Chaplain: Origins of the Word

Version I:

For centuries, clergy who provide care in institutional settings have been called chaplains. The word chaplain dates back to the Middle Ages, when capella referred to the cloak of the priest. Then, a chaplain was a priest who was assigned to a particular chapel, rather than to a church. While in the Middle Ages, monasteries were places of hospitality that cared for the sick, this was replaced in later years with sanatoriums and then hospitals. In later years, chaplain began being used to refer to any clergy who was assigned to a special duty or place or service other than the parish. In our current century, the significant growth of chaplaincy has paralleled the growth of institutions as a result of the needs of our society for more hospitals, prisons and mental health facilities.

Adapted from Chaplaincies in Wisconsin Institutions by John Rea Thomas

Version II:

The word chaplain is derived from the Latin capellanus (from capella or chapel), via the Old French chapelain. Capella first appears in the Seventh Century writings of Marculfas, and is thought to derive from the temporary structure that the Kings of France used to house the cape of St. Martin of Tours, patron saint of chaplains. St. Martin of Tours, as a young Roman soldier, came upon a beggar freezing in the snow. Martin drew his sword, cut his uniform cloak in two, and wrapped half around the beggar. That night he had a vision of Christ, who appeared to him wearing the half cape. This vision compelled him to leave the military and seek baptism and the religious life. His holiness of life obvious, he was named Bishop of Tours (France) against his will, and agreed to go only if he could continue to live as a monastic. He was the first ‘founder’ of the parochial system, creating geographic parishes and thus bringing the church from the cities to the countryside. His cape, the half he retained after his meeting with Christ, was brought on military campaigns and honored as a sacred relic. The priests who accompanied the relic (and armies) were the capellanus, or ‘keepers of the cape.’

Sources: The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary

Wise Words

“To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our community
includes people who:

  • serve in healthcare, education and military settings
  • bring Buddhist meditation to people in jails and prisons
  • apply Buddhist teachings in social justice work
  • study and/or teach Buddhist spiritual care
  • wish to understand the work of Buddhist chaplains
Community Email list


Let us introduce ... you to some Buddhist chaplains who provide spiritual care in a variety of settings.

Publish an article, add a resource, include your training program, etc. This site is ready for your input. Start by contacting us here.