Spotlight on: Magdalene

I’m embarrassed to say that a mama asked for a spotlight on Magdalene back in August, which I promptly and excitedly added to my list of future spotlights, and then … it’s now March 20 in the Year of the Coronavirus (which of course doesn’t supplant this year’s — and every year’s — designation as the Year of Our Lord), and also the Great Lent of 2020, and I’m sorry it took seven months and a global crisis to help me find the time and presence of mind to sit down and do it.

The mama who wrote to me worried that her Protestant family members would be horrified at naming a little one “after a prostitute,” and also what reception the moms of Magdalenes have had with the name? She also had the impression that it’s a name mostly used by Catholics, and wondered if that was accurate.

So first, the prostitute thing: Though it’s traditional to think that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, there’s actually no evidence to suggest that she was. BUT even if she was — no one bats an eye at naming boys Peter, even though he denied Jesus. Or Paul, even though he had Christians put to death. Or Augustine and Francis, even though they had a dissolute lives before their conversions. Bl. Bartolo (Bartholomew) Longo was a satanic priest. The point being: All of us are sinners, including the saints, and if we only named children after sinless people, we’d be left with only Jesus and Mary. Also, Mary Magdalene has so many good things! She was the first person Jesus appeared to when He rose from the dead. St. Thomas Aquinas called her “Apostle to the Apostles.” As that article I linked to above puts it,

Mary Magdalene is the first among the women following Jesus to proclaim Him as having overcome death. She is the first to announce the joyful message of Easter. But she also proved she was among those who loved Him most when she stood at the foot of the Cross on Mount Calvary together with Mary, His Mother, and the disciple, St. John. She did not deny him or run away in fear as the other disciples did, but remained close to Him every moment, up to and including the tomb.”

She’s a pretty amazing model for a little girl — and everyone — to follow! In fact, Pope Francis elevated her memorial to a feast day in 2016, which, “he said, was done in order to emphasize the importance of this woman, ‘who so loved Christ and was so greatly loved by Christ.'” I wrote about it at the time in this piece for CatholicMom.com; her feast day is July 22.

As for how moms of Magdalenes have found others’ reactions to the name to have been, I too am curious! I see it quite a bit in the families I work with, both already given to older daughters and on lists of names parents are considering for babies-on-the-way, and the mama who wrote to me asking for the spotlight is the first of all those I’ve encountered who have mentioned Mary Magdalene’s spurious reputation. I think I would have heard from others if the reception is negative? Please, moms of Magdalenes, share your experience!

As for whether it’s primarily used by Catholic families — I don’t know actual stats, but I did include it in my article of unmistakably Catholic names, as I’ve had a similar impression. Do you agree?

Okay, now to the name: Magdalene is SO beautiful! I love all its variants as well, both spelling (Magdalen, Magdalyn) and language (Madeleine, Madeline, Magdalena, Maddalena, Magali, and more), as well as its short forms and nicknames (some of these are traditional, some are possibilities): Maggie, Magda, Malena, Lena, Maddy, Molly, Dolly. What a gorgeous, versatile name! Did you know Marlene Dietrich’s given name was Marie Magdalene? Marlene was a mashup! We know Magdalene means, “of Magdala” (a town on the Sea of Galilee), and Magdala is said to mean “tower” in Hebrew, sooo … since Tower of Ivory  (in Latin: Turris Eburnea) is one of the titles of Our Lady, maybe something like Magdalene Ivory or Madeleine Eburnea could do double duty and nod to both of these wonderful Marys!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Magdalene, especially any real-world experience you have with it! Happy Friday everyone!!


My book, Catholic Baby Names for Girls and Boys: Over 250 Ways to Honor Our Lady (Marian Press, 2018), is available to order from ShopMercy.org and Amazon — perfect for expectant parents, name enthusiasts, and lovers of Our Lady!

11 thoughts on “Spotlight on: Magdalene

  1. I named my 2nd daughter (3rd child) Magdalena Rose. My mom was looking through some old papers from my dad’s side of the family and there was an obituary for a Lena. I thought it was different and since my name and 1st daughter both have names that end in the “ah” sound I thought I might use it if I had another girl (She was the only child that I waited to find out the gender.) From the obituary I found out this great aunt’s real name was Magdalena which also gave me the opportunity to use the name Maggie. (I have two younger brothers. If either of them had been a girl, mom was going to name them Mary Margaret and use Maggie has the nickname.)
    So, I now have an 11yr old Maggie because she didn’t look nor does she act like a Lena. I’ve never received a negative comment on her name, except maybe from those who don’t know how to spell it. 🙂

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  2. Our first born is Magdalyn Rae. We altered spelling to reduce “Magda-LEEN” but 90% of people who hear it think we’re saying Madalyn.

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  3. Such an interesting post. I personally hear it more often used in one of the ethnic variations – Madeleine or Magdalena. It looks like it (Magdalene) was much more common in the 20-30’s but is making a comeback. It is a very pretty name. I recently listened to a podcast (of our local seminarians) where one of the young men shared his vocation story and how Mary Magdalen is a thread throughout his discernment and what he has learned about her. I really learned a lot about Mary Magdalene and what the Church (East vs. West) say about her and the devotions to her. Conversion of heart and at his feet – such a beautiful witness for us all. Listen if you have a chance – https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/you-hath-chosen-the-best-part/id1080204420?i=1000467811676 (starts talking about Mary Magdalene about halfway into podcast)
    Profound and beautiful insights!

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  4. Ah, Magdalene! Trim femininity and elegance + great nickname potential! It’s on my middle name list. (Middle because I love the same things about very-similar Margaret, lol.)
    I hadn’t considered Dolly as a nickname before. I’m not sure how I like it for a grown woman, but it’d be so sweet and charming on a little girl!
    And St. Mary Magdalene! I love her and earnestly hope her past wouldn’t discourage anyone from using her name!! Humble, steadfast, and a reminder never to give up on God’s mercy! He can make anyone into a saint!

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  5. We have a MaryAnn Magdalene and I love her name so much, I almost wish we would have saved it for a first! The only response I’ve ever gotten that refers to the Saint (as opposed to just liking the sound of the name) is “woah! What a powerhouse of saints!” And I totally agree! She has some great patrons to look up to!

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  6. Oh she is definitely a wonderful example of how “mercy triumphs over judgment.” I think it’s beautiful. I haven’t met any in real life though!

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  7. We have an Una Madeleine, and it may be my favourite name combination out of my three daughters. Chose the French form as all our girls have French middles as a nod to the Québécois side of the family.

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  8. I chose Mary Magdalene as my patron saint when I was confirmed (Madeleine) so excuse me while I nerd out here. 🤓Mary Magdalene is named more than any other apostle in the gospels leading many theologians to believe that if a person is not specifically identified as Mary Magdalene in a gospel story that one should not assume that it is her. It is unfortunate that Gregory the Great gave a homily in which he conflated Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the sinful woman as one in the same. She has thus been maligned for centuries as a prostitute because of it. If one studies early church art Mary Magdalene is always depicted at the crucifix toon and resurrection, generally in yellow. It isn’t until after Gregory that her depiction in art begins to shift to the sinful woman with images of her naked wearing her long, matted hair as a cloak.

    It is time for her image to be redeemed. In the Eastern church she is often depicted with an egg, generally red, which ties to a legend of her spreading the Good News after the Resurrection and Ascension.

    My daughter is Magdalena Elinor. We generally call her Maggie, Magda, or Mags. We always receive compliments on it. We use the Spanish pronunciation (LAY- nah) and occasionally people will say LEN-ah or LEE-nah, but generally it is a simple correction. She really enjoys how many different variants there are to her name; I think she thinks they are ALL her name. At school for the last two years most children are calling her by the full Magdalena, so I would say it is a very wearable name despite its length.

    Part of the reason I picked this name is because I assumed it read as very Catholic. Paired with at least one of her brothers’ names I think it definitely does. Magdalena is how we got to my husband’s desired nickname Maggie.

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