Where did that name come from?

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | September 8, 2016

How parishes became named after certain patron saints

How did you get your name?

Did you get a name from family — like your father’s grandmother or your mother’s maiden name? Was it something special to your parents — like the month they were married?

Now, how did your parish get its name?

Some people will answer that it was named over a century ago by immigrant families who founded the parish and named it “St. Patrick” to honor the patron of Ireland, or “St. Boniface” for the patron of Germany.

For the first centuries of Christianity, churches were not named after saints. In fact, according to “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” they were simply called “the House of God” or the “House of Prayer.” This was often because the church was also part of the home of a rich member of the community, who had a large enough space in which people could gather.

Also, because of the many persecutions of Christians, a regular meeting place for Mass and other services was often kept secret. Besides house churches, many of these places were located at the tombs of the early martyrs.


After Constantine formally ended the persecutions in the fourth century, church buildings became regular features in Rome and elsewhere. Some of the sites that had been linked to the martyrs began to be known by the name of those martyrs and came to be known as memorial churches.

Other larger buildings were donated to Christians, such as the Lateran Palace which later became the core of the present Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. The Basilica of St. Peter in Vatican City is located over the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles.

Local connections

From then on, the names of churches developed along a similar pattern — somehow linked to devotion to a particular saint — though not necessarily because they were buried, or martyred, near the site.

There were churches named for missionary saints — such as St. Columba, an Irish missionary, or SS. Cosmas and Damian, brothers known as the Apostles to the Slavs. Other places were named for patrons of religious communities that had established religious houses in the area, such as Franciscans, Poor Clares or Benedictines.

The official name of a church is known as its “titulus” and, while a particular saint may be its patron, no church is dedicated to a saint. All churches are dedicated to God, through the intercession of a particular patron saint.

There are no rules in canon law about naming churches, outside of noting that each church must have a title and, after it has been dedicated, that title cannot be changed (n. 1218).


However, over the centuries, certain patterns for choosing names have emerged. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes these as coming from one of the following:

  • The possession of a relic of the saint named;
  • Choosing a saint who announced the Gospel to the nation;
  • A saint who lived or died in the locality;
  • A saint who is the national patron;
  • The founder of the parish’s special devotion or link to a saint. For example, St. Bernard Parish in Appleton — which is celebrating its 50th anniversary on Sept. 10 (see page 3), was named at the request of John Cavanaugh, the donor of the property in memory of his father, Bernard. The parish’s patron is St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a doctor of the church.
  • A name was chosen based on the popular devotion of the time. For example, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was officially defined in 1854 and several parishes were dedicated to God through Mary as the Immaculate Conception shortly after that.

Generally patronal names fall into just a few categories:

  • To God, such as Holy Trinity, or an aspect of the humanity of Christ: the Sacred Heart, Holy Redeemer, Christ the King;
  • Through Mary — whose is the most common appellation for churches in our diocese, from the simple St. Mary to the now closed Maternity of Mary Parish in Manitowoc Waters, the founding parish of all Manitowoc County parishes;
  • In honor of angels, apostles or evangelists;
  • In memory of various other saints.

No new pairings

According to the “Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar,” there cannot be two saints named as patrons of a parish, unless they share a feast day on the church’s calendar, such as SS. Peter and Paul, or Holy Angels. The rite also notes that, except with special Vatican permission, a church’s patron cannot be one of the Blessed, such as Blessed Oscar Romero or Blessed Paul VI.

While it is the prerogative of the local bishop to choose names for parishes, recent bishops have asked for local input.

When St. Patrick-St. Mary in Maple Grove/Reedsville and St. Mary in Brillion merged and built a new church in 2001, Bishop Robert Banks dedicated it under the name chosen by parish members: Holy Family.

A few years later, when the six Chilton area parishes combined in 2005 to form Good Shepherd Parish, the name came from a list of three names submitted to Bishop David Zubik by members of the parish.


Sources: Compass archives; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; the 1983 Code of Canon Law; stbernardappleton.org; Catholic Answers Magazine; catholicdoors.org; americancatholic.org; and holyfamilybrillion.org.


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