How did your church get its name?

Published February 1, 1999

How did the church where you worship come by its name? Does it share that name with many other Canadian Anglican churches or with only a few?

Not content with annually generating 2.5 million mailing labels, most of them accurate, the computers in the Anglican Journal’s circulation office store detailed information on the nation’s parishes which, if asked politely, they will disgorge and sort into patterns. How, according to them, have we gone about choosing names for our churches?

We have paid due honour to the Name which is above every name with 138 Christ Churches; a further 36 bear His titles – Emmanuel, Messiah, Redeemer, and Saviour. Next come the 111 churches named for the Trinity (along with one for its valiant defender, St. Athanasius, who might think the ratio generous).

Jesus’ earthly relatives have found far less favour, with one church named for the Holy Family, four for Joseph, 29 for Mary, three for her cousin Elizabeth, and 16 for John the Baptist – though one of these, in St. John’s, is the country’s senior parish, completing its third century this year. Curiously, nine churches are dedicated to St. Anne, identified by tradition but nowhere in Scripture as Mary’s mother.

The apostles fare much better, with James and John lending their names to 99 churches apiece. We may hope their mother knows this, short though it falls of the distinction she sought for them. Peter is remembered in 65 communities, Thomas in 42, and Philip in 22. Andrew must make do with 15 churches (perhaps because Scots got a corner on him), Matthew with 14 (we still don’t like taxes or their collectors), and Bartholomew with 12 (is his name just too hard to spell?).

But apparently a short simple name, even of a gospel-writer, is not enough: Mark has 16 churches named for him, and Luke 11, the same as Mary Magdalene. Filling a vacancy in difficult circumstances has netted Matthias a mere 10 churches. Paul, with 38, does much better, like his associates Barnabas, with 26, and Timothy, with 14 – the same number as Stephen, who was hardly Paul’s kindred spirit.

Two groups of churches seem to agree with RRSP promoters on the wisdom of diversification: the 87 dedicated to All Saints, and the 28 to St. Michael and All Angels. They may indeed be prudent, for the individual non-biblical saint with the most churches named for him has not exactly lost his halo; rather, the halo has lost him.

Some time ago, Vatican officials announced that they could find too little reliable information on St. George to certify that he even existed; however, his veneration might continue in England, Genoa, and other places which had in good faith adopted him as their patron saint, since the virtues ascribed to him remain worthy of imitation. Thus the 42 churches named for him, and the 11 named for the equally shadowy St. Christopher, are by no means licensed to grow weary in well doing.

Still, documented heroic virtue seems to count for little if practised outside the British Isles, or indeed within them after 1066. (Or perhaps the key date is 1058, when Greek and Latin Christians stopped trying to agree on sanctity or anything else.) Only Francis of Assisi, perhaps because he loved animals and Christmas creches, has managed to crack this barrier and lend his name to eight churches, the same number as the much earlier Clement of Alexandria.

Otherwise, the homeboys outscore even the Holy Family, with 30 churches named for St. Alban, 16 for David of Wales, 13 for Aidan and seven for Patrick. The odd woman out, Margaret of Scotland ties with St. Anne at nine. The Venerable Bede broods over four churches, Chad and Dunstan (once archbishop of Canterbury) over three apiece, and King Edward the Confessor over two. The great continental organizers of monasteries, Benedict and Bernard, fare no better than saints of purely local renown, Swithin of Winchester and Hugh of Lincoln, with a single church each. Similarly, four Canadian clerics are recalled in “memorial” churches near where they laboured, only one outside western Ontario.

Just one Canadian church owes its name directly to a monarch: when King George III furnished funds for constructing Quebec’s cathedral in 1799, he stipulated that it “be dedicated to the Most Holy Trinity.” Though your church may never have drawn royal attention, a similar process may well have determined its name.

The right to name a new church rests technically with the bishop, who may see fit to consult, say, the person who gathered its congregation, or a major contributor toward its construction, especially one living elsewhere. Such a benefactor is less apt to have a favourite saint than to wish to transplant the name of a church significant in his life; thus, an advisor with an English background, fond of an ancient church, might well commend the name of a Saxon saint.

Many of us have learned how complex and emotion-laden the naming of a baby can be. The naming of a church can bring even more cross-currents into play, and probing into what happened during your church’s infancy may increase your respect for the people who brought it to a point where it needed naming.

Hugh D. McKellar is a Toronto writer who volunteers in the Anglican Journal’s circulation department.


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