Christ Child Society: (1887-present)
By Michael Barga
Introduction: The Christ Child Society was founded in Mary Virginia Merrick’s home at the end of the 19th century as a small relief organization which sewed clothes for local underprivileged children. As more needs were recognized by Merrick and her friends, more individuals and agencies became involved. By 1903, the organization was officially recognized in the District of Columbia, and the Society provided a variety of services including settlement efforts. By 1915, the Child Christ Society had nationalized and become associated with work in twenty states; individual branches decided the type of efforts to undertake in response to the needs of their communities. Merrick was the first president and held the position until 1948, and the organization has continued working for child welfare to the present day.
Background: Mary Virginia Merrick had hoped to become a Sister of Charity and serve the poor at a young age. After an accident severely impaired her mobility and left her unable to pursue these plans, Merrick created her own service organization as a lay person. The basis for the Society’s work is largely inspired from its founder, who credits the development of her social consciousness to the Catholic faith and the works of Charles Dickens.
The Christ Child Society was very much a product of its time, the Progressive era. In its early days, the initial focus was almost solely relief. It paralleled and partnered with the all-male charitable organization, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, although Merrick’s organization was more inclusive. At the time, there were very few other lay Catholic organizations, and it is unique that the Society was headed by a woman, especially one whose mobility was severely limited.
Development and Activities: Grounded in Merrick’s spiritual focus on the infant Jesus, the Christ Child Society supplied layettes to newborns as its first activity. When a young underprivileged boy expressed a hope to get a Christmas gift, the Society began gathering requested items for those in need and marking them from The Christ Child. As more individuals joined the effort, Merrick partnered with Miss Delarue, a Catholic relief worker in the city, to help coordinate these two activities. Even before the Society’s official existence, Merrick had arranged to identify needs and distribute the collected items in response to specific needs through a “Friendly Visiting” program. While most mark 1887 as the official beginning of the Society, Merrick and friends’ first connection to the community were through these visitors which began work in 1885.
Even in this early period in the Christ Child Society’s development, Merrick sought to keep its efforts organized. By 1890, the Visiting Committee program had an annual report, and even in 1897 the Society kept documentation of its the first collection of 60 shoes. The Society also coordinated their work with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the District Nurses and other sources, and the Visiting Committee workers remained responsive to the specific needs of individuals. For example, children awaiting a court date would occasionally be given shelter at the visitors’ homes. Other children who were on probation and often had neglected medical needs were given a “hand up” by the Society; the needed care and a suitable job opportunity were provided for the older children.
One key moment in the Society’s development was Merrick’s passionate interest in setting up a fresh air fund for the children of Washington, D.C. modeled after on-going efforts in New York City. By 1891, D.C. area farmers’ wives had taken forty one participants in as boarders during the summer for two-week periods. The country settings provided a much healthier environment for the children who were sometimes living in crowded urban quarters the rest of the year. The program, similar to today’s summer camps, was considered such a success that it became a permanent feature of the Society, and property would later be bought for a Fresh Air Camp.
Another permanent component of the Christ Child Society was its settlement work which began in 1899. By the beginning of the twentieth century, almost all settlement efforts were operated by Protestant or secular groups. The Society opened centers across the city partly as a Catholic response to this movement, yet providing religious instruction was only one goal among many. The centers taught children ages 12-14 how to sew their own clothes, assisted children and their parents in learning English, set up libraries, and provided recreational facilities for the children, among other activities. The Society would also create an Opportunity Shop and permanent ways to support its charity work.
The Christ Child Society’s location in Washington, D.C. caught the attention of the national community, in addition to the local neighborhoods. In fact, First Ladies Frances Cleveland and Caroline Harrison sent substantial donations in the early days of the Society. More significantly, many of Merrick’s members were the wives of politicians and others who worked on Capitol Hill. When these women returned to their hometowns, some decided to start their own charitable groups modeled on the Society. By 1908, there were seven branches outside of Washington, D.C.
Following the creation of the National Conference of Catholic Charities in 1910 and reception of the Laetare Medal by Merrick in 1915, the Christ Child Society had widespread national recognition. The original branch in Washington had created by-laws and a Constitution and successfully incorporated itself into the District as an organization within a few years of the turn of the century. In 1916, Mary V. Merrick invited branches to join her in creating a national Christ Child Society. Article I describes the hope of the Society to improve by instruction and relief the condition of children in need…regardless of sex, race or creed…carried on by lay men and women on Catholic principles.1
As early as 1907, black members of the Society received aid to help their own race in ways such as visiting hospitals to read and correspond with patients who were long-term and/or incurable. While some historians criticize segregation in the Christ Child Society’s service activities, it is notable that the Colored Auxiliary Committee had their own representative on the Society’s board and appeared to have great autonomy in making decisions about internal operations and expenditures.
The responsiveness of the Christ Child Society to neighborhood needs and operational challenges would continue as the decades passed. In 1920, the first permanent headquarters was established in Washington, D.C., while the Fresh Air Camp was re-located by 1926 and turned into a Convalescent Home for 6-12 year olds. The Convalescent Home later became a 24-hour hospital for emotionally disturbed children, summer camps and school counseling programs were phased in and out, and at various times Society property has been sold to support a variety of child welfare initiatives.
Mary Virginia Merrick had always maintained a high standing in the community, and she would be honored throughout her life by various groups. Her visibility increased when the Society’s newsletter went into print in 1923 and when the Cosmopolitan Club, a group of the District’s elites, honored her in 1932. Merrick was the first woman to receive the Cosmopolitan award, yet she accepted on the condition that the night focuses on the Christ Child Society’s work rather than her story. For the most part the condition was met, although some of Merrick’s attributes, notably her courage, were highlighted at times.
Merrick more greatly appreciated the fifty-year celebration of the Society in 1937 where donations could be more readily sought and the exclusivity which the rich Cosmopolitans held in their ceremony could be avoided. A tea was held at Christ Child Society’s Headquarters where clergy, doctors, dentists, lawyers, the wealthy and poor, white and colored, great and lowly mingled and stood in line to see the founder, now in her early seventies.2
The Christ Child Society had much to celebrate when looking at its financial and geographic success as a service-provider. In 1885, 390 garments, 12 layettes, and 250 gifts were distributed. Over 1200 children received support of some type by 1908, and the membership had grown to about 750. In that year’s annual report, the Society also expanded its mission statement to include aiding children’s ability to grow, in addition to providing relief.
The Society was always highlighting its growing number of relationships with other charities and churches around the area, as well as its fiscal responsibility. Many in the community recognized the diversity of the Society’s work. For example, Judge DeLacy acknowledged the organization as playing a significant role in the juvenile justice system despite their limited funds in 1910. The Annual Report was used to reinforce the mission and mindset of the Society, in addition to giving a rough sketch of activities and statistics. In 1912, Merrick reprinted a commendation letter from the Vatican about the Society and reminded members that no work of charity for children is foreign to its purpose.3
In 1913, the Annual Report included a short description of the Christ Child Society’s methodology. Merrick believed a balance was necessary between scientific charity and keeping the staff’s work simple, spiritual, and responsive to local needs. The Society had a working relationship with early Catholic sociology pioneers, especially those who argued to professionalize social work such as Msgr. William Kerby of Catholic University. It annually held round table talks in the spring which hoped to inform volunteers’ work in the field. In 1915, the discussion topic was record-keeping in charity work and one of the speakers was Julia Lathrop from the Children’s Welfare Bureau. The Society also coordinated with other groups to avoid duplicating services. At this time, membership had climbed to 1,000 and finances were listed at $2,865.
Not to be overlooked was the growth of local chapters around the nation. Some chapters quickly made an impact, like that of New York City which boasted over 150 members in its inaugural year. Chicago’s Christ Child Society had expenses totaling $1,066.20 in its first six months, distributing 3,822 garments and utilizing twenty-seven Catholic parishes as distribution points. By 1932, the branch clothed more than 6,000 children annually. Merrick’s vision and the characteristics of the Washington, D.C. branch, mainly its flexibility in responding to local needs and partnerships with other agencies, were replicated throughout the nation. In Iowa, the Society answered requests from various hospitals, nurse associations, and other relief societies which were both non-Catholic and Catholic. By 1911, a branch in the Philippines was created.
In 1946, the Christ Child Society crossed the Atlantic Ocean and a chapter was opened abroad in The Hague, Netherlands. The creation of the chapter was similar to that of many other branches; the founder was a politician’s wife, Stellita Stapleton, who moved to The Hague after having previously worked in the Washington Christ Child Society. As she saw the war-torn Netherlands community replace buildings that had been bombed, she felt the children’s needs were not being met. She distributed clothes donated by U.S. Society members and later opened a playground. After ten years, it is also notable that the branch’s board was divided evenly between Catholics and Protestants. At the time, the Netherlands was a predominately Protestant country, but there was great acceptance by the community.
By 1960, the Society numbered 38 branches, and membership was roughly 12,000 men and women. Many credit the strong leadership of Merrick in the early days of the Society as a major factor in its growth and success. While ever-ready to praise those around her, Mary Virginia Merrick was also willing to respectfully advocate for herself and the Society, as well as clarify her own position. For example, she once corrected a misrepresentation of her view which deprecated the trained worker and overemphasizing the volunteer’s role in charity. Merrick passed away in 1958, and many in the Catholic Church have become familiar with her life’s work. In this way, Merrick continues to direct people towards the Christ Child Society even after death.
Conclusion: At this time, the Christ Child Society has shifted its structure and activities greatly and is now more locally-oriented without the presence of a strong centralizing figure like Merrick. The Washington chapter’s most recent development is a Family Support Center based out of the Merrick Center in Southeast D.C., an addition to other programs which connect to the early days of the Society. The work continues to blend volunteerism and professionalized social work, and it continues to see and fill the needs of the surrounding community as they arise, in the spirit of its founder.
1. “Mary Virginia Merrick and the History of the Christ Child Society.” Dissertation of Xavier University by Sister Mary Clare Ennis, O.S.F., June 1960: 17.
2. “Miss Mary Virginia Merrick: Foundress of the Christ Child Society and Pioneer in Social Work” Dissertation of the Catholic University of America by Sister Mary Regina Carlton. S, S.J, 1943: 62.
3. “In Service of the Christ Child: Mary Virginia Merrick and the Development of the National Christ Child Society,” Dissertation of the Catholic University of America by Harry Andrew Rissetto, Washington, D.C., 2008: 192.
“History,” Christ Child Society website: http://nationalchristchild.org/site/?q=node/8.
Fresh Air Farm – http://www.christchilddc.org/about_us/index.aspx
Opportunity Shop – http://www.christchilddc.org/opportunity_shop/index.aspx
CCS Logo – http://www.victoryyouthcenters.org/merrick-center-programs
Merrick Center – http://www.victoryyouthcenters.org/mary-virgina-merrick-center
For More Information: Contact the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives at firstname.lastname@example.org or Phone: 202-319-5065, also see the Christ Child Society website.