Chapels and Chaplains

By Maeve Maddox

Because I think of chapel as word with distinctly Christian connotations, I was startled to hear a radio spot announcement for a “Jewish Funeral Chapel.” Naturally I headed straight for the OED.

Chapel has an interesting history and several meanings, including one that can mean “any place set aside for private worship or meditation.”

Chapel derives from Latin cappella, “little cloak” and took on its religious significance from a saint’s relic: the cloak of Saint Martin of Tours (316-397).

Born in Hungary, Martin was conscripted into the Roman army and deployed to Gaul (now France), On his way to Amiens on a cold day, Martin came upon an nearly naked beggar. Impulsively, he whipped off his military cloak, sliced it in two with his sword, and gave half to the beggar. From a big cloak, it had become a little cloak. Martin went on to become Bishop of Tours and a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Merovingian kings of France–Clovis, Dagobert, Pepin and that lot–preserved what they believed to be Saint Martin’s capella. They kept it in a reliquary in a royal oratory near Tours. It was considered to be so holy that oaths were sworn on it. Sometimes it was carried into battle by the king. On those occasions, small temporary structures were built to house it; people took to calling these shelters capella, because of the little cloak that lay within.

The priest who travelled with the army to look after the relic was called a cappellanu. Eventually, any priest who traveled with the military to attend to their spiritual needs was called by that name, which has evolved into the English word chaplain.

A chapel can refer to a free-standing structure or a room in a house, embassy, college, school, prison, funeral home, or any other institution. It can be a place of worship for any religious group. In the 18th century, chapel referred to the meeting houses of sectarians outside the established church, such as Roman Catholics and Methodists. In Silas Marner by George Eliot, the title character belongs to a chapel in an industrial city.

Chapel can also mean a religious service. For example, “All students are required to attend chapel in the auditorium on Thursdays.”

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7 Responses to “Chapels and Chaplains”

  • thebluebird11

    Chapels have usually associated with Christianity, but these days there are plenty of Jewish associations with it as well, although probably not as much for Orthodox Judaism. The (Jewish) temple I attend is Conservative, and we have a chapel, which is separate from the main sanctuary. It is a small, simple room outfitted almost as a mini-sanctuary: It has a table, chairs, a lectern, an ark with valid (kosher) scrolls and an Eternal Lamp in front of it, etc. It is used when the regular sanctuary is too big for whatever service is being carried out, but is also used as a meeting room if that space is needed. Certainly funeral chapels can be for all faiths; at least here in Florida, there are funeral parlors that cater to all faiths and have several chapel rooms, none of which are restricted to use for any specific religion. On cruise ships, I have found that they will have a chapel (room) that can be used on various days for religious services, again a multi-faith room. Hospitals have chapels as well, also used by people of any faith on an as-needed basis. So the idea of a chapel being for Christians has kind of melted away, and today the word chapel seem to apply to any small area set aside, as you said, for religious services, private reflection (if not in use for religious services), or even short meetings.

  • Heather

    However, in a school setting, “attending chapel” is not used to describe attending services, which is what Jewish students would do.

  • venqax

    @Heather: I think in an American context it does. Since American public schools don’t have any religious rites at all and include no room that is called a chapel, students attending chapel would have to imply students at a private/religious school going to services. When I have been at schools that DO have chapels, “going to chapel” has always meant going to religious services at the chapel or elsewhere. Going to to the chapel for some OTHER reason, like a student assembly, is never called “going to chapel”,

  • Andy Staples

    In Britain, workplace National Union of Journalist groups are known as chapels, with the shop steward being known as Father (or Mother) of Chapel. I have no idea of the origin of this usage, though I was once a Father of Chapel myself, but I suspect it derives from clerics (clerks) being the primary writers in the days before the printing press.

  • Maeve Maddox

    Andy,
    The name originates in the early history of printing in Great Britain, when printing offices were controlled by churches (hence “chapel”).
    The name also honors the origins of British trade unionism, where non-conformist churches often acted as covers for trade union activity, which was illegal at the time.

    Heather,
    I attended a Methodist university many years ago. Everyone had to “attend chapel” once a week. It was held in the school’s main auditorium.

  • Bernard Speight

    @Heather…
    The Anglican school I attended in Australia required us to attend chapel daily, Mondays to Thursdays, before school. Fridays were reserved for assembly.

    … and then there are padres, defined in my ODE as “chaplains in the armed services” (from Italian, Spanish and Portugese!) My father, a retired army officer, surprised me one day, by greeting our school chaplain with “Good day, Padre.”

  • venqax

    @Bernard Speight: That is interesting. It’s actually a military term in Australia? In America, padre– which is well-known to be Spanish– is often used as “slang” for Catholic/Episcopal priests (and is not disrespectful), but it is not associated with the military in any way. Sort of like calling a doctor “doc” or the head of an organization “chief” when chief is not actually a part of his title.

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