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.”