Why do nuns change their names? (where do nuns’ names come from?)

Throughout my many years in theology, I have studied various denominations and their unique doctrines. I have learned that some denominations care little about giving new names after baptism. On the other hand, Christian denominations such as the Catholics are very keen on bestowing new identities to baptized Catholics. Members of the laity, including nuns, also receive new names after joining their communities. Since I wanted to understand the theology behind nuns’ name changes, I visited Our Lady of Angeles Monastery to speak to some of the women religious about their name changes. The Mother Superior was very helpful; she provided me with documents from the second Vatican Council meeting of 1969. Last week, some of my theology students brought up the topic of name changes for Catholic nuns. Thanks to my in-depth research on the matter, I was able to provide them with some insights on this subject. So, why do nuns change their names?

Nuns change their names because they have adopted a new lifestyle, which doesn’t go with their previous identity. It is a sign of commitment to a new life. Nuns get inspiration for names for different places, including scripture and historical events. It is worth mentioning that some modern-day nurses prefer to use their baptismal names after taking their vows.

In this article, we will broach the interesting subject of nun names and their significance. Join me as we discuss the various methods nuns use to choose their new names after saying their vows.

What is the significant meaning of nuns changing their names?

Nuns change their names to mark the beginning of a new season in their Christian lives. A name change also symbolizes the start of a new covenant between God and the nun. Even during baptism, Catholics change their names because the ritual renews their lives in Christ. The notion behind the changing of names is based on scriptures like Genesis 17:3-9. These verses illustrate Abram’s transition to Abraham after his covenant with God. Even Abraham’s wife had his name changed from Sarai to Sarah. The New Testament also features some significant name changes whit characters like Peter, whose birth name was Simon. Jesus personally gave Peter the name change in the book of John 1:42.

Do all nuns change their names at the time of saying their vows?

No, name-changing protocols vary among Catholic communities. Some orders may prefer to use a young woman’s baptism name, while others may opt to get new names. However, it is an age-old tradition for Catholic nuns to change their names after saying their vows. This was especially common before the Second Vatican Council in 1962. After Vatican II, most catholic clergymen and women religious reverted to their Baptism names. Still, others continued to use their new names.

Where do the nuns get their name inspiration from?

where do nuns’ names come from?
Where do the nuns get their name inspiration from? Image source: Pinterest

There is no specific system that nuns use to pick a new name. Women religious find inspiration for new names from several different places, which include but are not limited to the following;

The Bible and religious doctrines

Many nuns look to the Bible when searching for a suitable name for their newly acquired purpose. The Bible contains stories about prominent women like Queen Esther, Salome, Tabitha, Martha, and Magdalene. A small percentage of sisters get their inspiration from male names in the Bible. These sisters may be named after archangels such as Gabriel, Michael, Uriel, and Raphael. Others use names of prominent biblical characters like Daniel and David.

Saint names

The catholic has a list of saints who have advanced the gospel or contributed heavily to the betterment of society. Some sisters use saint names from centuries ago. Such names include Mustiola, Eubula, Hormisdas, and Gorgoni, among others. Contemporary nuns prefer saint names from recent years, such as Elizabeth, Francis, Catherine, or Isabella. The nuns also altered masculine saint names to suit them. For instance, Saint Valentine would be feminized to become Valentina, and Saint Joseph would be changed to Josephine or Josephina. Since many saints share the same first names, the sisters sometimes use the full name.


Women religious may also get inspiration from names within their families. In some cases, they might use their father’s names or a combination of their parent’s names. It is not unusual for nuns who are biological sisters to have matching names based on their paternal identity. For example, if their biological father’s name is Edwards, one sister would be named Edwardine, while the other sister would have the name Edwardina.

Mother Mary

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is regarded highly in the Catholic faith. This explains why nuns use Mary-inspired names after taking their vows. These types of names include Concepta, Imacculata, and Annunciata. As you can see, these names are derived from terms like conception, immaculate, and annunciation. You will also find nuns with names like Purisima, which means the purest.

Latin words

Nuns might draw inspiration from Latin words with positive connotations. Some examples of these names are Humilitas for humility, Vota for vows, Charita for charity, and Illuminata for enlightened. Many nuns go by such names after taking their vows.

Ethnic names

Women Religious look to their ethnic heritage to come up with new names. For instance, German nuns tend to receive the names of German saints like Benno or Bilhildis. African nuns also adopt the names of African saints like Lwanga. Polish nuns also adopted the names of renowned Polish saints such as Bronislava or Casimira.

Can nuns retain their original names after saying their vows?

Why do nuns change their names?
Can nuns retain their original names? Image source: Pinterest

Yes, nowadays, nuns can retain their original names after saying their vows. This is assuming that the postulant is already baptized in the Catholic faith. The Vatican II council changed a lot of things for Catholic nuns. The heads of the Roman Catholic church decided that it would be acceptable for nuns to revert to their baptismal names. The Catholic church’s greed that the name one receives during baptism is very significant to their spiritual life.

Is the changing of names or nuns a rule for formation or an individual choice?

Nuns had to change their names according to Catholic doctrine. In the past, nuns had to take the names given to them by people in authority, such as the commissary general or the mother superior. Postulants had no say so concerning their new names. Over the decades, these naming procedures changed so that women religious could participate in choosing their names. After 1969, the decision to do a name change or retain the bestial name was left to the nuns. Today, most communities require three name suggestions from a postulant. However, it is not guaranteed that one of the names will win during the graduation ceremony.

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