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?

2 Answers 2


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.

  • 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
    Commented May 15, 2012 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
    Commented May 16, 2012 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
    Commented May 25, 2012 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
    Commented May 25, 2012 at 16:37

Since my childhood, I have known hundreds of various religious, both men and women. I even live very close to a Benedictine Monastery of monks, where I did my high school.

Do religious choose their own religious name?

First of all, it depends on the particular Order or Congregation, as some institutions still keep the tradition of their religious changing their names, while others do not. This applies to both men and women.

Amongst those places, where this tradition is still in place, whether of men or women, the aspirant gives three names to their immediate superior to choose from. The superior is free to choose from these three names, but is not bound to choose from them either. It is in no way, the individual Religious who makes the final decision in their new name.

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