December 19, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible U.S. saints: Mary Virginia Merrick

John F. Fink(Thirtieth in a series of columns)

For my Christmas column, let me tell you about Mary Virginia Merrick. She served the Christ Child despite spending most of her life confined to bed or a wheelchair.

She was born on Nov. 2, 1866, to a prominent Washington, D.C. family, descendants of the Calvert family of Maryland. Her parents raised her as a devout Catholic. She often accompanied her mother on visits, with gifts, to the homes of the disadvantaged.

During her teen years, Mary Virginia fell from the window of a playhouse. The accident sentenced her to a life in a reclining position with painful and restricted movement. That didn’t stop her from serving others.

In 1884, she learned that an impoverished family was expecting a baby at Christmastime. She invited her sisters and friends to join her in sewing a layette for the baby. The baby girl, named Mary, became the recipient of Mary Virginia’s first organized act of love. She continued to sew clothes for needy children and encouraged others to join her.

There was also a little boy named Paul, the son of the Merrick family laundress. He liked to run errands for Mary Virginia. When she asked him what he wanted for Christmas, he replied that he wanted a red wagon, but he knew he couldn’t get one because his father was out of work and there wouldn’t be any Christmas presents.

Mary Virginia suggested that Paul write a letter to the Christ Child and ask for the red wagon. The boy asked, “Who’s he?” She replied, “He is the giver of all good gifts.” So Paul, though puzzled, wrote his letter. A couple days later he returned not only with his letter, but also with a handful of letters written by his brothers, sisters and playmates.

Naturally, Mary Virginia and her sisters and friends fulfilled the children’s wishes. When they gave them to the children, the presents all had tags on them that read, “From the Christ Child.”

These first gifts to children so delighted Mary Virginia that in 1887 she founded the Christ Child Society to assist impoverished children. By 1898, the society claimed more than 300 members. The society was officially incorporated in 1903, by which time Christ Child Centers were open throughout Washington.

In the early 20th century, branches of the society were operating as far away as Omaha, New York City and Chicago. In 1916, they were federated into a national organization. Today there are 40 chapters and more than 7,100 members in 18 states and the District of Columbia.

Mary Virginia Merrick died on Jan. 10, 1955, when she was 89. At that time, the Christ Child Society had stretched all the way across the country from New York to California. They were all founded by a woman who suffered through her paralysis with a determination to serve God by serving poor children.

Throughout her life, when she was faced with scarce financial resources for the society, she replied simply, “The Christ Child will provide.”†

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