Mary Virginia Merrick: Catholic Social Reformer, Philanthropist (1866-1955)
Introduction: Mary Virginia Merrick suffered a life-changing spinal cord injury in her early years but overcame this obstacle to make a significant contribution to social welfare, a rarity for people with disabilities in her time. Merrick’s devout Catholic faith led her to charitable and social reform efforts which began in 1884 in the District of Columbia (D.C.)., spread to other locations in the United States, and culminated into the Christ Child Society (CCS) in 1887. The society was incorporated into the District of Columbia in 1903, and Merrick was honored by Notre Dame University with the Laetare Medal in 1915, one of many awards she received over the years. In 1923, The Voice of the Christ Child newsletter was first published, and Mary Virginia Merrick’s cause for canonization as a saint in the Catholic Church was opened in 2003.
Education and Career: At the age of 12, Mary began studies with a tutor, and she was found to be generally intelligent with a particularly high aptitude for Latin. Merrick was also educated in the Catholic Catechism, read spiritual materials by choice, and learned French from those around her at this young age. At age 13, she was enrolled in Madame Burr’s School for Girls on New York Avenue in Washington, D.C. After the onset of symptoms related to her accident, Mary’s formal education ended at the age of fifteen, although she remained an avid reader at home.
Mary Virginia Merrick was born on November 2, 1866 to Richard and Nannie Merrick and was one of nine children. Mary was often given the task of caring for her younger siblings which she readily embraced. After falling out of a playhouse window in an accident, Mary Virginia Merrick would begin her life-long struggle with Pott’s disease, a spinal cord condition. After the incident, the illness increasingly limited her physical capabilities. Within three years of the accident, she was unable to walk or lift her head. In her time at home, the account of Jesus’ birth became a principal focus in her readings and meditations, and she longed to care for the child Jesus as Mary did.
She eventually realized that her desire to care for the Christ child could be fulfilled by caring for the poor, particularly children. When her mother got involved in a benevolent civic society, the young Mary persisted in asking to come along until she was granted permission. In addition to her faith as an inspiration, Merrick credited Charles Dickens as awakening her social conscience. She persisted in asking a local relief society to give her a direct service assignment and received the task of sewing a large woman’s garment in 1884. Merrick later commented that her access to doing charity later affected her decisions in allowing young people opportunities to serve in the organization she led.
Mary Virginia Merrick had always been known for her vitality and enthusiasm since childhood, and she took up her sewing assignment with the same attitude. Mary found more individuals for which to sew, particularly making layettes for newborn children, and increasingly got friends and relatives involved in her efforts. Not surprisingly, she and the growing group of people involved in her simple charitable acts took up making toys for children the next Christmas season. This time, one of her “errand boys” had mentioned wishing for a red wagon, and she saw the need of someone she knew and filled it directly. Mary and her friends also helped ensure other young people who they knew were in need received gifts marked from the Christ Child.1
In 1885, Merrick helped coordinate a “friendly visitors” program to identify and verify the needs of those who the CCS would fill. While initially a one-parish effort, the visitors program would expand to all of the Diocese of Washington, D.C. The women were in constant contact with Mary who would coordinate resources to fill the needs they reported. In that same year, both of Merrick’s parents passed away. She became guardian of some of her younger siblings and managed her parent’s estate, gaining valuable experience for roles she would later take in the society.
These friendly visitors worked in tandem with the male-only St. Vincent de Paul society, the only other major Catholic charitable organization in the area. In addition to material needs, the visitors were to encourage spiritual healing of clients, and most of the workers in the field looked to Mary for guidance in how CCS could best serve. In Merrick’s meetings with the Visiting Committee, she experienced the joys and sorrows of the poor despite having limited direct contact. The visitors also began distributing the clothing sewed by Merrick and her companions.
In 1887, Mary Virginia Merrick launched the Christ Child Society as an informal local charity from her home that would serve Washington, D.C. Within a decade, the activities of CCS would become more varied and expand in scope. When a small child who was sick was brought to visit Merrick, Mary thought of her own time with nature in the country and the value fresh air would have for children from the city. She became determined to set up a fresh air program for the city’s children, and boys and girls were sent on two week trips to nearby farms by 1891. As the fresh air program expanded, the camp became a convalescent home for those recovering from illnesses or with permanent ailments.
Another key development in the Christ Child Society was the Annual Report which was first published in 1890 and continues to disseminate information on the society’s activities to this day. In 1899, a major step forward was the beginning of settlement work. Local centers, mostly utilized by Catholics, included poor relief, health care, and educational services. Many young women were taught to sew and made clothes for themselves and others, receiving the materials to do so partly by their good conduct and attendance records at the centers.
The center activities also included the organization of libraries, women’s groups, socials, and religious instruction incorporating the help of parents in the neighborhood. Merrick recognized the importance of assisting individuals where they lived and built up poor neighborhoods which were scattered across the towns, especially through English-language classes. For example, a center was opened near Union station to meet the specific material, social, and religious needs of the many struggling Italian immigrants who lived in the area. About half of the local centers were still open by 1942 and continued to serve their respective neighborhoods.
The growth of CCS, in its list of donors and expanding operations, led Merrick and others to seek legal recognition as an organization. In 1903, Washington, D.C. officially incorporated the society which allowed them to act through its officers and to hold property and receive inheritances.2 Mary used professional development to expand the society’s capability of service-providing, and her passion for fulfilling the needs of others was something larger than personal charity.
One of the notable centers served the Georgetown neighborhood. About the year 1907, a sewing school for “colored” children was opened. About forty girls were instructed in sewing, while others who attended public schools were given religious instruction that they would have not received. In 1913, a “Colored Auxiliary Committee” was created which allowed black Catholic women to get involved in the Christ Child Society.
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 Merrick for allowing 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 making expenditures.
At the age of forty-nine, Mary Virginia Merrick celebrated the Christ Child Society’s 30th year. In this year, 1915, the society boasted a membership of about 1,000 and $2,865 in finances, and Merrick’s original enthusiasm remained to serve children. Merrick’s efforts were recognized by many in the church and most notably Notre Dame University. Catholics across the country read headlines about Merrick, like this one from The Southern Guardian: “A Bed-Ridden Woman Receives Laetare Medal.”
Merrick was held up as a role model: her life is a wonderful triumph of character over affliction, a marvelous example of industry, ambition and force in the presence of ten thousand reasons which would easily have excused aimlessness and indifference.3 While she was unable to travel to the event, a reception was held in D.C. with attendees including Supreme Court Chief Justice White, the winner of the Laetare Medal the year before. At this time, the society had activities in twenty states across the U.S., and a branch would be established in The Hague, Holland before Mary’s tenure was over.
CCS activities would shift over the decades in response to local and national needs. From 1916-1918, sewing garments for the soldiers serving in WWI was part of the society’s activities. In 1917, a dental clinic was opened in the Washington, D.C. area. Local settlement centers served seven different nationalities in Omaha, Nebraska. At around this time, Mary decided to pursue formalization of the Christ Child Society at a national level, inviting many organizations to join, requesting work plans of those interested, and helping create a constitution. Merrick hoped the national organization would partner with the newly created National Catholic War Council to provide services across the country. She did not standardize the charitable activities of local societies.
The first meeting of the National Directors of the Christ Child Society took place in Merrick’s home on September 30, 1927. Merrick was elected National president of the society, a title she held until poor health led to her resignation in 1948. After moving headquarters into Washington, D.C., a number of businessmen recognized her and the society’s significance in awarding her the Cosmopolitan Award for her work as an outstanding citizen. She vehemently insisted before the ceremony that the award highlight the work of the society and felt receiving too much credit was unfair to others’ contributions. The Cosmopolitan Club largely heeded her request, highlighting her courage and faith in God briefly. Media covering the event expanded on the theme of courage and lifted her up as an example for others who had limited mobility.
While Merrick had started CCS to provide relief, as mentioned previously, she saw service as intertwined with a relationship to the community through all the varying conditions of life, to stand by when they are in distress, but they by no means to drop association with them when normal prosperity has returned.2 Her writings validated the dignity of all, declared that happiness could be attained regardless of circumstances, recognized that living a life of true value did not require luxury or notoriety, and acknowledged the lifelong battle of conscience that is essential for every person to undertake with courage. Merrick translated and published books to help raise funds for the society, including Life of Christ, which was a child’s religious education book.
Mary Virginia Merrick died on January 10, 1955, and many have recognized her unique perspective on service and faith: Merrick’s approach to social work was heavily rooted in the Incarnational spirituality of her youth, and while she sought to integrate many of the academic and technological advances of her age, she believed that the person in service of the Christ Child was at the heart of Catholic social reform.4
The Christ Child Society continues serving individuals across the country today, and Merrick’s spirituality has been of particular interest within the past decade. In 2003, the process for seeking Mary’s canonization in the Catholic Church as a saint was begun and is still under investigation. Already considered a saint by many, she unabashedly connected her spirituality to her ever-persistent virtuous efforts as a service-provider. Her connection of the baby Jesus to social welfare stands out among the many Catholic movements and efforts made in this time period.
Mary Virginia Merrick stands out in another key way as a social reformer. While the early days of the society fell in the Progressive era, Merrick was honored with the Laetare medal the same year a San Francisco fair exhibit included a “Race Betterment” Booth. Those with disabilities were often deemed inferior by social Darwinists of the period. Coincidentally, the Eugenics movement intensified as Merrick’s tenure began as National president in 1927, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of sterilization of the mentally retarded. Merrick’s care for the poor and personal physical disability flew in the face of certain attitudes prevalent in American culture in the early 20th century.
Merrick also exemplifies the professionalization of charity that occurred towards the end of the Progressive Era. Increasingly, women of means and education found their involvement with charity as a career opportunity, and Merrick accomplished this within the framework of the Catholic Church. As a lay woman early in an era of new Catholic social reformers, the Christ Child Society, with Merrick at the helm, provided an example of an acceptable organization to a church hierarchy that looked upon professionalized charity with strong suspicion.
Finally, Merrick stands out in the memories of the many children served by her and the society, especially those with whom she had direct interactions. Mary Virginia Merrick led a life of virtue, both socially and spiritually, as recognized by social reformers and members of the Catholic faith alike. Her message in support of conscience, in rejection of materialism, and in acknowledgement of human dignity remains just as relevant today as it did in opposition to the Eugenics movement of the 20th century.
1. “History,” Christ Child Society website: http://www.nationalchristchildsoc.org/site/?q=node/8 (Quote from timeline section).
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: 12, 68.
3. “Bed-Ridden Woman Wins Laetare Medal,” The Southern Guardian, April 10, 1915, Page Three, Arkansas Catholic Website: http://arc.stparchive.com/Archive/ARC/ARC04101915p03.php.
4. “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: Conclusion Section.
“Notes and Comments” in The Catholic Historical Review, 89(3), Jul., 2003.
“Exhibiting Eugenics: Response and Resistance to a Hidden History” by Ralph Brave and Kathryn Sylva, The Public Historian, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Summer 2007), pp. 33-51.
Merrick in early years: https://maryvirginiamerrick.org/biography
Merrick with sisters: https://maryvirginiamerrick.org/biography
Merrick with children: https://www.christchildatlanta.org/about-us
Eugenics in 1915: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma03/holmgren/ppie/eug.html
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.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Barga, M. (2012). Mary Virginia Merrick: Catholic social reformer, philanthropist (1866-1955). Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/merrick-mary-virginia/