4th of July history lesson

July 4, 2010



A detail from the Archbishop John Ireland window at Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel.

During a Fourth of July visit to historic Fort Snelling near St. Paul, my family and I visited the Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel, an interdenominational church dedicated in 1928.

The chapel features some beautiful stained-glass windows, including a pair dedicated to Archbishop John Ireland. During the Civil War, then-Father Ireland was commissioned chaplain of the 5th Regiment, Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. The windows depict Civil War soldiers, angels and Ireland in his liturgical robes.

The chapel also features a plaque dedicated St. Martin of Tours and the origin of the word “chaplain.” Here’s what the plaque says:

“In the fourth century, a soldier, Martin of Tours, entered Amiens’ city gates, where he saw a beggar shivering in the cold. Using his sword, Martin cut his cape (“cappa” in Latin) in half and gave part to the beggar. That night, he dreamed that Christ appeared wearing the beggar’s half of the cape and identified himself to Martin as the beggar. This dream so affected Martin that he became a Christian and entered religious service, building a monastery. He said, ‘Hitherto I have faithfully served Caesar, let me now serve Christ.’

“After his death, he was canonized and named France’s patron saint. Saint Martin’s cape became an object of veneration carried into battle by French kings. Its portable shrine was called the ‘capella’ and its caretaker priest, the ‘cappellanus.’ Eventually all clergy affiliated with the military were called ‘capellani’ or in French ‘chapelains,’ hence ‘chaplains.’”

About Joe Towalski

Editor of The Catholic Spirit, husband, dad, baseball fan(atic), astronomy buff. Follow me on Twitter @towalskij

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