain fondness for the tiny, 74-person chapel, which gets less use than the larger “sanctuary” church next door. “We use it for special services and nighttime services,” he says. “We’ve had a couple of weddings there.” In keeping with the gay-friendly ministry’s non-patriarchal gestalt, both the cupcake chapel and the sanctuary hold services in-the-round.
8620 E. McDonald Dr., Scottsdale, 480-948-8800, thegardenaz.com
On mornings when it would take an act of God to get the brood breakfasted and blazered by 9 a.m., The Garden drive-in church can be a benediction. The erstwhile Glass and Garden Community Church was the brainchild of pastor Floyd Goulooze, who moved from California to Scottsdale in 1963 and purchased 7.5 acres of cotton fields for his Field of Dreams-esque vision of a populous parish. Phoenix Zoo architect E. Logan Campbell designed the 1,400-seat church with a community-fostering circular structure, mid-century-modern parabolas and indoor garden replete with running stream. But the pièce de résistance was a parking lot dotted with speakers inspired by the go-go days of drive-in theaters. Parishioners parked, rolled down their windows, and turned on a speaker, while an usher distributed transistor radios that picked up the non-denominational service taking place inside. When the church opened in 1966, it attracted thousands. But, hemmed in by Pima land to the east, the area didn’t grow as much as Goulooze expected. The church suffered a setback in 2005 when then-pastor Patrick Shetler stole an estimated $100,000 from the collection plates. Today, the church has a new pastor, former chiropractor Gene James, and the speakers, transistors and stream are things of the past. Congregants simply park and tune their radios to AM 1700, or stay home, watch online videos of the sermons and tithe via PayPal.
4950 W. Tonopah Dr., Glendale, 623-516-1413,
The nine gold, onion-shaped domes perched atop this Sikh temple almost look like a desert mirage; nobody expects to see the visage of a 19,000-square-foot palace that blends east Indian and Moroccan architecture north of the Loop 101 freeway. But there it is, nestled at the bottom of the Hedgpeth Hills, a beacon of benevolence on a 5-acre dry mountain site. The exterior of the temple, or gurdwara, features a facade of stucco framed by concrete columns and a roomy terrace. Inside, long white hallways lead to a 4,000-square-foot prayer hall adorned with crystal chandeliers and a red runner carpet leading to an elaborate podium; a courtyard characterized by large, ribbony archways and a fountain; a dining hall where meals are served after every service; and an “Awareness Center” where the public can witness Sikh worship services. The gurdwara, which opened in the spring of 2006, welcomes the public to attend or watch any of their regular services.
St. Sava Serbian
4436 E. McKinley St., Phoenix, 602-275-7360, stsava.com
Oh, the agony and the ecstasy. Serbian artisans including Belgrade iconographer Aleksandar Zivadinovic toiled for more than a year painting these expansive, Byzantine-style biblical scenes within the domes of St. Sava church. But it was worth the work when His Holiness Kyr Irinej, patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, visited the parish to bless the frescoes last December. The construction of the building had been an even more protracted process: The church was incorporated in 1958, and in 1961 construction was completed on the church hall, where services and fundraisers were held to support the building of the actual church in 1974. The architecture is a marriage of the Serbo-Byzantine style with that staple of Valley housing, a sienna-tiled roof. Frescoes, a type of mural painted into wet plaster to increase longevity, are a hallmark of Serbian spiritual sites – the St. Sava churches in Jackson, California, and Libertyville, Illinois, are also saturated with stunning biblical scenes. The public can see the church during Sunday morning or Saturday Vesper services, and every November, the church hosts SerbFest, featuring folklore performances and Serbian cuisine.
Iglesia La Luz Del Mundo
1206 N. Laurel Ave., Phoenix, 602-254-0989, luzdelmundo.net
When Pastor Carlos A. Montemayor of Iglesia La Luz Del Mundo church told the Arizona Republic, “We are not shy about architecture,” he could have been speaking for the worldwide members of La Luz Del Mundo, a Christian denomination based in Mexico whose churches are meant to architecturally embody God’s magnificence. The flagship church in Guadalajara resembles a stairway to heaven, but Montemayor’s design of a luminous globe better reflects a faith whose name means “Light of the World.” In Mexico, according to the Los Angeles Times, the sect has enflamed controversy, including accusations of cultish practices and sexual assault, which its patriarch, Samuel Joaquin, denies. In Phoenix, the church has engendered puzzlement for its mosque-like shape and strict practices such as a dress code for women (no pants or makeup). Construction of the church, which is being funded and built by members, was ongoing at press time, but that hasn’t stopped the church from baptizing people in fiberglass pools on the construction site – and enthusiastically posting the videos to its website.
Saint Maria Goretti Catholic Church
6261 N. Granite Reef Rd., Scottsdale, 480-948-8380, smgaz.org
Here’s a real slice of surreal spiritualism. In addition to the etched glass rendering of Salvador Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross, which hovers in the air over the altar like a transparent angel, a former SMG parishioner named Gianna Talone claimed in the late ’80s to have received messages from the Virgin Mary, which she published in a series of books titled I am your Jesus of Mercy. She subsequently moved to Maryland (seriously), and her experiences were deemed inauthentic by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. But even if the church hasn’t become a Lourdes-esque destination, there’s plenty of divine decor to behold here, starting with the church’s curvy shell exterior. Wendell Rossman, a Catholic architect who designed Chandler Center for the Arts, created the crosses-on-half-cracked-eggshells aesthetic in 1972, padding the structure’s wooden frame with foam before power-spraying the outside with gunite and plastering the interior. Ornamental touches – like a cross-shaped, stained-glass skylight beaming fractured hues of blue, pink and orange down on the daytime congregation; a 60-foot hyperboloid dome; and life-size bronze statues of Jesus and Mary flanking the altar – make Saint Maria Goretti a real revelation.