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How Saints' Names Became Popular

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Alphabet Soup

Canonizing refers to the process of declaring a dead person as a saint and glorifying this person's memory by adding him or her to a list of saints. Very few people have been canonized in recent years; it is believed that Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who died in 1997, will be added to the Roman Catholic roster of saints.

It was a common practice in medieval times for families to use the names of saints or martyrs when naming children. Using such names, according to church doctrine, would place the bearers under their namesake's protection. At a time when both disease and wars were rampant, anything that might provide a shield from these forces was highly desired.

This was when some of the most revered names in Christianity, such as John, James, Peter, Anthony, and Paul, blossomed in popularity. Parents of girls born during this time had a smaller pool of names from which to choose, as many female saints and martyrs came later in church history. However, Mary, Anne, Elizabeth, and Catherine quickly became very popular.

Heavenly Helpers

What's in a Name

Some saints and martyrs had less than saintly pasts. Augustine had affairs with several women before he finally embraced the Christian faith. Saul, who as Paul became one of the early pillars of Christianity, persecuted Christians prior to his conversion.

What's in a Name

The popular Irish boys' name Kieran comes from the saint of the same name. According to church lore, Kieran was recruited by the archbishop Patrick to help organize the church in Ireland. His work as an evangelist made him the first Irish-born saint.

What's in a Name

John, which means “God is gracious,” is one of the most revered names in Christianity and appears in some form in virtually every language. It also provides the basis for many popular girls' names such as Joanna, Jean, and Joan, as well as such modern forms as Johnica, Jonicia, and Jonnette.

Since saints were generally honored for their actions and achievements during their lives, they often became the symbols of hope for the causes or illnesses with which they were associated while on earth. Many also became the protectors of individual countries.

Prayers are still made to saints to ask for help in specific situations; for example, a woman trying to have a child might send a prayer or two to Saint Anne, the patron of childless women. A mother concerned over the fate of her son may petition Saint Monica, who prayed for many years for the conversion of her wayward son Augustine. Other saints looked to in times of crisis include:

  • Anne, the mother of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is the patron saint of housewives and childless women, among others.
  • Bernadette, the young girl who, in the mid 1800s, had multiple visions of the Virgin Mary beside the River Gave in Lourdes. She is one of the more recent additions to the Roman canon of saints, and her visions helped to create one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the world. To this day, the water at Lourdes is said to bring healing.
  • Brigid of Ireland, whose work in that country earned her the position of patroness and feminine protector of the Emerald Isle. Her name lives on as Bridget to this day.
  • Christopher, the protector of travelers.
  • Edward the Confessor, the medieval English king who was renowned for solving problems by reasoning with people rather than declaring war on them at a time when war was a far more popular choice.
  • Genevieve, whose bravery saved Paris from the vicious Attila the Hun. She is the patron of Paris and the protector of that city from modern-day disasters.
  • Joan of Arc, the patron of France and French soldiers, who was burned at the stake for her efforts to help the king of France regain his kingdom. Legend has it that she was led to this mission by the voices of such saints as Michael, Catherine, and Margaret.
  • Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, who is often turned to when earthly efforts fail.
  • Margaret, a virgin martyr saint of the Middle Ages, who is the patron of pregnant women, childbirth, and death.
  • Nicholas, the patron of children and one of the most popular saints of all time. His image may have transferred to today's Santa Claus as children were often given gifts on his feast day, which is in the first part of December.


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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Baby Names © 1999 by Sonia Weiss. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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