Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Names of Nuns

In a comment on the essay about S. Thomas Carey, a friend asked why she would choose "Thomas" as her name. Actually, Thomas was probably one of the better names to get when you entered Saint Benedict's Monastery in the early part of the 20th century. Most of the good names were already taken.

Following Vatican II, many Sisters resumed using their baptismal names. However, some kept the names they took on with their vows. The way the process has been explained to me is this: when a Sister entered the monastery, the prioress gave her a slip of paper with three names on it. Usually they were close to the Sister's given name, most often using the same first letter. If your name was Josephine, you might get "Joseph, Joshua, Jerome." The name had to be a saint's name, and often was a saint associated with Benedictines. Also, at Saint Benedict's Monastery and Saint John's Abbey anyway, there was never more than one person with a name. The monks were lucky in that there could be a brother and a priest with the same name (thus Father Dunstan and Brother Dunstan). Keep in mind that in the 1940s, there were 1200 nuns at St. Benedict's Monastery. Some Sisters have spoken of going to the cemetery looking for a name that wasn't taken and that would work. It's why S. Josue took the Hebrew name for Joshua as her name. There was already a Sister Joshua.

Many of the names were male: Sister Bernard, Sister Anthony, Sister Gregory, Sister Thomas. Preferred names were often those of Benedictine saints: Sister Placid, Sister Maurus, Sister Walburga. Well, Walburga may not have been exactly a preferred name.

I can't imagine getting those three names on a piece of paper and trying to choose one. I can't imagine going through life with a man's name, either. We have a Sister Gregor, and a Sister Andre, and Sister Jonathan. But what a thrill it must have been to see Sister Victorine as one of the choices! (Sister Victorine is one of our Jubilarians, having spent 75 years in the community as of 2009.)

When I became an oblate, I had the option to take a name or not. Unfortuantely, Dorothy Day is not yet a saint. I decided during the process I wanted to choose a Benedictine saint name. And I didn't want to choose it based on the quality of the name, but the quality of the saint. I wanted to associate with someone who wrote beautifully, a thinker. In the end I chose Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote beautiful commentaries on the Song of Songs. He was, unfortunately, also associated with some (minor) Crusades. He was behind the reforms that founded the Cistercians, a more austere order of Benedictines. When I saw my name on the papers, Susan Bernard Sink, and heard Father Kwatera say it aloud, it was hard to take it in. I cringed and felt my cheeks redden. But I don't actually use the name. I don't really think of it as mine. I'm glad to live in the time I live in-- no one even asks me if I took a name. I don't have to blush and say "Bernard."

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