The name Mary and its variants Marie and Maria have been given to girls from humble families, royal families and every family in between for centuries (it was even suggested that the new Prince Louis might have been named Mary if he’d been a girl). In the US, Mary was the top name every year from when the Social Security Administration began keeping records in the late 1800s until 1961 (with a few-year stint at Number Two from 1947 to 1952).
Though used by families of varied faiths, the name Mary has been particularly important to Catholics. It’s a long-held tradition for Catholic girls to have a form of Mary in their names. A good example of this is the family of one well-known saint, St. Thérèse of Lisieux (also known as the Little Flower): her given name was Marie Françoise-Thérèse, her mother was Marie-Azélie (now known as St. Zélie, as she was recently canonized), and her sisters were Marie Louise, Marie Pauline, Marie Léonie, Marie Hélène, Marie Céline, and Marie Mélanie-Thérèse.
Religious sisters and nuns who take new religious names upon making their vows have traditionally had a form of Mary as part of their new names. Even today, many Catholic girls are given a form of Mary as part of their name (first or middle)—my own parents did so for me and my three sisters, and I have several cousins who have Mary as their first name (though most go by their middle names, as St. Thérèse and her sisters did).
As SSA statistics show, however, the name Mary has fallen out of favor with the past few generations of parents, Catholics included. For though it’s just beginning to feel fresh again after fifty years of declining use, the name still holds a feeling of commonness and plainness for many. So with the increasing desire for new/unique/uncommon names, the interest in Mary has waned.
On the other hand, the interest in naming girls after the Blessed Virgin Mary has not. This phenomenon was already on my radar, after having met a little girl with the middle name Immaculata ten years ago—one of the titles of the Blessed Virgin is “the Immaculate Conception” and she has also been referred to as “the Immaculata.” I had already started researching and compiling non-Mary Marian names when the 2014 SSA data was released, and Aranza, Montserrat, and Monserrat were the three fastest-rising names for girls. It seemed their popularity was bolstered by characters in telenovelas with those names, which were already on my list of Marian names, as they’ve had centuries of use among Spanish-speaking families: Aranza (and such variants as Arancha, Arantxa) refers to a fifteenth-century apparition of the Virgin Mary in Spain; Montserrat and Monserrat refer to an image of the Blessed Virgin dating back to the twelfth or thirteenth century.
Not only have I found many, many non-Mary names referring specifically to the Blessed Virgin, I’ve also discovered Marian titles and characteristics that provide a Marian connection to names that don’t have an otherwise explicit one. In fact, of the Top 100 girl names in 2016, twenty of them have a possible connection to the Blessed Virgin.
And there are a lot of options for boys as well! Naming a boy after Mary obviously isn’t as common as it is for girls, but within the Catholic tradition it’s not uncommon either—Mary, Marie, and Maria have been used for boys, mostly as middle names in European countries– for a long time. There’s a boy in my eight-year-old son’s class whose second middle name is Maria (his mother is European), and there are current priests and religious brothers who have taken a form of Mary when they take their new religious name. Many male saints have Mary in their names: St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, St. Louis–Marie Grignion de Montfort, and St. Clement Mary Hofbauer, are a few examples.
For those who don’t care to give a boy a girl’s name but like the idea of honoring the Blessed Virgin in their son’s name, there are quite a few non-Mary masculine options, from first names connected to her titles, characteristics, and visionaries, to surnames derived from the name Mary that can work well as first names themselves.
Kate is a longtime, valued contributor to Nameberry. Her new book entitled Catholic Baby Names for Girls and Boys: Over 250 Ways to Honor Our Lady (Marian Press, 2018) contains hundreds of names, each entry providing pronunciation, history, nicknames, variants, and examples from real life, literature, and culture, and would be of interest to all name enthusiasts. It can be purchased on the publisher’s web site (it ships free through May 12), as well as on Amazon.