Mary Virginia Merrick, shown with children served by the Christ Child Society, was motivated to serve children in need by her devotion to the Christ Child.
Mary Virginia Merrick, shown with children served by the Christ Child Society, was motivated to serve children in need by her devotion to the Christ Child.
Last April, Cardinal Donald Wuerl signed a decree announcing that he was initiating the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God Mary Virginia Merrick.

The diocesan phase of the cause is underway for the woman who might one day become the first declared saint from Washington, D.C. For Mary Virginia Merrick, her faith, a simple act of love and her ability to inspire family members and friends to reach out to the poor led to her founding the Christ Child Society, which 125 years later continues that legacy of faith, love and service to thousands of children in need throughout the Washington area and across the United States.

Born in 1866, the year after the Civil War ended, Mary Virginia Merrick was raised in a devout Catholic household, and from the time she was a little girl, she had a deep love for the Christ Child.

"Her life was devoted to the Christ Child from the very beginning," said Ann Doyle, the historian for the Christ Child Society.

As a young teen-ager, Mary Virginia Merrick was partially paralyzed in a fall and could no longer sit without support. Her painful condition left her confined to bed or reclining in a wheelchair. In her autobiography, she wrote that she resolved never to speak about her suffering, but instead, "I strove to serve as best I could... I resolved to do something every day for the Christ Child."

In 1884, after hearing about an expectant mother who didn't have clothes for her baby, Merrick encouraged family members and friends to join her in sewing a layette - providing a blanket and clothes for the newborn child. She and her friends also collected gifts for children in need, including a red wagon for a little boy, and those presents were delivered with a tag "from the Christ Child," whom Merrick regarded as "the Giver of all good things."

Three years later, Mary Virginia Merrick founded the Christ Child Society in Washington, D.C. Thus, a movement was born. Within a few years, the Christ Child Society, in addition to providing layettes, started a "fresh air" program for poor children in the city who could stay for two weeks in cottages in the country.

A decade later, the society opened a settlement house in Washington. The Christ Child Society adopted the motto, "Laborare est orare," Latin for "to work is to pray." The group was a charter member of Catholic Charities and of the Community Chest, the forerunner to the United Way. The society's outreach later expanded to include boys and girls clubs, summer camps and a convalescent home for children.

"Mary was truly a pioneer in lay social action and specifically in lay social action by Catholic women," said Patricia Myler, the current president of the National Christ Child Society, who spoke about the life and legacy of the group's founder this past fall at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Washington, Merrick's home parish for the last three decades of her life.

When Mary Virginia Merrick died in 1955 at the age of 88, Christ Child Society chapters had been established in 32 cities across the United States, devoted to serving children and families in need.

Today 40 chapters of the Christ Child Society across the country, with more than 6,000 members, continue the work that Mary Virginia Merrick began, in traditional and new ways. "We emphasize direct service by our members and volunteers, and that this is done out of love for the Christ Child," Myler said in her talk.

Mary Virginia Merrick - who in her later years was affectionately known as "Miss Mary" - had a special gift for leadership, for encouraging first her family members and friends and then women in Christ Child Society chapters across the country to offer personal help to children and families in need.

"As a teen-ager, she had friends go find a need and fill it," said Melanie Mbuyi, the president of the Washington chapter of the Christ Child Society, during the Blessed Sacrament presentation on Mary Virginia Merrick's life and legacy. "I feel like now we're that circle of friends in Washington, going out, finding a need and filling it."

In Mary Virginia Merrick's home city and its surrounding area, the Christ Child Society's Washington chapter continues her work each day. As in every chapter, the Washington group has a layette program. Mary Virginia Merrick loved the image of Mary wrapping the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes, and that inspired her to develop the society's signature program.

"She (Merrick), in the name of the Christ Child, wanted to wrap children in swaddling clothes. We refer to blankets as a handmade gift of love. The idea is to wrap children in a gift of love," said Kathleen Curtin, the executive director of the Christ Child Society's Washington chapter. She said that group has more than 200 knitters or crocheters who produce 3,600 layettes a year. "The layette is one thread that binds us together," she said of that effort that is undertaken by Christ Child Society members nationwide. "...We have people from all walks of life who make blankets, from middle and high school students to senior citizens, professional women and retired."

The Washington chapter of the Christ Child Society also sponsors a School Counseling Program, providing licensed social workers to eight Catholic schools, such as Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, and several Catholic elementary schools in Washington, D.C. "It's a natural fit," Curtin said, noting that the counselors provide key help to schools that don't have the resources to provide that service on their own, and the schools can help the children get the most out of their learning experience.

The Washington chapter has an Adopt-A-School program, with society volunteers offering tutoring services and providing the schools with books and equipment. Members also provide school uniforms and coats to students in need.

Following a cooperative effort between parishioners of St. Thomas More Parish in Southeast Washington and city leaders, and with major funding from the Washington chapter of the Christ Child Society, the Mary Virginia Merrick Center opened in 2008. The state-of-the-art recreational center, managed by Victory Youth Centers of the Archdiocese of Washington, offers an oasis to children and families in the neighborhood, providing a gym for St. Thomas More students on school days and for local youth on weeknights. The Christ Child Society sponsors a Family Support Program there, which includes workshops for parents and a summer camp program teaching life skills to girls.

"We're getting back to our roots, embedded in the community, with hands-on service to families and children," said Ange Anglade, the director for the society's Family Support Program at the Mary Virginia Merrick Center. "Her (Merrick's) motto was, if there's a need, fill it, and that's what we're trying to do here."

For those who today continue the work of Mary Virginia Merrick, it all comes down to faith and love, love for the Christ Child, and love for the children and families they serve.

"The idea of seeing the Christ Child in every child...it's a perfect guide," said Curtin. "It's a way to live out your faith, in the service of others, in the service of children... to see Jesus in these children, to see their need, and to be there for them."

In her talk on Mary Virginia Merrick's life and legacy, Myler made that same point, harkening back to the love and faith of Miss Mary that continues today across the country in the group she founded. "She saw the Christ child in every child she served, and our members today continue our society work doing the same," Myler said.