How My Catholic Girlhood Made Me A Name Nerd

We all might owe Nameberry’s existence to Sister Miriam Gervase.

While the roots of Linda‘s name nerdism are different from mine — you can read her story here— and I’m sure you all have your own stories to tell, which we’d love to hear! — I trace a large part of my fascination with names to my Catholic girlhood.

Most kids back at Immaculate Conception School were dying to know whether the nuns had hair under those veils or what they wore to bed at night, but to me those mysteries paled in comparison to the nuns’ names.

Nuns got to pick new names for themselves when they entered the convent. That itself was appealing enough, but what was really amazing was that their choices were not confined by ethnic background, historical period, or even gender.

The principal of Immaculate Conception, for instance, was named Sister Miriam Gervase, an appellation that had it all going on. Miriam may have been a Mary relative, but it was one used mostly by Jews. unfamiliar in our Irish and Italian Catholic enclave. And Gervase! That may have been a hot name in 6th century Gaul….for guys. But in mid-20th century New Jersey, it really stood out in the world of Gerrys and Jeans.

My favorite nun was also the one with the best name: Sister Jacinta. Sister Jacinta was young, at least as far as we could tell, and she was Irish. So where did the name Jacinta come from? I may have even been brave enough to ask her, and she explained that it was the Spanish name of a holy person — the blessed Jacinta, one of the children who saw the apparition that became known as Our Lady of Fatima.

Jacinta: What a gorgeous name, and how exotic! It was as if the nuns had access to some secret list of fantastic names they’ve since passed down to Hollywood celebrities.

But actually, we all have access to those names today, thanks to the internet and such sites as Catholic Online, Which sends out a Saint of the Day newsletter that I get for — what else? — the names.

These names go far beyond the names I gleaned as a girl from the Lives of the Saints books that detailed the usual saintly suspects: Anne, Francis, Cecilia, Anthony, saints’ names used consistently over the centuries down to my (yawn) neighbors and schoolmates. Though there was the occasional outlier — one boy in my class was called Guy Ignatius, and a church nearby was named for Saint Cassian — we were privy to only a narrow slice of the saintly possibilities.

Thanks to my grown-up name research, I’ve become familiar with the wide world of saints’ names that the nuns have obviously known all along, names that are still unfamiliar yet might translate into modern life. Among the thousands of intriguing possibilities are Marinus and Marcellina, Romaric and Romana, Dallan and Dominica.

(Here’s a much longer list of wonderful saints’ names.)

Of course there are also thousands of saints’ names it’s hard to imagine ever clawing their way back into contemporary usage, from Disobod to Dingad to Dodo . But that doesn’t really matter to a name nerd.

The most appealing aspect of Catholicism to my childhood self may have been the practice of self-renaming, which extends far beyond the nunnery to include Popes, pagan babies, and even yourself.

While the Pope aspect — upon election to that highest office, popes take on a new name — gave renaming the highest possible endorsement south of Heaven, it was too distant and too infrequent to have much meaning in the everyday name nerd’s life.

More immediate was the prospect of getting to choose a new name for the so-called pagan babies we collected our coines to “adopt.” Once the class had pulled together something like $36 in pennies and nickels and dimes, we laid official claim to another theoretical orphan in another far-flung locale, and held an election on what to rename her (somehow, in my memory, they’re all girls, so much more fun for an 11-year-old girl to name than boys). My classmates’ imagination for this practice was as limited as their enthusiasm, but mine wasn’t. If only there’d been a Nameberry back then, I’d have given these poor children much better names.

The only thing more exciting than naming the pagan babies was getting to pick our own Confirmation names. Not strictly a renaming, this meant adding a second middle to our own lineups. My choice, I’m chagrined to admit, was the pedestrian Mary, but for very name nerdish reasons: Combined with Pamela Ann, it made my initials P.A.M. Brilliant!

I’m not sure whether, absent the deep and mysterious world of names only hinted at by my Catholic girlhood, I ever would have become an enthusiastic enough name nerd to have spent much of my adult life writing about names. Maybe I would have simply come at the subject from a different direction bearing different name tastes and obsessions.

What’s your name nerd story? Any Catholics out there with similar name nerd histories, or did you become interested in names via a different path?

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27 Responses to “How My Catholic Girlhood Made Me A Name Nerd”

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compassrose Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 1:19 am

Although I’m not Catholic (despite my confirmation) I was enrolled in a Catholic school for three years. The Confirmation name I picked out was Naomi, and to this day I’m glad I used it. But Ruth was another possibility and another name I like. I wished I put more effort into finding a more unique Saint name, for there are truly hundreds of possibilities!

Xanthe. Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 2:18 am

I was just thinking about this! Being in 3rd grade at the time of confirmation, I wasn’t too concerned with picking a saint with a story I could relate with, just a name I likes. Thus St. Therese of Lisieux was my choice, since I thought the exotic Therese was really beautiful. I also thought of Adelaide, Perpetua, and Cecilia, because the names were so beautiful. I think this sealed my love of names when I would also pay close attention in baptisms to hear the names of the newly initiated Catholics! The cutest and most fun part of mass πŸ™‚

Bridie Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 5:50 am

I chose Miriam for my Confirmation name! I did toss up between Felicity, Perpetua and Sofia, though. Some people chose great names in my group: Seraphina, Basil, Archibald and Dunstan! We also had several girls choosing boys’ names; I think Sebastian was very popular. Loved choosing the name though! Most people just picked one at random but it took me WEEKS to settle on mine.

MinnieAbby Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 7:08 am

My Confirmation name will probably be Victoria(my moms) or Photina(did a project on her.)

dillonsfan01 Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 7:48 am

All of my name nerdiness came from my Catholic faith too πŸ™‚ I loved reading the saints names and now my names list is fill to the brim with saints names and saint connections for all my future children. I picked Kateri to be my Confirmation name and I went back and forth for weeks between Kateri and Catherine, it was so hard to pick just one. My parents also gave me the extra name of Ruth at my Baptism so I could be named after my grandmother. So I guess my name in the Church is Lindsay Christine Ruth Kateri and I think that suits me perfectly πŸ˜€

PinkPenguin87 Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 7:48 am

Not being Catholic, I didn’t have to worry about a Confirmation name, but my love of names also started as a child.

Before I could even write, I used to make up little stories and tell them to my parents, my cousins, my stuffed animals, even my dog (who, at the age of two, I insisted be named Car-Door. No, I’m not kidding) and my favorite part of the stories was making up the names. As I got older and began to write out my short stories, which turned into epic style novels, picking out names remained my favorite part. It still is!

pam Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 7:54 am

Bridie, I didn’t know girls could pick boys’ names as confirmation names! You’ve just opened up a whole new world of name regret…

little.lottie710 Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 8:20 am

I’ve actually never heard of girls being able to pick boys’ confirmation names. At my Catholic church, if a girl really admires Saint Joseph, she can pick Josephine. Or, maybe if they really feel Saint Patrick is a good person, she can pick Patricia or something along those lines.

My Confirmation name is Seraphina. πŸ™‚

encore Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 8:51 am

My confirmation name is Rita.

Samantha-Bianca Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 8:51 am

I’m Catholic – well, I grew up Catholic – and I chose Monica because I knew no one else was picking it. I guess I have always been a name nerd! I never considered this connection until I read this article. Is it the reason I’m nuts about names? Probably not. But it did add a whole bunch of fuel to the fire.

I just so distinctly remember being determined not to be another Catherine or Mary or Bridget. I found Monica and it said she was the patron saint of children or something along those lines and I felt like it was a perfect choice.

Awesome article! Love it.

upswingbabynames Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 9:05 am

I’m not Catholic, and I can’t quite pinpoint where my name-nerdness comes from. It might be a combination of events, but the same events may have not effected someone else in the same way. So I think the magic ingredients were a natural curiosity about the topic coupled with life-experience.

Some experiences I remember:

1. From an early age, I was bothered by the fact that my parents tried to give us all A names, and did, but my youngest brother went by a nickname that didn’t begin with A.

2. I moved in High School. I went from a large, suburban Pittsburgh town (it’s like a mini-city today) to a New England town that seemed small by comparison. The large Pittsburgh suburb had standard names for my generation (born in the 1970s). In my class there were more Jennifer’s than I cared to count. Imagine my shock when I moved to this little New England town, that out of a class of 140 only had 1 Jennifer! There were other unusual names like Arwin, and girl named Avery (long before it became trendy) a girl named Gavin, and a Felicity – my favorite. I was somewhat bothered that Felicity’s younger sister got stuck with boring Amanda. But if it didn’t bother Amanda, it probably shouldn’t have bothered me. πŸ™‚

Mischa Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 9:58 am

Although my family was Catholic, I didn’t receive a Catholic education until later in life (high school). I do remember one memorable name of our principal: Sister Bonaventure. How cool is that name?

Aurra Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 10:22 am

I’m not Catholic (I do occaisonally wish I was so I could pick another name and go by it), but my name nerdiness started when I entered kindergarten and realized no other American girls were named Reine (pronounced rainy). I decided I needed to argue with my mother about my name. And then she asked what I would change it to when I was ten. I said Azalea, and she laughed. She said that I would be making the same fuss if my name was Azalea. So, I made it my goal to come up with the perfect name for me. I haven’t decided if I’ll actually change my name when I’m eighteen, but if I do, the top choice now is Katarina Reine Rebecca (keeping my name b/c they’re family names) and going by Kate.

Pepi Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 11:01 am

I also became obsessed with names from the Catholic book of saints. I think my parents did a great job with my name and my siblings’ names: Brigid Anne, Maureen Honora and Brendan Padraig. Maureen was for “little Mary” for my grandmother, Mary Virginia. As a confirmation student, I choose the male name Genesius in honor of my mom, a drama teacher, my dad, a lawyer and my role as the class secretary. It was very “out there” amongst the Elizabeths and Marias.

GrecianErn Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 11:34 am

My name nerdiness started when I found out that 2 things:
1. All 3 of us kids have 2 middle names, and no one else did. It started with my mom merging 2 family traditions into 2 middle names.
2. that my mom actually wanted to spell my name “Erynn” instead of “Erin.” I wish she had.

I’m not Catholic, but it seems all my friends are. My friend Beth wanted her confirmation name to be “Sybella” and her mom said No. They fought over it for months, with finally her mom saying that No was final and if she liked it so much she could name her daughter that.
Fastfoward 14 years, and little Sybella (Bella) Ann is a beautiful 4 year old with a beautiful, unique name. πŸ™‚

Mara_lyn86 Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 3:00 pm

I am also not catholic but I have always loved Saints names and I want to use a few for my children. My favorite right now is Cecilia because she is the patron saint of musicians and my husband is a musician so it would be honoring him in a way.

SugarPlumFairy Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Jacinta is Portuguese, not Spanish.

I definitely remember some afternoons in my grandmother’s house reading through a book about saints and picking up interesting names.

nicoleb519 Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 3:55 pm

I don’t remember exactly how I became a name nerd. And no one that I know of in my family is like this. All I do remember is being somewhere between 2nd & 4th grades and giving ALL of my baby dolls first & middle names. And they were good ones too- they flowed and didn’t clash.

A year or so after that, I remember having a set of those tiny baby doll toys called “Quints.” They were quintuplets, and there were storybooks. But the set I had, you got to name yourself! It came with a list & everything! I remember being ecstatic. lol I named them all, plus all my Barbies and split them into families. And ever since then, I have been obsessed with names.

I got my first book of names (one by that Bruce Lansky guy) when I was in 5th or 6th grade. I was just always fascinated by what they meant & where they came from.

I’m so glad this site exists! πŸ™‚

Tay2thestars Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 5:29 pm

As a Catholic teen, my name obsession came when I discovered the saints. I loved their stories and I loved their names! I get delighted when I see a saint who has a name that is not only unusual and exotic, but usable in today’s world as well! I had a lot of fun picking a saint for Confirmation. Even now, I plan on giving all my future children a saint’s name somewhere in their name (most likely in the middle).

Recently, I squealed when I discovered that there was a Saint Juniper. He was one of the original followers of Saint Francis of Assisi and was called “the renowned jester of the Lord”.

Darci Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 5:36 pm

I blame my parents. They both had really common names, so they purposely gave us all unusual names with long histories that they happily shared with us over the years. How can you not become a name nerd when you grow up as Darci, Devlin, Cambria, and Arielle?

beautifulspoon Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Haha yes! I love saint names and Bible names. Such great history and potential for a lovely unusual baby name choice! πŸ™‚

gracenote Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 6:58 pm

Love this – I’m not Catholic, but half of my family are, and I went to Catholic school. I remember being devastated that all my friends and cousins got to choose confirmation names and I didn’t, haha! (Of course, I did decide on the name I would choose if I were being confirmed – Cecilia for the patron saint of musicians, although I definitely loved the idea of Anthony because he is the patron saint of lost things, which I thought was amazing!) I’ve always thought that was where my name nerd habits came from, so I loved reading this post – and the comments. I was really interested that Sebastian was common for Bridie too, that one was used a lot back when I was at school!

Poppy528 Says:

August 16th, 2012 at 11:36 pm

This Jewish girl loves Elodie, Valentine, Apollonia and sigh the most lovely but completely unusable, Magdeleine! It’s really abnormal how much I love that name. I hear there are saints Beatrix and Clementine too!

l0emkb Says:

August 18th, 2012 at 8:45 am

I was brought up Catholic, and when it came to picking a confirmation name I was determined to go for an unusual one to add something more to my birth name of Emma Marie. Somehow I ended up with Kateri, which seemed perfect to me as she was Algonquin-Mohawk, and I was interested in Native American history (most probably thanks to the Disney film Pocahontas). I also liked how it was close enough to Katherine to seem familiar.
My best friend at the time went with Cecilia, and apparently my grandmother chose Paula (from St Paul), because she didn’t want the same as everybody else.

livcathryn Says:

August 19th, 2012 at 9:32 am

I am Catholic and I am currently attending Catholic high school (you know I’m a name freak, I’m not pregnant! haha). I was so excited when we got to pick our Confirmation names! So when I read this article I could definitely relate to it! My name is Olivia Cathryn and I really wanted a name that I could relate to and would flow with my first and middle name, even though a person rarely uses their Confirmation name. So I picked Rafaella after my great grandfather Raphael. It was hard choosing a name! It was between Rafaella and Domenica. (Domenica was my great grandmother and Raphael’s wife). I’m glad I picked Rafaella though! I am now Olivia Cathryn Rafaella πŸ™‚

jc54 Says:

October 11th, 2012 at 9:37 pm

My confirmation name is Angela because it has always been my favorite name and I admire St. Anne with all my heart. Three of my friends took the name Xavier, so yes girls are allowed to take a male St.’s name. The most popular name in my class taken by boys and girls was Pio. For the newly canonized St. Padre Pio.

CarolineGabrielle Says:

February 20th, 2017 at 11:59 pm

I was so happy to find and read this post! I don’t know if it was the main reason, but Catholicism was definitely a contributor to my own love of names.
I remember a teacher telling us that being named after saints meant that we had a special connection with that Saint, and I was a bit peeved to realize that my parents had gone the non-traditional route and not named me after a Saint. There’s no Saint Caroline, and there’s no Saint Gabrielle, and I felt rather cheated out of a guardian, so to speak. But in learning more about names, I discovered that “Caroline” came from the same root as “Charles,” and “Gabrielle” from “Gabriel.”
I, too, was fascinated by choosing my own Confirmation Saint name. After much deliberation, I eventually chose Saint Cecilia; I had read that she was the patron saint of not only music but poetry, and I was an aspiring poet. It wasn’t until after I chose the patron saint of music as my Confirmation saint that I started getting really into music and joined the choir. I don’t think it was a coincidence.

Being Catholic, I know several large families with the most beautiful, meaningful saint names. I even know a Maximilian Kolbe! I always loved trying to figure out the “why” behind a fellow student’s name, and compare it to others in the school. For example, as you might imagine, we had a lot of typically Irish names at our school — Maura, Aidan, Kieran, Patrick — along with some Italian names, and a lot of saints.

Now I’m determined, when the time comes, to name my own children after saints with both meaningful stories and beautiful names. They range from the ubiquitous “John” to the less-common “Augustine”. There are certainly a lot to choose from, so it shouldn’t be too hard!

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