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Sacred buildings — churches

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By Christina Bakerwriter and teacher

In the first of our new sacred buildings series, discover the wonder of the world’s churches

St Peter's of Rome

St Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican City — the most important church in Roman Catholicism

Churches have formed the stage for historical events, from the assassination of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in 1953. More importantly, they are time capsules showing cultural development through the ages, reflecting the architecture, art, wealth and politics of the society who built them.

Essential facts

  • Many churches are built on an east-west axis in the shape of a cross (cruciform) with the chancel and sanctuary (front section from where the service is conducted) and nave (where the congregation gathers) crossed by the transept (‘arms’ of the cross).
  • Domes, bell towers (campaniles), steeples or spires reach upwards towards God. The first of the ‘Churches’ activity sheets, ‘Common church features’ provides information on other features common to church interiors.

Famous cathedrals

The most important church in Christendom is St Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican City. Other cathedrals renowned for their architecture include St Mark’s in Venice, Notre Dame de Paris, St Paul’s in London (subscribers can download Poster, ‘St Paul’s Cathedral’), Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Westminster Abbey in London and Saint Basil’s in Moscow.


Introduction: If possible, arrange a visit to two contrasting churches and (with permission) ask the children to take digital images of the features. They should discuss the similarities and differences between them.

Church features: Ask the children to research church features using books and the internet. Show them images of church exteriors and interiors. They should identify the features (pulpit, font) and discuss their purpose. Ask the children to create a crossword puzzle based on church features.

Stained-glass stories: Tell the children that stained-glass windows were originally used to demonstrate biblical stories. Ask them to work in groups to create their own ‘stained-glass’ versions of famous Bible stories (for example, ‘The Good Samaritan’, ‘Noah’s Ark’) for display on the classroom window. Each child should illustrate one part of the story by drawing a design using black marker on acetate and either painting the colours or gluing coloured cellophane to the sheet.

St Paul’s: Ask the children to use the second of the ‘Churches’ activity sheets, ‘St Paul’s Cathedral quiz’ and the St Paul’s website ( to research information about the cathedral (Answers are provided on the third of the ‘Churches’ activity sheets, ‘St Paul’s Cathedral quiz – answers).

Sculpting gargoyle: Notre Dame de Paris is famous for its gargoyles. Some are functional (drain pipes) and some ornamental (called chimera). According to superstition, the gargoyles’ grotesque features help to frighten away evil spirits. Show the children images of gargoyles and ask them to design their own gargoyle heads using clay.

Famous cathedrals: Give the children a list of famous European cathedrals (see ‘Essential facts’, above). Working in pairs, they should use the internet to research ten facts about each one (such as architect, how long it took to build, key features) and make rough sketches of the exteriors. Which features do they have in common?

Don’t forget the accompanying mini Poster, ‘St Paul’s Catherdral’, below.