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I know that some Catholic nuns chose new names, like Mother Teresa (previously Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu), and others didn't, like Sister Helen Prejean.

What determines whether a woman changes her name on taking her vows? Is it up to the individual, or do different orders have their own particular rules or customs?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

Name changes in the Bible indicate a significant change in the life of the person. For example,

Abram became Abraham.

"No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations." (Gen 17:5)

Jacob became Israel.

Then he said, "Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed." (Gen 32:28)

Simon became Cephas, which means rock.

"So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas" (which means Peter). (John 1:42)

Having said that, it is really up to the individual to take a new name. Usually, they like to take the name of a saint whom they are inspired by.

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I don't think it's always up to the individual. My understanding is that the Norbertines of St. Michael's Abbey in southern California, for example, are offered a choice of three religious names by their superiors. This is a men's congregation but I'd guess that there are women's groups that have a similar practice. And then there are other religious congregations (e.g., Jesuits) where the practice of taking a new name is unknown (I don't know if that's 100% unknown, but I've never heard of it among Jesuits). –  Ben Dunlap May 15 '12 at 14:50
    
@BenDunlap, thank you for the additional nuance. Do you think you might contribute an answer to this question? There seems to be a difference of opinion between you and LoveTheFaith, and it would be nice to have a couple of answers available to gather votes and comments. –  James T May 16 '12 at 14:22
    
OK - I held off accepting for a while because Ben Dunlap's comment raised a doubt, but I'm going to go ahead and accept LoveTheFaith's upvoted answer now. –  James T May 25 '12 at 1:50
    
I don't really have an answer to this specific question since I don't know much about nuns. I know quite a few men in various religious congregations, though -- hence the comment rather than an answer. I suspect that what I've observed in men's congregations holds true for women's as well, making @LoveTheFaith's answer inaccurate at best, but I don't know that with any certainty. –  Ben Dunlap May 25 '12 at 16:37
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