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A050199_246x550This blog post was first published on August 7 2011, and revised and updated on August 13 2015.

Famous Namesake
Tomorrow is the solemnity of Saint Mary of the Cross, otherwise known as Saint Mary MacKillop. It’s a special day for Australian Catholics, because Mary MacKillop is the only Australian to have ever been canonised as a saint.

Born in 1842, she was a nun who founded the order of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, as well as several schools and welfare organisations across South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales. She had a special interest in educating the poor, especially in rural areas, but the Josephites also cared for parentless and neglected children, unmarried mothers, women escaping domestic violence, the elderly, and the dying, as well as prisoners and juvenile delinquents. The Josephites did not live in convents, but amongst the community, living as they did, and sharing their hard lives. The brown habits they wore gave them the very Australian nickname, “The Brown Joeys”.

Church politics often caused her stress, including a period of a few months when she was excommunicated for speaking out against child sex abuse within the church. During this time, she lived with a Jewish family and was sheltered by Jesuit priests. There was also an ugly smear campaign against her, including accusations that she was a drunkard. In fact, in an age where pain medication options were limited, she took alcohol on doctor’s orders for severe menstrual pain that left her bedridden for days each month.

Even during her lifetime, Mary MacKillop was regarded as a saint for her holiness and charitable works, and after she died on August 8 1909, people took earth from around her grave as a relic, until her remains were placed in a vault in a memorial chapel in Sydney, paid for by an admiring Presbyterian friend.

In 1925 the long process of having Mary MacKillop declared a saint was begun; she was beatified in 1995, and canonised on October 17 2010. She is the patron saint of Australia, and of the city of Brisbane.

Whatever your beliefs, it’s hard not to admire Mary MacKillop for her altruism and determination. She was greatly beloved by the poor, and accepted by the Aboriginal community as one of themselves. She was a fiery-tempered yet affectionate Scottish redhead with big blue eyes who believed in social justice and equality for all, and whose catchphrase was, “Never see a need without doing something about it”.

Name Information
Mary has long been a favourite for girls, due to it being the name of the mother of Jesus. In fact, there are a confusing number of women named Mary in the New Testament, because it was a name used in the royal family of Judea at the time, and extremely common. Mary is an English translation of the Latin and Greek forms of the Hebrew name Miryam.

The original Miryam was the older sister of Moses and Aaron in the Old Testament. It was she who hid Moses in the bullrushes when he was a baby to save his life, and then watched the Pharaoh’s daughter discover and adopt him. She cleverly suggested to this adoptive mother that she hire Miryam’s mother as a nurse, so that Moses was raised within his own family.

As Miryam was born in Egypt, it’s been suggested that her name comes from the Egyptian word for “love” or “beloved”, or even possibly from the Egyptian name Meritamen, meaning “beloved of Amun” – Amun being the chief god of the Egyptians. So this name, now seen as very Christian, may have ancient pagan roots.

Although Mary is a traditional English name, it didn’t become widely used in Britain until after the Conquest, when the Normans introduced the idea of using names of saints as personal names; before that, they were seen as too holy for an ordinary person to bear. It was introduced in the Latin form Maria and the French form Marie; only as the Middle Ages came to an end did Mary became standard.

The name gained royal credentials, with Mary I the first woman to successfully claim the throne of England, and rule as a king as well as queen – she was known as Bloody Mary for her brutal persecution of Protestants. Several kings had queens named Mary, and Mary, Queen of Scots, was an attractive and romantic figure who earns admiration for the brave manner she faced imprisonment and execution. Queen Mary II, of William and Mary fame, was named after her. Australia has its own royal Mary – Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark, born Mary Donaldson in Hobart.

Mary was the #1 name of the 1900s and 1910s, and remained in the Top 10 until the 1940s. It left the Top 50 in 1971, and the Top 100 in 1995. Since then, it has remained relatively stable, and is apparently not far out of the Top 100. That makes Mary a very safe choice – a classic name still in common and regular use without being popular.

Mary was even more popular in the US, remaining at #1 from the late 19th century to the early 1960s – a really staggering run of hypersuccess. It left the Top 10 in the 1970s, and the Top 50 in the early 2000s, dropping off the Top 100 in 2009. It is currently #120 and stable, a similar popularity to here.

In the UK, Mary was the #1 name from the middle of the 19th century to the 1920s, and remained in the Top 10 until the 1960s. It left the Top 50 during the 1970s, and was out of the Top 100 by the middle of the 1990s. Mary has fallen slightly faster in the UK than here or in the US, and is now #244, although still relatively stable. The only country where Mary is still popular is Ireland, where it is #81 and falling steadily.

Mary is gracious enough to be at ease in every level of society, as suitable for a saint or a princess as it is for a scientist or a politician, a soprano or a photographer, a sportswoman or a pilot. While it’s unlikely that your daughter will ever be a saint or a princess, it’s nice to think that if she does, her name will sound just fine with either title in front of it.

This is a timeless classic which sounds wonderful whatever your age, from wee baby Mary to great-grandma Mary. It’s short and simple without seeming cutesy or insubstantial, and is strong, wholesome, dignified, and completely unpretentious. As Australian author P.L. Travers taught us in Mary Poppins, it’s a name that carries just a hint of magic and mystery, and is practically perfect in every way!

POLL RESULT
Mary received an excellent approval rating of 85%, making it one of the highest-rated names of 2011. 34% of people loved the name Mary, and only 5% hated it.

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