Chapel. The popular understanding of this word is "a Christian place of worship less important than a church". That is, a chapel is to a church what a church is to a cathedral. However the Roman Catholic use of the term is rather complicated, and can be confusing.

A chapel is normally smaller than a church, but this is not a defining factor; for instance, the Cappella Sistina is much larger than many churches, but it is still a chapel.


A chapel is a separate architectural space (a building or a room in a building) in which Mass is said on a fixed altar, within the territory of a parish or monastic church and (at least in theory) under the control of the clergy responsible for the latter. If the chapel is at a distance, the church is known as the "mother church". There are four very distinct types of chapel: side chapels, public chapels, private chapels and devotional chapels.


There were four principles held to by the entire early Church which helped to give rise to chapels:

  • Each church has only one altar.
  • Mass can only be said on an altar once a day.
  • Each priest can only say one Mass a day, and must do so.
  • Each altar is dedicated to a saint.
  • A fifth principle arose later, only in the Latin church: Each Mass can only be said by one priest.

Incredibly, what the original Latin word capella meant was a "little she-goat". It comes from capra, meaning nanny-goat or the smell from unwashed armpits (this is true). In the latter days of the Roman Empire, however, this was used as a slang term for an army cloak which was often made out of goats' hair. The legend attached to the conversion of St Martin of Tours (316-397) describes how when he was a Roman soldier he cut his cloak in two and gave half to a freezing beggar. After his death and enshrinement as a saint at Tours in Gaul, the other half was kept and venerated as a relic. When the Franks conquered Gaul and turned it into France, the Merovingian kings took the relic and kept it in a special room in their palace. Oaths of fealty to the king were taken on it by nobles. The word capella was transferred to the room housing it, and later to any room in a palace or castle where an important person prayed or heard Mass.

Thus the earliest chapels were private, and existed so that kings, nobles and bishops did not have to go to church publicly. Back then, they were rightly worried about assassination.

Private chapelsEdit

These are places where Mass is said to which the general public does not have the right of admittance, and are usually nowadays attached to institutions. Examples of the latter are schools, colleges, prisons, hospitals and convents (especially of nuns or sisters). They can have their own architectural identity, in which case they almost always have a dedication. Or they can be a room in a larger building, in which case they often do not. For a private chapel to have a dedication, the entire architectural space needs to be consecrated. If it does not have one, only the altar is consecrated. Hence, it is easy (with Church permission) for an undedicated private chapel to be established or abolished -one merely installs or removes the altar.

For this reason, undedicated private chapels without architectural identity are not listed in this Wiki. They come and go too easily. Dedicated one are listed, however.

Private chapels owned by individuals or families may still exist, and most of these in Rome are rooms in palazzi. Such chapels with architectural identity are very rare. The Cappella dei Pamphilj is one.

Side chapelsEdit

As mentioned, originally all churches only had one altar. This is still the case with the Byzantine rite , which has no problem with it since several priests have always been able to celebrate a Byzantine-rite Mass together. This is called concelebration . But the Latin rite abandoned concelebration in the Dark Ages until 1970. Two factors then started introducing side altars into churches in the West in the Dark Ages:

Firstly, devotion to saints other than the one to whom the main altar was dedicated. The obvious (later) example is Our Lady. Secondly, when monasteries arose which had several priests, each priest needed his own altar. Especially from the 11th century, great Latin-rite monasteries tended to build very large churches containing separate rooms with altars for their priests. The fiction could be maintained that each of these rooms was a separate church, and if you look at one of these churches you can find that the number of these so-called "side chapels" can easily go into double figures.

The reason why they got to be called chapels is primarily because of the devotional motivation, as places where particular saints could be honoured in the way that St Martin was honoured through his capella. The churches of Rome witness to how this original very firm requirement, that a side-chapel must be a completely enclosed architectural space, was gradually abandoned with the centuries. But even with the Baroque churches, side altars in aisles are mostly found inserted into shallow recesses as a reminder of the doctrine that they are not part of the liturgical space of the main altar. No side chapels in larger churches are separately listed in this Wiki.

Public chapelsEdit

These arise for two reasons. Firstly, the territory of a rural parish church may be extensive, but with a thinly settled population which can only support the edifice and the clergy of one church. In order not to have people travel too far for Mass, smaller Mass-centres may then be founded in the remoter areas. Since Rome is an urban area, it has few of these. But San Romualdo Abate a Monte Migliore has some.

Secondly, the church in a parish may be too small for its population, either because it is a miserable edifice -Santissima Trinità a Lunghezza- or because it has a very large population. The obvious solutions are either to build a bigger church, or to spilt the parish. However, the cheaper expedient is to open public chapels here and there, and pretend that they are really part of the parish church even though they may be at a distance. Rome has many of these.

Some are identical to churches, even having their own campaniles -Sacra Famiglia alla Garbatella, Santa Maria dell’Oriente. Some are smaller stand-alone buildings, either looking ecclesiastical -Santa Giuliana- or not -Beato Giovanni Ventitre (XXIII) a Borgata Petrelli. Many are in apartment blocks -Madonna delle Azalee (but so are some parish churches -Santa Brigida di Svezia), and some are rooms in institutions and so overlap with the category of private chapel. These last examples usually exist because the institution concerned wishes to do the Diocese a favour and help out with its public pastoral ministry. There are a couple of examples where the institution is doing the parish a favour, but apparently not notifying the diocese! -Santa Dorotea a Val Cannuta.

A new development at the start of the 21st century is the emergence of previously private convent chapels as public places of worship. This is because the nuns or sisters concerned are rightly concerned about the likelihood of losing chaplaincy services as the number of available priests declines.

A public chapel, especially a large one, can easily be made into a church by creating a parish for it. However, if a church is downgraded it is never then called a public chapel, but still a church. The Diocese refers to such as Chiese Annesse, and there are lots in the Centro Storico.

Most public chapels have dedications, but a few have not (especially the ones in institutions). They are all listed in this Wiki, and those that look like churches are listed under "Catholic churches".

Devotional chapelsEdit

These arise when a locality is associated with an event in a saint's life or history of a holy object, and are provided as an amenity for pious visitors. They have no other pastoral justification. There are some in Rome -San Benedetto Giuseppe Labre ai Monti, Santa Maria dell'Archetto. All those noticed are listed in this Wiki.


Strictly speaking, an oratory is a place where people come together to pray but not to say Mass. The Centro Storico has several of these, founded by parish confraternities, and some have been made redundant -San Celsino. They may still be called oratories despite almost all having had altars installed at some stage.

Only oratories with their own architectural identity are listed in this Wiki.


A casula is a street shrine with an architectural identity, containing some object of devotion such as a statue or icon. Most are the size of phone booths, but there are two in Rome which are large enough to be walk-in and so are included in this Wiki -San Giovanni in Oleo, Santa Maria del Carmine e del Monte Libano .

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