The “Sister Mary” Naming Custom

Blog Published: June 1, 2010
By Sister Julie

You may notice that many Catholic sisters and nuns have the name “Mary” included in some form in their religious name. In a recent edition of our IHM Archives News (May 2010), our intrepid archivist Donna Westley looked at this custom in the IHM tradition. (Today we use our baptismal names as our religious names so “Mary” or its derivations are present only if it was originally part of one’s baptismal name). Here’s some of that article along with additional details I gleaned from my email conversation with Donna.

Why take on a religious name? A new name in religion signified a commitment to a new way of life. For more info, check out the article in our resource section, What is the reasoning behind a nun or sister choosing a religious name?

Why the name “Mary”? Our IHM Congregation has a special devotion to Mary which has manifest itself in various ways throughout our history up to today. Co-founder Father Louis Florent Gillet, CSsR wrote about our special relationship with Mary in the original IHM Rule of Life: “The principal Patroness of the Institute will be the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, under the title of Immaculate, whose feast is celebrated the eighth of December.” The dogma of the Immaculate Conception had just been issued in 1854, just 9 years after our congregation’s founding.

The earliest commentary on the constitutions and customs that Donna found was written by Mother Gertrude Gerretsen (1864-1869). She writes:

“Devotion to the Mother of God has always been dear to religious persons. But as this congregation is immediately under her protection and as she is (under God) its principal protectress, the sisters shall always have the warmest and most affectionate devotion to her; regarding her in a special manner as their Mother and the great model they are obliged to imitate, that by her intercession and under her powerful protection they may be enabled to fulfill the obligations of this holy Institute and implant Jesus Christ in the hearts of the children they are charged to instruct.”

Mother Gertrude goes on in detail about specific devotions: rosary, novenas, celebration of feasts, the month of May, etc.

What was the Sister Mary custom with IHM Sisters? The name of Mary, although not always spoken or written at the beginning of our religious names, was always formally there until 1920.

Indeed, a page in co-founder Mother Theresa Maxis Duchemin’s Notes Regarding the Foundation supports the longstanding nature of this practice. Referring to receptions and professions, she says.

“I will now give the religious names of those 12 Sisters: Igidius, Johanna, Gerard, Liguori, Agnes, Anthony, Ignatius, Xavier, Stanislas, Colette, Gertrude, Clara, it is not necessary to say that every one had the name of Mary preceding the other name as it is customary with us.”

Looking over the religious names of members in our IHM congregation from the beginnings in 1845 and up to the 1920s, it appears the majority of sisters had a single name, preceded by Mary, Maria, Marie, or just the letter “M.”

In 1920, Sister Margaret Mary (Anna) Look was the first Monroe IHM to have a name that did not have “Mary” at the beginning. In a letter written to archivist Celeste Rabaut, IHM, on November 9, 1984, Margaret Mary explained, “St. Margaret Mary was canonized in May 1920. I was received into the community July 22, 1920, and given the name Sister Margaret Mary—coveted by many previously but not given out because ‘Mary’ preceded all names up to that time.”

After Margaret Mary, others began to have Mary, Marie, or Maria as the second part of their name.  We also began to see Latin names like Cor Mariae, Beata Maria, Maria Pacis as well as titles like Marie de Lourdes and Mary de Montfort, Marie Rosary and Mary Immaculate given as religious names.

In the Marian year (1954) almost all the postulants received were given a name with Mary, Marie, or a title of Mary — not just that initial “M.

If you have a Mary naming custom in your community or personally, let us know!

Archived Comments

Sister Julie June 1, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Admittedly, in my pre-nun days, I thought I’d go for Sister Mary Never. Actually if it was the custom for us to still take a religious name, I’d ask for Scholastica or Teresa of Avila (the latter of which is my confirmation name).

Suze June 1, 2010 at 4:32 pm

This is an interesting and very good post Sister Julie. I’ve thought about what name I would take (if we were still taking religious names) and decided it would have been Marie Frances in honor of my cousin who was IHM (and who took her name to honor her younger brother, Francis or Frankie as he was known; Frankie was named after my gg-grandfather). I love learning the IHM history!!!

Lucia June 1, 2010 at 4:51 pm

In the community with which I am discerning, the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara, the sisters all take titles of Mary as their religious names. The order has a huge devotion to Mary, and takes a vow of Marian slavery according to the method of St Louis Marie de Montfort, so it is unsurprising that they use Marian titles as their names too! It gets interesting — there are sisters running around with all kinds of names! It is a beautiful custom.

Betsy June 2, 2010 at 4:18 pm

I have a list about a mile long…I really don’t know how I’m going to pick only three. Right now the three are Miria Rose, Solanus Regina, and Miri Emmanuel. I also like Peter John Marie and Monica Gianna Marie. There are many more, but those are the five I like the best right now.

Julia June 2, 2010 at 4:31 pm

When I was confirmed my Pastor said we could only have one name and if I wanted “Our Lady of Guadalupe”, I would have to just have “Guadalupe” so I went with that. Imagine my surprise and delight when the Bishop confirmed me as Maria Guadalupe! Mariiiiaaa I just met a girl named Maria…

Sr Therese COS June 4, 2010 at 4:52 am

My Community offered us the option of taking a religious name if we wanted to. My baptismal name is Robyn Margaret (called Robyn) and I use my secular name for work (I’m a solitary “in the world”). I prayed long and hard about whether I’d take another name in the Community of Solitude, and then I remembered how much Therese of Lisieux has inspired me. Her Little Way constantly challenges me to be more deeply open to the God who wrote the world, and so I asked if I could take the name Therese. Happily the Community said yes so here I am! I am seriously considering adding Therese to my formal registered name so it becomes part of my legal name.

I also discovered that Terese (without the h) was the confirmation name of my sister-in-law who died four years ago, which makes it extra special.

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