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What’s in a Name?

By Michele Levandoski, Archivist for the School Sisters of Notre Dame North American

The process of women religious receiving a new name started as early as the sixth century. “The idea springs from God changing Abram’s name to Abraham to signify the covenant between them (Genesis 17:3-9). A religious name signifies the adoption of a new life; the replacement of family identity with a religious one.”1

The mass of first profession in St. Louis in 1941.

Naming customs varied between religious congregations. Some congregations allowed a woman to choose her name while in other cases someone in authority chose the name. For the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND), initially a woman’s religious name was chosen by the provincial leader or the commissary general, with no input from the woman herself. Later, the process changed and postulants were allowed to submit three names to the provincial. In most instances, one of the names from the list would be chosen, but there was no guarantee that a woman would get one of the suggested names.

A postulant would learn her religious name before the closing prayer of the ceremony of her reception into the novitiate. The celebrant, ordinarily a bishop, would give each new novice her name saying, for example, “Catherine, henceforth you will be called Sister Mary Louise. Strive to bear this name in a worthy manner.”

Last names were only used for legal or administrative purposes, so each novice was given a unique religious name. Her religious name could not be given to another novice in the same province during her lifetime. By 1965, there were eight provinces in North America. While a name could not be repeated within a province, it could be repeated in other provinces. For example, the former Milwaukee Province could have only one Sister Mary Matthew, but there could also be a Sister Mary Matthew in the former Baltimore, Canadian and St. Louis Provinces, all living at the same time.

The mass of first profession in St. Louis in 1966.

With as many as 2,100 sisters in one province at one time, creativity was needed when religious names were chosen. There were various sources for names, including saints, titles of Mary, the Bible, Latin words and family names. Within each of the categories, variants of a particular name could be used to create more names.

Sister Paul Mary Draxler shared how she chose her name. Her younger brother was named Paul, and he died at age 4. When she entered the novitiate in 1949, Sister Paul Mary wanted to take his name as her religious name. Sister Angela Merici Cornyn, who taught in the (former) Milwaukee Province candidature, was the person charged with helping the candidates choose their religious names. She told the candidates that they had to include Mary or Marie in our name, either before or after our chosen name. She then gave the example of Paul Mary, Mary Paul or Paul Marie. Sister Paul Mary states, "I wanted to shake Sister Angela, because I was sure everyone would now want the name Paul Mary! Thankfully, I received the name and have since been known as Sister Paul Mary Draxler.”

After Vatican II and beginning in 1969, sisters were allowed to return to their baptismal names. Today, a novice may choose to either keep her baptismal name or take a new religious name.

Learn more about the sources of inspiration for SSND religious names and hear stories from sisters about how they chose their religious name from the full article.


1 Stewart Jr, by George C. Marvels of Charity: A History of American Sisters and Nuns, 1727-1990 

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