Tuesday, August 21, 2018


In the midst of the on-going scandal in our home Church, I call to attention two possible American saints. to finish off the month of August, and to give us hope, that no matter how bad things seem to be, there is always more good.

SERVANT of GOD MARY VIRGINIA MERRICK,  born in Washington, DC, in 1866,  was a pioneer in American Catholic social reform. At age 20, despite being paralyzed, from a fall, and confined to her bed or reclining wheelchair, she started the Christ Child Society in 1887 to provide for needy infants, children, and their families in the Washington, D.C. area. During her lifetime she grew the National Christ Child Society to 38 chapters and today it operates chapters in 43 locations with nearly 6,000 members.

If she is canonized,  Mary Virginia Merrick will be one of the first U.S.-born saints in the Church and among a small number of disabled saints.

Mary Virginia  was born to prominent parents Richard and Nannie Merrick. Her father was a well-known lawyer, a founder of Georgetown University Law Center, and a descendant of former Maryland Governor Leonard Calvert. The family of Nannie Merrick was well known for its success in business and its work in establishing Washington, D.C.'s first art collection, the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Mary Virginia grew up in a devoutly-Catholic environment fostered by her parents and was educated by French nurses and tutors who stressed the importance of the Catholic faith. She developed a deep faith and a love for helping others at an early age while visiting and assisting local poor and vulnerable families with her mother. She aspired to become a nun after a religious conversion experience soon after her eleventh birthday.

In her early teen years, she had a fall from a playhouse, beginning the deterioration of her health and her eventual confinement to a bed or recumbent wheelchair.

With her sisters Nanny & Margaret

As a teenager, Mary Virginia began to sew clothing for poor children from her reclining position, eventually organizing a small sewing circle to complete a layette in honor of the "Christ Child" to be given to a poor infant during the Christmas season. The following year, she encouraged a child of one her family's employees who told her he was unlikely to receive a Christmas gift to write letters to the Christ Child to request one. Thereafter, children began sending letters to the Christ Child requesting Christmas gifts, and she and her friends would fill the requests, noting them "from the Christ Child."

After her parents died suddenly when she was 18, she began conceiving the idea of the Christ Child Society envisioning an organization to serve poor children and families in the community inspired by seeing the Christ Child in every child.

The members of the original Society of 1887 consisted of her own  family members and friends, growing to become fully active in distributing layettes and garments and answering Christmas letter requests in 1890. In 1891, Mary Virginia hosted 41 poor children in the D.C. countryside for two weeks. This was the beginning of the Society's Fresh Air program. A Council was formed in 1894 to consist of the supervisors of different Society committees, and a Board of Managers was established in 1902. Mary Virginia believed firmly in lay service in the Church and she founded the Christ Child Society based on that belief.

In 1900, she opened the first official Christ Child House in Washington, D.C., featuring a library and offering musical classes for children, nurse-taught classes on the care and treatment of children for underprivileged mothers and many other classes. The Christ Child Society was formally incorporated in 1903, marked with a published mission of providing improved instruction and relief for poor children in Washington, then a segregated city, "regardless of race, creed, or color."

Life Magazine- George Skadding  1951
The Society also established a Committee on Dental Work, to provide free dental care for children in the public schools of the District, with significant funding from the U.S. Congress, as well as a program providing D.C. children with medical aid, braces and orthopedic supplies. The Society later turned over its significant children’s clothing distribution duties to the then-forming Catholic Charities organization in Washington, D.C.

Mary Virginia focused the society's early work on programs in the city’s poor neighborhoods, through service to minority and immigrant families, offering English language and other skills classes and religious instruction. In 1913, Merrick created a "Colored Auxiliary Committee" within the society. Some historians have criticized Merrick for allowing such racial segregation, while others have praised her for giving black members a representative on the society's board and autonomy in making decisions about internal operations in a time when African-American rights were severely limited in many other aspects of life.

Even as the Society's work grew in scope, professionalism, and geographic footprint, Merrick emphasized the Society's devotion to the Incarnation as the guiding force behind its ambitions as well as its members' personal service to children.

Life Mag.  George Skadding- 1951

In 1948, health concerns forced Mary Virginia  to resign from her position heading the National Society, but she was still elected Honorary National President of the Society, and served in that position until her death in 1955. She spent the last 30 years of her life in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where she was cared for by her sister and three secretaries and continued to work on behalf of the Society. Near the end of her life, in 1954, she said of her life's work:"The guiding principle of the Society has always been personal service rendered for the love of the Christ Child to the least of these little ones. In developing this purpose the Society has widened and deepened its activities to meet the exigencies of its time."

On January 5, 1955, Merrick was taken to Georgetown Hospital after complaining of pain, and died there of a cerebral hemorrhage on January 10, 1955, at the age of 88. Upon her death, the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle, predicted she would be the first U.S.-born saint in the Catholic Church.

Mary Virginia Merrick led a life of virtue, both socially and spiritually, as recognized by social reformers and members of the Catholic faith alike.  Her message in support of conscience, in rejection of materialism, and in acknowledgement of human dignity remains just as relevant today as it did in the 20 century.

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