Ask a Sister about… Names

St. Scholastica's Student Newspaper
The Cable

By Sister Edith Bogue

"I hope it's not rude to ask," a student said, "but why do so many sisters in the cemetery have totally peculiar names? Was it an honor? A punishment?"

A timely question for November, designated for praying for the souls of the departed. A walk through Gethsemane Cemetery verifies her observation. Many sisters' names were never among the top-2000: Noella, Athanasius, Nepomucene, Cabrini ( Some had masculine names, like Sister Timothy of blessed memory; others feminized versions, like Sisters Richarda and Martina.

These "names in religion" marked a sister's entrance into a her way of living her call as a Christian. At our monastery, everyone received a new name until the Second Vatican Council (about 50 years ago). A new sister suggested three names (favorite saints or related events in the life of Christ or family members) -- but Prioress could give something entirely different. Sister Noella was utterly surprised with her name, asking how to spell it! She grew to love it, painting nativity scenes on classroom and monastery windows every Christmas. recently, our practice is diverse: some sisters retained religious names; others returned to their baptismal names. Some newer sisters asked for religious names, others did not.
"I get the idea of names in religion," my friend persisted, "but why such strange ones?"

How to explain? As a monastic community, we are a family - but we don't share a family name. In the days before electronic identities, when few sisters had credit cards or driver's licenses, many sisters were known only as Sister Ardell or Sister Helen Clare. It made sense: the title "Sister" was attached to the name-in-religion, not to their family name. But to avoid confusion - from the old laundry to the refectory to the registrar - every sister needed a unique name.

In the mid-1960s, there were just over 500 members of St Scholastica Monastery: teachers, nurses, professors, administrators, at dozens of locations in the region. NONE of them had the same name. When someone spoke of Sister Noemi or Sister Mary Charles, everyone knew who they meant. Names would not quickly be used again: it would be hard to think of the new Sister Grata or Sister Paschal when the name instantly evoked memories of a particular person. When I received my name, some of the older sisters still recalled Sister Edith Dring who died decades earlier.

"Now I get it," my questioner said. "A new sister had to come up with three suggestions that were different from every living sister and most of the ones in the cemetery." She thought about Gethsemane. "They must have really researched the saints and the Bible to come up with some those names."

"Or someone else did," I said. "Sister Noella suggested three plain names. Her 3rd grade teacher suggested "Noella" to the Prioress so there would always be a party on her name day."

"Her NAME day?" she said, "What's that?"

A future column, I thought.