What’s in a name?


by Joseph Toone for the San Miguel Times

On tours folks are often confused, insisting the Parroquia is a cathedral due to its size, grandeur and fame.  It is not.  A cathedral is home to a bishop that governs over a geographic area of churches. 

San Miguel isn’t large enough for that and our cathedral is in Celaya.  Well then what is a Parroquia?  Why are our churches often called temples, like a Jewish synagogue?  What’s a chapel, shrine, basilica or sanctuary?

The nomenclature of houses of worship is a bit different in Mexico than up North.  From a sweepingly broad perspective, Church, in Spanish, refers to the shared faith of Catholics.  A temple or chapel, is a place where Catholics worship.

Let’s start small, the word chapel comes from St. Martin, a lad seen all over town.  St. Martin was born in the early 300s and served in the army.  One day, while riding his horse, he chanced upon a nude beggar and cut his cloak in half to give the poor man a covering. 

That night Martin had a dream in which the beggar appeared to him as Jesus, so he quit the army and became a priest. Saint Martin is now the patron saint of those who rely on the kindness of strangers, and cowboys.

In art, Saint Martin is pictured cutting his red cloak in half while on a horse and a nude man is on the ground receiving the cloak.  You can find this image on candles throughout town in many shops and Spanish schools, whose owners invoke Saint Martin since they rely on the kindness of passing strangers buying chips or taking a class for their livelihood.

When St. Martin died, the remaining half of his cape that he kept to explain he was required to return to his military unit with his uniform and God doesn’t ask for more from you than you can do, was considered miraculous.  A small church was built to house the cape and the Italian word for cape became the origin for the word chapel.

Chapels are all over town.  They can be a stand-alone building like the chapel to St. Joseph of the Mountain up in the Balcones or the chapel in Valle de Maiz.  It can also be part of larger house of worship like the chapel to Mary of Three Hail Marys in the Temple of Good Health on Plaza Civica. 

Chapels lack a baptismal font as baptisms must be performed in a parroquia, or parish church.  St. Michael’s on the jardin is our most famous parroquia but there are others in the neighborhoods of St. Anthony, La Luz and Guadalupe that provide the priests to perform masses at a chapel.

A temple, in Spanish, is applied to most local churches like the temple of Good Health, St. Anthony, St. Francis, the Immaculate Conception and St. John of God.  Temple is rarely used in English speaking Western countries for a Catholic house of worship while a temple here is simply a place Catholics go to pray.

A shrine, technically, can be most anything like a statue to St. Francis in your courtyard, or a site of a miracle or appearance of God, Mary or a saint.  In Spanish shrines are normally referred to as sanctuaries attracting many pilgrims. 

The church in Atotonilco is a sanctuary to Jesus of Nazareth who appeared to a local priest instructing him to build the church.  The nearby monastery where lads follow the rules of St. Benedict is another sanctuary known for its healing powers.  Sanctuary comes from the Latin for holy place.

A Basilica is a title given by the Pope for a place that is especially sacred or with historical significance like the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City.  The only church in town labeled a basilica is the Oratorio as it states right over the door.  Why that is I’m not really sure, nor is any Oratorio priest that I’ve questioned.

So, in short order, the Parroquia to St. Michael is not a cathedral.  Church refers to the Catholic Church as a whole, while temples are local houses of worships.  Chapels are small temples lacking a full-time priest or ability to perform a baptism.  Shrines are in your garden or home while a sanctuary is a holy place drawing pilgrims daily like Atotonilco or our monastery.

Had a couple on tour this week living in an older bungalow home in Los Angeles built when a phone had it’s own little table and niche off the living area.  They told me they turned it into a chapel to Guadalupe and I simply didn’t have the heart to tell them it was really a shrine!

by Joseph Toone

The Mazatlan Post