That’s the question I get asked almost daily since, let’s face it, we’ve got a lot but it’s not an easy question to answer.
I can be humorous and state I’ve seen listing of over 300 places of worship in San Miguel and quickly could think of about three dozen left out. That gives us about 365 chapels, or one for each day of the year! But I’m sure if I noticed several missing on the list there are other churches and chapels I don’t know about. Yet.
The quantity of churches in town is a dicey issue inspiring two basic issues at the core, why are there so many and what is a church versus chapel?
Picture yourself as one of members of a wealthy Spanish family during the Inquisition (lasting until 1820). What did you do with your ample funds?
Want to travel? Not so much as travel was often lethal and undertaken only if pregnant to insure your child was born in Spain and afforded better opportunities upon his or her return to San Miguel.
Shop? Well, yes, but there is only so much one could buy in San Miguel plus you’ve slaves and servants so you didn’t need any more domestic help. However, chances were you had family members in various religious orders that could use a new church. Or maybe you’ll build a church for a saint or Virgin you like if only to keep the Inquisitor off your back. The Inquisition was tough and it paid to keep yourself on the Inquisitor’s good side.
Then there is the issue of how to count churches and chapels. One church can have multiple chapels like the Oratorio houses the chapel modeled after the house Jesus grew up in. Does that count as one, the Oratorio, or two, the Oratorio and the chapel of Loreto?
Back in the 1920’s the Church lost its property it didn’t have a church or chapel built on. Think of today’s houses of worship like a condo. The Church owns from the paint out, but the government owns the building. So if you’ve got a chapel on your property folks can access it yet you own the land. But the Church owns the inside and isn’t likely to spend money fixing up a building it no longer has masses in and you’ll likely want to.
Or maybe you’ll turn the building into a pool house, shed, livestock pen or simply allow the structure and its interior art to turn into ruins. I’ve been in many a centro home where the master bedroom was obviously once the home’s chapel. Does that still count as a church?
Plus what is a chapel versus a church?
Funny you should ask! You’ve seen images around town of a gladiator on a horse cutting his cape in half to give that part of his cape to a naked, crippled, elderly man on the ground. The man on the horse is Martin.
Martin gave only half his cape since he had to return to his military unit with his uniform and Jesus doesn’t ask for more than one can do. Martin kept his half of the cape and when Marin died folks built a small church in Rome to house Martin’s half of the cape. The latin word for cape is chapel and a chapel is a small church.
So knowing what a chapel is and why are there ten times as many as there normally is for a town our size, how do you count them? Add to mystery the countess stand alone chapels I found walking my dog hidden from the public and often only viewable by drone. Do they count? Adding to the confusion is chapel names were frequently reused. We’ve chapels with the same names within an easy walk of one another but built, and discarded, in different eras.
Bottom line is we’ve a lot of houses of worship no matter how you count them.
Personally, I like any place on Earth where that much time, energy, money and thought is given to the notion that here is a greater power that knows who you are and cares about you. Suddenly you don’t have to be brightest, prettiest, wealthiest or funniest person in the room. You don’t even have to be the best version of you, knowing what happens here doesn’t matter all that much. So I say, count away, just visit these churches to help you feel better!
Joseph Toone is the Historical Society’s short-story award winning author of the SMA Secrets book series. All books in the series are Amazon bestsellers in Mexican Travel and Holidays. Toone is SMA’s expert and TripAdvisor’s top ranked historical tour guide telling the stories behind what we do in today’s SMA. Visit HistoryAndCultureWalkin