Sylvester’s once again a hero on movie screens.
Sylvester Stallone, who turned 76 in July, became famous writing and starring in 1976’s hit “Rocky”, about a heroic heavyweight boxer. Today, he’s the title character in “Samaritan,” released Aug. 26. There, young Sam (Javon Walton) discovers superhero Samaritan, who disappeared 25 years ago, is secretly living as “Joe Smith.”
Sylvester’s a Latin name meaning “of the forest.” St. Sylvester I (285-335) was Pope from 314 through 335. During his reign, Constantine became Rome’s first Christian emperor.
Not much is known about St. Sylvester. However, about two centuries after his death, the legend developed that Sylvester cured Constantine of leprosy. The grateful emperor then was baptized and gave the Pope temporal power over Rome and the Western empire.
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Modern historians know Constantine was baptized on his deathbed in 337, two years after Sylvester died. The legend was used to promote Papal authority.
In 999, French bishop Gerbert, a mathematician who popularized the abacus, became Pope Sylvester II. His fame, along with St. Sylvester legend’s, spread the name throughout Europe. Though never common in medieval England, it was used enough to spawn surnames Silvester, Sylvester and Siveter.
Puritans avoided most non-Biblical saints’ names. It’s therefore surprising that in the 18th century, Sylvester became vastly commoner in New England than old England. The 1851 census of Great Britain found only 172 Sylvesters, while in the United States 1850 census, there were 10,371 when the two nations’ populations were about equal.
Sylvester was especially common in the North: 25.5% of the Sylvesters were born in New York and 6.6% in Massachusetts, though in 1850 only 15.5% and 5.0% of all Americans lived in those states.
It’s a mystery why Sylvester was so popular in America. There were well-known Sylvester families in the northeast. For example, Shelter Island, at Long Island’s eastern end, was bought by Nathaniel Sylvester (1610-1680) in 1651. Sylvester Manor, built by his grandson, Brinley, in 1735, attracts tourists today. Perhaps 19th-century parents saw Sylvester as an updated version of Silvanus, name of a companion of the Apostle Paul mentioned four times in the New Testament.
The most famous 19th century Sylvester was Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), a Presbyterian minister who promoted vegetarianism and coarse-ground flour as the basis for good health. His lectures attracted thousands. Graham crackers were named after him, though he didn’t invent or profit from them.
Before Stallone, the famous 20th century Sylvester was Sylvester Pussycat. Created in 1938, the cartoon feline wasn’t named until 1948, in honor of Felis silvestrus, scientific name of the European wildcat, closet wild relative of the domestic cat. Sylvester starred in three Oscar-winning animated shorts (1947, 1955 and 1957), more than any other Looney Tunes character. His latest role was in 2021’s “Space Jam: A New Legacy.”
Sylvester ranked 139th in 1901. The cat didn’t help the name’s popularity, and in 1976 it was down to 590th. Stallone’s fame bumped that to 542nd in 1979. Sylvester then resumed falling, disappearing from the top thousand in 1995.
Today’s Sylvesters are mostly of African American, Italian or Polish descent. Neither its sound or image fit contemporary tastes. Sixty-eight Sylvesters were born in 2021, about the same as every year since 2004. It’ll be quite a while before Sylvester’s a hero of baby name lists again.
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