The Tradition of Naval Baptism As Carried Out at HMCS Cataraqui

by John MacFarlane 2012

Originating in the British Royal Navy, it is a custom to baptize a child under the ship's bell; sometimes the bell is used as a christening bowl, upturned and filled with water for the ceremony. Once the baptism is completed, the child's name may be inscribed inside the bell.

Naval Baptism

(l to r) Lieutenant George R. MacFarlane RCN, Kathleen M. MacFarlane, Audrey Agnew, John MacFarlane (the baby), Lieutenant (S) John D. Agnew RCN, Constructor Lieutenant John O'Neill RCN(R). (The Agnews and John O'Neill were the God Parents of the baby). ( photo MacFarlane Collection )

Naval Baptism

Proud parents, Lieutenant George R. MacFarlane RCN and Kathleen M. MacFarlane, with newly baptized John MacFarlane. (note the portrait of Admiral Lord Nelson on the wall and the White Ensign draped at the base of the ship's bell upturned as a baptismal font.) ( photo MacFarlane Collection )

In 1948 my father, then Lieutenant George R. MacFarlane RCN, was the Staff Officer (Administration) at HMCS Cataraqui when I was born in Kingston Ontario. He was very keen on naval tradition and this was an opportunity to exercise the custom of having the baby of a member of the ship's company baptized in the ship's bell. I was not the first to do so in Cataraqui's bell. Afterwards my name and the date were engraved on the bell. It used to hang on the quarterdeck at HMCS Cataraqui (in what is now a building occupied as a sport facility by the Royal Military College of Canada). Some years later when I went to have a look the naval reserve division had been moved into the Kingston Armoury and the bell had been lost in the confusion of the forces unification period. I do not know if it was ever recovered. (Perhaps a reader will be able to clarify this mystery?)

My God Parents all had strong naval connections. The toast at the celebration afterwards, was by a Warden of the Kingston Penitentiary, who predicted that I would later enter the navy - which turned out to be accurate as I joined the University Naval Training Division (UNTD) at HMCS Scotian in 1966!

Naval baptisms continue today in the RCN, as well as in the RN and other Commonwealth navies and the USN. Commodore Ken Nason RCN (Retired) tells me that all three of his children were baptized in ships bells. Two of them have their names on the bell from HMCS Huron and one on the bell of HMCS Mackenzie.

The Christening Bells Project of the CFB Esquimalt Naval & Military Museum is a very useful reference, particularly for persons or relatives of persons who were baptized in Canadian ship’s bells. Information from bells held by other institutions and organizations, including municipalities and Legions, is being added to the Christening Bell data as it becomes available. The current archive includes information from three bells held by the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, the bells of HMCS Antigonish, HMCS Ontario (III), and HMCS Yukon (III). As a courtesy to the families of crew members, they also include inscriptions and dates for the bell of HMCS Annapolis (II), a bell currently held by the town of Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia, the bell of HMCS Saskatchewan, which is at the Vancouver Island Military Museum in Nanaimo, BC, and the bell of HMCS Cormorant, now on loan to a Navy League Cadet Corps in BC.

The following ship’s bells, some held at locations across Canada, mainly by Naval Reserve Divisions, are also included: HMCS Scotian – Halifax NS; HMCS Queen Charlotte – Naval Reserve Division, Charlottetown PE; HMCS Queen – Naval Reserve Division, Regina SK; HMCS Hunter – Naval Reserve Division, Windsor ON; HMCS Hochelaga – at CFB Borden, Simcoe County ON; HMCS Cataraqui – Naval Reserve Division, Kingston ON; HMCS Border Cities (HMCS Hunter’s wardroom bell)– Windsor ON; HMCS Burlington – Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps – RCSCC Iron Duke, Burlington ON. The bell of HMCS Kings (the Second World War officer training establishment) is now the permanent baptismal font in the chapel of the University of Kings College in Halifax NS.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2012) The Tradition of Naval Baptism As Carried Out at HMCS Cataraqui 2012.

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