When someone refers to the Church in Italy, that usually means the Catholic Church, and I’d had a difficult history with the Catholic Church long before I came to Italy for my citizenship.

I was baptized in a Catholic church, raised in the Catholic faith, attended catechism, and took my first communion in the Church. My family attended church not just on the big holidays, but every Sunday. By all counts, I was a good Catholic girl.

When I was fourteen, I had my first real boyfriend. His father was a minster in a tiny Christian church set on a lake, and at the boyfriend’s request, I occasionally played the piano for a service. After a bit, the boyfriend wanted me to be baptized in the lake like his father had done for the other parishioners. So I did what a good Catholic girl would do—I went to discuss the request with our priest.

“My boyfriend wants his dad to baptize me in the lake at their church,” I asked. “Why do some religions baptize people at birth with a little holy water like we do, and why do some do a full dunking like that in a lake or something?” He could have answered that with an enlightened response about how all religions have merit, they all have their personal beliefs and rituals, and that was just a different way of committing one’s life to the same God we all worshipped. But that’s not how he responded.

“It would be wrong for you to be baptized like this. The Catholic Church doesn’t believe in that, so you aren’t allowed do that,” he said, completely dismissing me without ever answering any of my questions about religion or faith or rituals. And that was the end for me. I never went to mass again.

I was partially just a rebellious teenager who questioned authority, but my rebellion about the Church was much deeper and more significant, and in the coming years I found myself questioning everything about any sort of organized religion at all. I had been a biology major in college and was a rational, scientific thinker. The stories in the Bible, for someone like me, were impossible to believe. When my late husband, who had been raised a Protestant, suggested I was taking things too literally, I decided to try a “less religious” church and attended services at a Unitarian church. It was a nice network of people, but mostly what I learned about myself after a while was that I didn’t really want or need to attend church.

During this time in my life, I read a book called The History of God. A former Catholic nun detailed the history of a long line of religions starting thousands of years before Christianity. The net of her theory was that all religions had been created by man specifically to fill a void. If a group of people suffered from hunger, they created a god of plenty to pray to. If they felt oppressed, they invented a god who would protect them. The idea resonated with me and from that point forward not only did I not feel the need to attend church, but I also started thinking that all religions were a farce. In the coming years, as I watched people all over the world do horrible things in the name of some religion or their God, my beliefs were cemented, and I finally understood that I was an Atheist.

So why would a person with such a past relationship with the Catholic Church ever visit one again? It wasn’t until my time in southern Italy that I understood.

Over 25 years of traveling, I’d visited many, many churches, not just in Italy, but in many different countries on several continents. They were often listed in the “top sights to see” for just about any destination, so it was hard to avoid them. I usually trudged through them quickly, wondering how anyone could believe this stuff, and moved on to more interesting things—at least to me—like food markets or street art shows.

The first day David and I were in Rionero, as we walked around the streets very close to our apartment, I photographed some of the churches, the sun peeking behind their tall steeples. I listened each day when the bells tolled for each hour, all the churches a minute or two out of sync such that the bells rang for a long time just to tell us it was noon. We stepped inside Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta in Melfi only because Maria urged us to but stayed only long enough to snap a single photo. In Monte Sant Angelo and Gubbio we took photographs of several churches only because the late afternoon sun casting an orange glow on the white stone was so pretty. We did go into Basilica di San Domenico in Siena, but only so I could show David the severed head and thumb of Saint Catherine, more of a freak show than a religious experience. The most “religious” experience we had during our first month in Italy was visiting the Ferrari Museum and driving the F1 simulator.

And then we went to Palermo.

It was pouring rain by the time we got to our hotel in Palermo, but we didn’t want that to stop us from seeing the city. The hotel had given us a tourist map of the highlights in the centro storico which included Cattedrale di Palermo, Chiesa della Martorana, Cappella Palatina, Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria (and monastery), and Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore. There were other things to see, including a few famous outdoor markets, but the list was very heavy on churches. “How many churches do you think there are in this town?” I asked. David pulled out his phone and the first article that came up was “14 Churches in Palermo You Simply Have to Visit”.

“Fourteen?! Are you kidding me?!” I asked. The article said that many of the churches in Palermo offered rooftop access for sweeping views over the city. One of my favorite things when travelling had always been to climb high and see a city from above. We had ascended the tower in Bologna for the view, had hiked up the side of the town in Rionero to see the town from that vantage point, and had circled the top of the fortress in Montalcino for the vast views of the Tuscan landscape. Although I still didn’t feel the need to visit these churches for religious reasons, I couldn’t say no to the opportunity to see the views of Palermo from the roof.

Our first stop was the Palermo Cathedral, which we had read was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Italy has more of these sites than any country in the world, thanks to the thousands of years of history in this region dating back to the Greeks and Romans. The many invasions across the peninsula that had to be crossed by trade routes added even more interesting history.

The cathedral was enormous, and the alter in the Chapel of St. Rosalia was solid silver. “That infuriates me,” said David when he saw the silver alter, referring to the massive wealth tied up in the entire Catholic Church in the form of art and jewels. “So much money sitting there wasted that could be used to do some good in the world.” He had his own complicated past with the Catholic Church. As the son of Puerto Ricans, he had been raised in the Catholic Church, attended mass each week, and went to parochial school all the way through high school. While he didn’t consider himself an Atheist like I did, he no longer believed there was any value to organized religion. And the Catholic Church, I was now seeing, just made him angry.

While he was fuming, I was having a different experience. I wanted to know more about the history of the structure itself which was so massive it covered an entire city block. The church was erected by a Norman archbishop in Palermo, I read on the sign, who was King William II’s minister, on the spot where a Byzantine Basilica sat prior. It was believed that the earlier basilica was founded by Pope Gregory I but turned into a mosque when the Saracens took the city in the 9th century. Palermo reminded me of Seville, Spain, where the Arab influences and Byzantine churches blend with Catholic cathedrals. The architecture was stunning.

Next, we visited the Normal Castle, primarily because we’d been told we couldn’t miss seeing the Capella Palatina. Prior to arriving in Palermo, I didn’t know much about the history of the Norman invasion, which lasted about 150 years beginning in 999 AD. That fell into the Middle Ages, a period of history between the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD and the start of Renaissance Period nearly 1000 years later. While I knew a fair amount of history of the Roman Empire, and information about the Renaissance could be found everywhere, I knew next to nothing about the Middle Ages. Our visit to the Norman Castle was my first education.

I’d visited many castles and palaces around Europe, so we walked through the castle portion rather quickly, more intent on getting to the chapel on the upper level that we had been told to see. Above its front door was a large mosaic with a ton of gold leaf which looked very Arabic. While that was impressive, we were wholly unprepared for the inside of the chapel. It was covered completely on the walls, floor and ceiling with tiny mosaics and more gold than I’d ever seen in one small chapel. The mixture of what looked like Byzantine art, Islamic symbols and Christian saints had me completely confused. “Is this a Christian chapel or a mosque or something else?” I asked David, but he was as confused as I was, especially by the image of the archbishop being anointed by God. That certainly seemed narcissistic!

After our visit, over an Aperol spritz in a café, I pulled out my phone. I needed to understand the history of this place, of the Normans invading southern Italy, and of what happened here during the Middle Ages. Suddenly, a church became more than a meeting place to honor a god I didn’t believe in. Churches were a window into the past. I now could see that it was impossible to really understand the history of Italy, the history of my ancestors, without visiting churches. The Roman Catholic Church had been the dominant religion in Italy for over 1500 years. And for much of that time, the power structure, the rulers of the land, were inextricably linked to the Church. I couldn’t learn about one without learning about the other and my appetite for learning became insatiable after Capella Palatina.

At Chiesa Santa Caterina we marveled at the intricate marble mosaics and discussed what it must have been like to be a stone mason during the period when these churches were built. We climbed to the top of Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore and marveled at the view across Palermo out to the ocean. We walked through ancient Greek temples in Segesta and Paestum to learn about the Greek history in this part of the world before the Roman Empire. We wandered through three churches in Matera to understand the incredible history of a place that had been continuously occupied since the Palaeolithic era (10th millennium BC) and we marveled that frescoes were still visible in the Sassi.

We walked through all the churches we could in Bari, Ripacandida, Benevento, Caserta, Salerno, Ravello, Amalfi, Castellabate, Ruvo del Monte, San Fele, Atella, Barile, and Rapolla. Our last visit was back to the church we had first entered, Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta in Melfi, and on this second visit, I took my time. At each church, I gave little thought to the Church as an institution and focused instead on the history, the art, and the architecture of the place.

We visited crypts that overflowed with architectural beauty and held relics of saints, including two apostles. Instead of balking at the story of Christ rising from the dead, I thought about these apostles merely as men, and thought about what they might have endured during their lives. When I saw a small bone of a saint on display in a tiny church, instead of balking at the idea of saints, I wanted to learn what had led these people to revere this man, and how keeping a small piece of them in their church brought them comfort.

In total, we visited twenty five churches and five crypts during our last month in Italy—and would have visited dozens more had they been open. The experience helped me let go of my history with the Catholic Church so that I could focus instead on learning about the history of my people.