Sainthood cause begins for American who founded Christ Child Society

By Mark Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A disabled Washington woman who founded the Christ Child Society and gained national fame in the 1900s for her outreach to needy children may be on the path to sainthood.

In April the Vatican Congregation for Saints' Causes notified Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington that nothing stands in the way in opening the cause of possible beatification and canonization of Mary Virginia Merrick.

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. The frail but dynamic woman established settlement houses, summer camps and convalescent farms for poor children in the Washington area.

Born to a wealthy family, she devoted her life to serving the poor. She was well known for her sanctity. In 1915 she earned 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.

Cardinal McCarrick said Merrick is a role model for living the faith and making a difference amid the challenges of life.

"How blessed we are that the cause for beatification of a woman from this archdiocese has approval to move forward," he said. "Mary Virginia Merrick is a true example of how one person can overcome obstacles to live out Christ's love for others and transform lives."

He added, "I hope and believe that she will be the first of many holy people from our local church whose lives one day will be worthy of recognition by the church."

Diane L. Scalise of Scottsdale, Ariz., president of the National Christ Child Society, praised Merrick's "devotion to the Christ Child ... (and her) legacy of service to needy children."

In a recent letter to friends of the society, Scalise noted that Merrick's words, "Nothing is too much to do for a child," are being brought to life with the launching of a new initiative, "Challenging Poverty: One Child at a Time," aimed at directly involving Christ Child volunteers with at-risk families.

In the Washington Archdiocese the Christ Child School Counseling Program provides mental health services to local Catholic school students and their families, helping them with everyday problems and when difficult situations arise. The Christ Child Layette Program begun by Merrick today continues to provide layettes to needy mothers and their babies. The layettes are distributed through social service departments of area hospitals and through public and private agencies.

The National Christ Child Society, with headquarters in Bethesda, Md., is one of the nation's oldest Catholic nonprofit volunteer organizations and today has an estimated 7,000 members in 40 chapters across the country.

The letter saying Merrick's canonization cause may move forward came from Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for Saints' Causes. He referred to Merrick as "serva Dei," Latin for "servant of God," which is her title now that her cause has been opened.

The National Christ Child Society said a lay advisory board to assist in Merrick's canonization cause would be named soon.

The society said its next steps in the process will include continuing to collect Merrick's prolific writings and correspondence and recording the recollections of those who knew Merrick and her work firsthand before she died.

A key step for the group will be in appointing a postulator to direct the formal cause of canonization and to investigate Merrick's life, work and writings and prepare a comprehensive report for the Vatican congregation. The process is expensive and will require financial support from donors.

If the congregation and pope agree that Merrick led a life of heroic virtue, she will be named venerable. After one miracle attributed to her intercession is verified, the candidate may be declared blessed. A second miracle is ordinarily required before she can be proclaimed a saint.

In a March letter to the Congregation for Saints' Causes, Cardinal McCarrick wrote: "Today's Christ Child Society, the fruit of Mary Merrick's life, comprises a rich heritage of women and men striving to meet the overwhelming needs of poor children without regard to race or creed. It is extraordinary that Mary saw the need to minister to children at a time when society paid little heed to their needs. Further, she created a desire in privileged society to address those needs."

In her autobiography and spiritual diary, Merrick wrote, "I find I am often led away from God by the 1,000 preoccupations and interests of my family. When this happens, I should rest a while, think and pray, and God will surely come to my assistance."

At her funeral in 1955 Washington Auxiliary Bishop John McNamara said, "She took her cross and out of it fashioned a bridge over which she and others could walk on their way to God."

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Editor's Note: More information on the life of Mary Virginia Merrick and on the National Christ Child Society can be found on the Internet at www.nationalchristchildsoc.org or by calling (301) 718-0220.

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Copyright (c) 2003 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.