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There’s something about ‘MARY’

Despite slip in popularity, the name carries a certain responsibility for many women

In the early 1960s, when Mary Ann Heskett attended St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., she lived with three other Marys – Mary Ellen, Mary Charlotte and Mary Claire.

Fifteen years ago, so many Marys played on Heskett’s tennis team in Spokane that the women called themselves “The Hail Marys,” though not all of them were Catholic.

Heskett, director of the Catholic Charities Foundation, is part of an Inland Northwest Mary-name phenomenon. Dozens of Marys, past and present, have worked for organizations that feed, clothe, shelter and advocate for the poor.

Why? Both secular and Catholic naming trends in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s overlapped, and that’s why you’ll find Marys of a certain age, not just in social service work, but everywhere.

The secular trend: The U.S. Social Security Administration compiles lists of the country’s 1,000 most popular baby names, garnered from Social Security card applications. The agency recently released the 2008 list. Emma is the No. 1 name for girls; Jacob won for the boys.

The agency also lists the most popular names by decade, beginning with the most popular names of the 1880s. So far, in the 2000s, Emily enjoys the No. 1 spot.

Mary reigned as the No. 1 girl’s name for eight decades, from the beginning of the 1880s until the end of the 1950s. In the 1960s, it slipped just one spot. But by the 1970s, the name Mary started its descent and on the most current decade list – 2000-2008 – it sits at 61, keeping company with Jenna (62), Lillian (63) and Paige (64).

The eight-decade-strong Mary phenomenon reflected a societal preference for conventional names, spelled in conventional ways. Unique names, often with alternative spellings, are in favor now, according to “The Baby Name Wizard” author Laura Wattenberg.

“In the 1950s, the top 10 names for boys and girls accounted for a quarter of all babies. Today, it’s less than a tenth,” Wattenberg explained.

And, compared with today, children in earlier decades were more often named after their parents. So the perennially popular Mary name was passed on, like an heirloom, to younger generations.

The Catholic trend. In the Catholic faith tradition, May is Mary’s month. One recent Tuesday, four Marys who work in social service agencies – Mary Ann Heskett, Mary Ann Murphy, Mary Collins Murphy and Mary Rathert – gathered for a photo at the Mary grotto on the Gonzaga University campus.

The women range in age from 56 to 66. They were born in the middle of the 20th century, boom time for Catholics in the United States.

In his book “The Roman Catholics in America,” Patrick W. Carey explains: “Between 1945 and 1965, American Catholicism experienced a phenomenal growth. The Catholic population increased by 90 percent, from 23.9 million to 45.6 million.”

An increase in Catholic girl babies born in that 1945-1965 time frame translated to an increase in Catholic parents choosing the name Mary, in honor of the mother of Jesus. Enrollment in Catholic schools increased by 120 percent in those years, according to Carey.

In the majority of those parochial schools, Mary coronation celebrations featured “May Queens” who crowned Mary statues with flowers.

Rathert, program director at Women’s Hearth, a drop-in center for low-income and homeless women in downtown Spokane, was named after her grandmother Mary; her mother’s middle name was also Mary. At St. Bernard’s parish in Madison, Wis., she was chosen as a May Queen attendant.

“The person who did the crowning wore a bridal gown, and the attendants wore bridesmaids’ dresses,” she remembered. “It was kind of strange.”

Rathert, a Catholic sister in the Dominican order, has always liked her name. The pre-Vatican II God she grew up on was a stern, distant figure, but “I identified with Mary as a child,” she said, because of Mary’s more accessible image.

She and the other Marys brainstormed all the Marys they have met through social service work over the years in Spokane. Their list of social service Marys tops two dozen; most were raised Catholic.

Rathert is not surprised. Despite the church’s failings, it has always taught the importance of service to others, she said: “I belonged to a service club in high school. We were called the Flame Throwers.”

Mary Ann Murphy, executive director of Partners with Families & Children: Spokane, was the oldest daughter in a big Catholic family. She grew up in California and Texas. In the eighth grade in Houston, she played Mary in the Christmas pageant. She still remembers her costume: a blue cape over a white robe with a white veil draped over her head.

Murphy said she grew up among “left-wing, progressive” Catholics who felt responsibility to “address poverty, especially as it concerned children.” The Catholic Worker Movement, which began during the Great Depression to feed and shelter the poor, informed the activism of the Catholics Murphy knew as a child.

Her name is a reminder of those Catholic roots, and “it’s an advantage to have a name people can say and spell easily, as opposed to some of the innovative spellings people come up with now,” she said.

The four Marys who gathered at the Mary grotto have lived through massive upheavals in society and the Catholic church. Women’s roles changed dramatically during their lifetimes. Three of them raised children while nurturing careers. Rathert traded teaching for social service, and she is now helping change the lives of homeless women.

The Biblical Mary, meanwhile, has been embraced by Catholics along the ideological spectrum. Some cherish her obedience and humility. Others search out modern-day metaphors in Mary’s story; she was a teen wife and mother who lived in poverty amid chaotic political times.

“Mary was a woman of strength, rather than weakness, which is inspiring to me,” said Mary Collins Murphy, development director for Transitions, a nonprofit that serves low-income and homeless women and children.

Named for her Catholic grandmother, she was raised Protestant but converted to Catholicism when she married.

“I married into a large Catholic, Irish family,” she said. “You turn around (at gatherings) and half the family is named Mary Murphy.”

The current trend: The four Marys sometimes lament the disappearance of the name Mary among the younger generations. The Mary grotto where they posed for their photo was glorious with fresh flowers, because students from St. Aloysius School decorated the grotto as part of its May Mary celebrations.

Kerrie Rowland, principal of St. Aloysius School, could think of only three Marys in the entire school – two staffers and a preschooler.

Mary Collins Murphy’s daughter is expecting a baby girl in June. The parents plan to name her Mary Elizabeth, but they will call her M.E.

It sounds to the ear like Emmie, a variation on the name Emily. These Emilys, Emmies and Emmas are the Marys of our modern time.

But Mary fans shouldn’t lose heart. Mary has remained in the top 100 since 1880 – not a bad record. And old-fashioned names seem to cycle back to the nursery.

Emma, No. 3 on the current decade list, also ranked No. 3 in the 1880s list. By the end of the 1920s, it had been chased off the top of the list by the popular Mildred, Gladys and Ethel.

Years ago, Mildred, Gladys and Ethel dropped completely off Social Security’s 1,000 most popular baby name list. They haven’t made it back – yet.

Rebecca Nappi can be reached at rebeccan@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5496.
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