One of my earliest memories of my childhood was the day I began first grade at St. Pius X Catholic School in Omaha, Nebraska, in September, 1956. My teacher was Sister Evangeline. She called out the names of each student in her class asking that we stand after hearing our names. By doing this, we were essentially introducing ourselves to her.
When she said, “Catherine Mendenhall, would you stand, please?” I didn’t understand she was calling on me. I had eight siblings, parents and grandparents, none of whom called me Catherine. I was always called Kate or Kay. My sister Mary was not yet a year old when I was born and wasn’t able to pronounce my name. She called me Kay. Everyone followed her lead on this. By the age of six, quite frankly, I never realized my actual name was Catherine.
My father picked us up from school on that first day. Seeing my tears, he realized I was unhappy. “What’s the matter with Kate?” he asked. My sister, Mary, explained she didn’t know what was wrong; she just said I was crying as soon as she met up with me after school.
I explained to my father that the teacher, a Sister, called me by a funny name. “She said my name was Catherine.”
This made him smile. He assured me it was OK and my mother would explain it to me when I got home. When I told my mother through tears that the Sister had called me “Catherine” she smiled, saying Catherine was, in fact, my name.
“You should be proud of your name. It’s beautiful,” she said. “You were baptized with that name.”
I told her “Well, I don’t like it.” She reassured me that someday I would love it, even if I didn’t like it now.
I never felt comfortable when my teachers and the Sisters identified me in class as Catherine. Maybe it was because of that memory of being six and not understanding.
As the years went by, I learned many children in my class had the name Kathleen or Catherine and most shortened the name to Kathy. I followed their lead and did the same thing. Throughout childhood and even adulthood, Catherine was the name I used on my taxes, driver’s license or marriage license, but certainly not otherwise.
Obviously as I grew older, I knew that as a Catholic, naming a child was done to reflect the name of a saint. My mother was committed to doing this for all nine of her children. Why a saint’s name?
The Catholic tradition of naming a child after a saint is not new. It’s an ancient tradition that carries much significance, and rightly so! In the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom strongly encouraged parents to choose for their children names of holy men and women known for their strength and virtue, in order that the children might look to them as role models.
So, there you have it. A saint’s name was the motivation for my name being Catherine. My patron saint was Catherine of Siena. Learning about your saint was also part of the Catholic-school tradition. By the time we made it to sixth grade we were expected to learn and write about our patron saint. This is how I came to know about St. Catherine of Siena.
St. Catherine of Siena was born during the outbreak of the plague in Siena, Italy on March 25, 1347. She was the 25th child born to her mother. Although half of her brothers and sisters did not survive childhood, Catherine herself was a twin, but her twin sister did not survive infancy. Her mother was 40 when she was born. Catherine dedicated herself to working with the poor and through politics was a spokesperson for their causes. She is the patron saint of Italy.
Catherine of Siena was likely a tough act for me to follow but I appreciated learning about her.
Another source for this Catholic tradition of finding an appropriate name is, of course, the Bible. One example is when God chooses Abram as the father of the “chosen people” Abram is circumcised and given the name of Abraham. Jacob is given the name “Israel” after wrestling with an angel and receiving a blessing. In the New Testament Simon is called Peter and Saul is called Paul.
The message here is that our names are significant. Why? Catholics believe that choosing a Christian saint or biblical name serves as a reminder that God is calling us to holiness. The name we are given at baptism becomes our connection to earthly and eternal life.
So how do I feel about my name, Catherine now? Well, not surprising, my mother was right. I have come to love my name. So much so, that after having over 150 articles published for various Catholic websites, I identify my name on everything I write as Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh in honor of my mother.
Sadly, she died before I began writing. I know she would have been proud of the fact that I became a writer and that I chose to use Catherine in my name on all my writings. I love that my mother chose a name that represents strength and compassion, similar to my patron saint. Mostly, I know my mother was wise when using Catholic guidelines when naming her children. I thank her and I thank Catherine of Siena for being my reminder of how significant they were as role models for me. I pray I will live up to their expectations of me until, God willing, we are able to meet in my eternal life.
Copyright 2018 Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh