I am from a Catholic family but was raised a Baptist. I am reasonably conversant with Catholic theology, tradition, and education. However, when my older friend from Niagara Falls mentioned “pagan babies” to me the other day, I drew a blank. The certificates she showed me were so sweet, however, that I had to look them up.
As far as I can piece together, pagan babies and the donations for them were administered by The Society of the Propagation of Faith. The program was officially instituted by a decree of Pope Leo XIII in 1881. Children in mid-century Catholic schools spent much time and effort raising money to “ransom” these pagan babies, which could be done for a fiver.
Pagan babies were actually symbolic, although many Catholic children thought of them as real. The fiver represented the supposed cost per conversion, and actually went to support the missionaries working around the world. At some point, kids began to be able to name their pagan babies. “Circa 1964, Sister refused to consider Ringo, even for a middle name,” one Buffalonian recalled.
“At Holy Name School, at least in all of my classes, we always gave our Pagan Babies extremely Irish names such as Seamus Sean Connor or Mary Elizabeth. I seem to remember never one name but at least two. The Mercy nuns seemed fine with this,” recollected another.
With the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), the Church turned away from methods which smacked of cultural imperialism. That probably explains why I never heard of pagan babies—I’m just that much younger than my friend. I also don’t know if they were a regional phenomenon particular to western New York. Were pagan babies part of your childhood?