Mary Virginia Merrick, a Washington native who founded the Christ Child Society, died in 1955 at the age of 88. The national Catholic group continues her outreach to at-risk children. (CS PHOTOS FROM CHRIST CHILD SOCIETY ARCHIVES)
Mary Virginia Merrick, a Washington native who founded the Christ Child Society, died in 1955 at the age of 88. The national Catholic group continues her outreach to at-risk children. (CS PHOTOS FROM CHRIST CHILD SOCIETY ARCHIVES)
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In an April 25 decree, Cardinal Donald Wuerl as archbishop of Washington announced that he is initiating the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God Mary Virginia Merrick, a disabled Washington woman who founded the Christ Child Society and who gained national fame in the 1900s for her outreach to needy children.

"After having consulted with the Holy See, my brother bishops and the faithful of this archdiocese, I have verified the existence of a true and widespread reputation of sanctity enjoyed by the late Mary Virginia Merrick, foundress of the National Christ Child Society," the cardinal wrote in his decree. "During her life and growing ever stronger after her death, there has been ample evidence of the granting of graces and favors by God through her intercession."

In the decree, Cardinal Wuerl said he was thereby making public the petition of Kathleen Asdorian, the postulator of the cause acting on behalf of the National Christ Child Society. Asdorian, a civil lawyer, has a canon law degree from the Catholic University of America, as does the cause's vice postulator, Jeannine Marino.

seeking material

Also in the decree, Cardinal Wuerl noted that in accordance with an instruction published by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, "I also call upon any and all who may have useful information regarding the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of Mary Virginia Merrick to bring such documents, materials or information to my attention." On April 26, the cardinal sent a letter to bishops with active Christ Child Society chapters in their dioceses with the decree, also inviting them to share pertinent information about Mary Virginia Merrick. That information can be sent to the Archdiocese of Washington, P.O. Box 29260, Washington, DC 20017, faxed to 301-853-7674, or e-mailed to MVMcause@adw.org .

In an April 26 statement, the National Christ Child Society said it was "both grateful and delighted" to learn that Cardinal Wuerl has officially opened the Cause for the Canonization of the group's founder, Mary Virginia Merrick.

"We believe that through this process, the extraordinary witness of her life will be made known to people throughout the world and serve as an inspiration to all to follow more closely the call of Christ," the society said in its statement.
'miss mary'

Merrick, known simply as "Miss Mary" to her friends and to the thousands of children she helped in her lifetime, was partially paralyzed in a fall at 14. Confined to a bed or wheelchair by her painful disability, she founded the Christ Child Society to serve needy children in 1887.

Born to a wealthy Washington family, she devoted her life to serving the poor. The frail but dynamic woman established settlement houses, summer camps and convalescent farms for poor children and for children with special needs in the Washington area. She also established free dental clinics and legal services for immigrants. Merrick was well known for her sanctity, in 1915 earning the University of Notre Dame's Laetare Medal, one of the most prestigious honors given to the nation's Catholics. She died in 1955 at the age of 88.

"Despite her paralysis and constant pain, Miss Mary followed the call of Christ to serve others, especially children," the National Christ Child Society statement said. "Miss Mary's dedication to helping children was based on her devotion to the Christ Child. She believed that the Christ Child was present in every child."

Mary Virginia Merrick chose the motto, "To work is to pray" for the National Christ Child Society, which continues her work in chapters throughout the United States.

"For more than 124 years, Christ Child Society members, numbering over 6,000 in 40 chapters across the United States, have been serving and will continue to serve children in need in their local communities, striving to bring the love of the Christ Child into the lives of each child served," the society said in its statement. "It is our hope that through the process of the beatification and canonization of Miss Mary, many more will be inspired to respond to the universal call to holiness and personal service."

diocesan board

Also on April 25, Cardinal Wuerl issued another decree appointing the following people as members and officers of the board for the diocesan inquiry into the cause of beatification and canonization of the Servant of God Mary Virginia Merrick:

• Msgr. Charles Antoni-celli will serve as episcopal delegate for the instruction of the cause;

• Father George Stuart, archdiocesan vice chancellor and archdiocesan archivist, will serve as promoter of justice;

• Jane Golden Belford, archdiocesan chancellor, will serve as notary;

• and Brenda Spence, administrative assistant in the archdiocesan Office for Canonical Services, will serve as vice notary.

Causes for canonization go through three phases, a pre-investigative phase, a diocesan phase and a Roman phase. The pre-investigative phase was launched in 2003, a preliminary investigation to ensure there were grounds to pursue a cause for canonization for Mary Virginia Merrick based on heroic virtue.

"Now we've arrived at the point where Cardinal Wuerl is officially by decree opening the cause for canonization, which means the diocesan phase may proceed, to collect evidence and interview witnesses," said Msgr. Antonicelli, who also serves as the Episcopal Vicar for Canonical Services for the Archdiocese of Washington and as the pastor of St. Joseph Parish on Capitol Hill.

As the cause progresses, theologians and historians will be appointed to research the prolific writings of Mary Virginia Merrick. The members of the board for the diocesan inquiry will determine how the cause moves forward. The postulator and vice postulator, who are impartial, will assist in the diocesan phase of the investigation.

Once the diocesan investigation is finished, the documentation is passed on to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome for further investigation. For the beatification of a Servant of God, a miracle attributed to his or her intercession, verified after his or her death, is necessary, and that person after beatification receives the title Blessed. For canonization, another verified miracle is needed, and with canonization, the person receives the title of saint.

The National Christ Child Society, which is headquartered in Bethesda, is the petitioner for the cause and asked Asdorian, who is not a member of that group, to serve as the postulator several years ago. Today Christ Child Society chapters exist in 17 states and the District of Columbia, with more than 7,000 members.

At the Archdiocese of Washington's recent annual Faith, Deafness and Disabilities Conference, a workshop highlighted how Mary Virginia Merrick is a role model for today's Catholics, showing how everyone in the Church has gifts to share.

After Mary Virginia Merrick's death, then-Washington Auxiliary Bishop John McNamara eulogized her by noting, "She took her cross and out of it fashioned a bridge over which she and others could walk on their way to God."