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When is a Church Not a Church?

by Joseph Toone

Folks on tours are often confused. They insist that 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 churches in a geographic area. San Miguel isn't large enough for that. Our cathedral is in Celaya.

Well, then, what is a parroquia? Why are our churches, like a house of worship of Reform Judaism, often called temples? What's a chapel, shrine, basilica or sanctuary?

The nomenclature of houses of worship is a bit different in Mexico than up north. From the most sweepingly broad perspective, "Church," in Spanish as in English, refers to it all. the shared faith of Catholics, as in "the Catholic Church." 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. At this he quit the army and became a priest. Saint Martin is now thepatron saintof those who rely on the kindness of strangers... and cowboys.

In art, Saint Martin is pictured on horseback, cutting his red cloak in half. In front of him onthe ground is a nude man, receiving the cloak. You can find this image on candles throughout town in many shops and school. The shop owners invoke Saint Martin since they rely on the kindness of passing strangers buying chips. The schools, for their livelihood, depend on strangers taking a class.

Saint Martin kept the remaining half of his cape explaining that he was required to return to his military unit in uniform and that God doesn't ask for more from you than you can do. When St. Martin died that half cape 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. A chapel 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.

As baptisms must be performed in a parroquia, or parish church, chapels lack a baptismal. St. Michael's on the Jardin is our most famous parroquia but there are others. Parroquias in the neighborhoods of St. Anthony, La Luz and Guadalupe all provide priests to perform masses at a chapel.

La Parroquia de San Antonio

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. While "temple" is rarely used in English speaking Western countries for a Catholic house of worship. But here a temple is simply a place Catholics go to pray.

A shrine, technically, can be most anything. It might be as simple as a statue to St. Francis in your courtyard. Or it could be a site of a miracle or an 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. It says so right over the door. Why that is I'm not really sure, nor is any Oratorio priest that I've ever questioned.

So, to sum up, the Parroquia to St. Michael is not a cathedral. Church refers to the Catholic Church as a whole, 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. A sanctuary is a holy place drawing pilgrims daily like Atotonilco or our monastery.

I had a couple on tour this week. They live in an older bungalow home in Los Angeles. It was built in the era when telephone had their own built in niche off the living area. They told me they turned their home's niche into a chapel to Guadalupe. I simply didn't have the heart to tell them it was really a shrine.


Joseph Toone is Amazon's bestselling author of the San Miguel de Allende Secrets series of books and TripAdvisor's best rated historical walking tour guide. For more information contact or visit History and Culture Walking Tours or, also on Facebook.

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