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Gonzaga is coming in hot to March Madness. But what's behind the name?

Gonzaga players celebrate after defeating Saint Mary's in an NCAA college basketball championship game at the West Coast Conference tournament on March 8 in Las Vegas.
John Locher
Gonzaga players celebrate after defeating Saint Mary's in an NCAA college basketball championship game at the West Coast Conference tournament on March 8 in Las Vegas.

The first round of March Madness kicked off this week, and Gonzaga University's Bulldogs sit at the top of the rankings.

No stranger to the top spot, Gonzaga's men's basketball rumbled through to the final matchup last year, before losing by 16 points to Baylor. In their first game of this year's tournament, the men's team will take on Georgia State Thursday afternoon. The Gonzaga women's team will take on Nebraska on Friday.

But who's Gonzaga? And why do the Bulldogs carry Gonzaga's name?

The university says the origin of its name is "one of the most frequently asked questions" about the institution.

The Spokane, Wash., university which was founded in 1887, is named for St. Aloysius Gonzaga, an Italian Jesuit in the 16th century.

Father Joseph Cataldo, an Italian Jesuit who founded the university, felt it fitting to name the school after another Italian Jesuit.

Aloysius, which is the Latin version of Gonzaga's given name of Luigi, was born to a wealthy family in 1568. He grew up during the violence of Renaissance Italy, and he watched the murder of both of his brothers, according to the university.

As the firstborn son in his prestigious family, he was set to inherit his father's title of Marquis. But he later renounced his right to the title and joined the Society of Jesus in Rome in 1585.

When in Rome, he regularly spent time in the streets caring for victims of the plague, while also studying to be a Jesuit priest. He later died after contracting the plague when he was 23. He was six years short of his ordination.

In 1729, Pope Benedict XIII named Aloysius Gonzaga the patron saint of youth. A statue of the Saint holding a victim of the plague stands on Gonzaga's campus.

Mary Joan Hahn, a spokesperson for Gonzaga University, calls St. Aloysius Gonzaga "a heroic example of our mission in action."

"He provides a fitting name for an institution that hopes to send out into the world graduates who have the capacity to build communities, families, and organizations that will transform the world for the better," Hahn wrote in a statement to NPR.

Aloysius Gonzaga is also the namesake of Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., and Mount Aloysius College in Pennsylvania. Schools outside of the U.S. also bear his name, including Gonzaga College in Ireland. and St. Aloysius' College in Australia.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rina Torchinsky

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