Friars reveal the joys and the headaches
“How bad could it be?” the classmates wondered as they prepared to receive their religious names. Pretty bad, actually, since names like Polycarp, Symphorian and Apollinar had been given to other friars.
It was the summer of 1949 when novices Tom Speier, Frank Geers and Ed Lammert approached the altar at St. Anthony Shrine, where Provincial Minister Romuald Mollaun stood ready to end their suspense.
“We had no idea who was in charge of choosing those names,” says Tom. “That was a deep, dark secret.” The friar’s preference was rarely considered. “They had a big thing about perpetuating names. If somebody died, you knew you would get his name.” The recent death of the pastor of St. Clement Church – Odo Kempker – had all three of them worried.
When Romuald greeted Ed with, “Henceforth, you will ever be known as ‘Friar Odo’,” Tom breathed a sigh of relief. “I wanted ‘Edward’ and got the name ‘Omer’, but at least I didn’t get ‘Odo’.” Frank had requested the name “Colon”, as in the punctuation mark, until he was reminded of its other meaning. “He ended up with ‘Vigil’,” Tom says, not to be confused with “Virgil”.
Two years later it was Thomas Harrington’s turn to be nervous. “I wanted the name ‘Timothy’, but we already had a ‘Timothy’ in the province,” he says. Provincial Romuald declared, “You will no longer be called ‘Thomas’; you will be called ‘Jeremius’” – the Latin version of “Jeremy”. All in all, “I think I got a good name; with my Irish background, it sounded good to me,” says the friar who has been Jeremy since 1951. “My classmate was named ‘Theodoric’ Schneider,” which was mercifully shortened to Ric.
Naming rituals have played out hundreds of times in St. John the Baptist Province – with mixed results. The reasoning was, “You’re coming into religious life, so you’re a new person in Christ,” Tom says. “You’re a new man, so you got a new name.”
But the discrepancies in friar IDs have sometimes baffled bank clerks, draft boards, airport screeners, license bureaus, boards of election and credit card companies. Hassles are not uncommon. “Yes, indeed,” says Gene Mayer. His birth name, Daniel, could not be his religious name because there were other Daniels in the province when he entered. “So I took my grandfather’s name, ‘Eugene’,” and shortened it to “Gene”. At the novitiate ceremony, Provincial Minister Roger Huser said, “Your name from this point will be” – then stopped to whisper, “Is this supposed to be Eugene?” Nope, he was assured; it’s Gene.
It says “Daniel” on his draft card and “Gene” on his driver’s license. When officials are confused he explains, “In religion when you take a new name, your first name becomes your middle name.” Years ago when he asked that his driver’s license read, “Gene Daniel”, the clerk at the BMV said, “Honey, you can do whatever you want.”
Russell Groth remembers receiving his religious name on March 13, 1960, in Oldenburg, Ind. “I asked for ‘Marcel’ because my mother’s name was Marcella.” There have been issues, he admits. “They wanted me to have my driver’s license under my religious name. When I transferred to Michigan, I used my legal name, Russell.” He spent three months sorting it out. “When I got back to Ohio I had to switch everything back to Marcel.” This time the courts got involved, dragging things out for another three months.
Bert Heise had a different problem. He was baptized “Howard” after a priest who had given his father religious instruction. “In the seminary they gave me the name ‘Cuthbert’” after friar Cuthbert Kalt, who died in New Mexico in 1927. “In the novitiate,” Bert says, “I was called ‘Cuthy’ and ‘Cootie’.” Andrew Fox, then principal at Roger Bacon High School, overheard the nicknames one night in the rec room at St. Clement and did not approve. “No way are you getting by with that,” he said. So Cuthbert became Bert, a name everyone could accept.
Ralph Bertram was 21 when he joined the friars in Oldenburg, Ind. “We changed names in 1963,” he recalls. One of the names Ralph proposed had nothing to do with religion. “It was the name of a friend, a nice guy we hung around with.” That was the name his superiors chose. “When it came time to get our habits, they said, ‘From now on, you will not be known as Ralph; you will be Brother Norbert.’”
Preparing for ministry with the Vice Province of the Holy Savior in 1960, Richard Cesanek chose for himself the name of a friend from grade school. “Damian was my next-door neighbor,” he says. “He had that name and I kind of liked it.” For more than 40 years, “I never had a problem” with legal-vs.-religious identities. But in the wake of 9/11, a credit card application drew increased scrutiny. “You have a credit card with a different name,” noted the man doing background checks. “I explained to him the difference between religious and baptismal names,” Damian says. “Fortunately, he was Catholic” and passed along the papers.
After Vatican II, “When guys were given the option of returning to their baptismal name, many took that option,” Damian says. Among them was Ludwig Bok, who reverted to his birth name, John. “Oh dear God,” says Gene, “He got rid of ‘Ludwig’ the second he could.” And Odo Lammert wasted no time going back to “Ed”, Jeremy says.
In 18 years of leading Franciscan Spiritual Direction Programs around the world, “I never had any trouble with my name,” Tom says. “When I switched back [to his baptismal name], I was always ‘Thomas Omer’. That’s not my real name. I think my passport is technically illegal.”
Looking back, he says, “Norman Perry was the only person who ever got the name he wanted” because he was special, “the first vocation from Roger Bacon High School.”
“I for one was satisfied,” Jeremy says of the name he received.
“My second choice was ‘Adrian’,” says Gene. “I’m glad I didn’t get that.”
Tom would rather have been Edward. “But I was just relieved I didn’t get ‘Odo’.”