Paralyzed at an early age, Merrick devoted herself to charitable work that was recognized by Eleanor Roosevelt.
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1866, Mary Virginia Merrick was the daughter of a well-known attorney who founded the Georgetown University Law Center, and descended from the first governor of Maryland. She was well taken care of and had all the comforts of life.
However, her privileged life changed drastically when she was a teenager. She became partially paralyzed from a drastic fall and was confined to a wheelchair. In the midst of the pain and suffering, she maintained a strong faith and trust in God, pledging to do all that she could to serve God. Merrick wrote in her autobiography:
I was always in bed or on the sofa, but I learned to sew and write in this recumbent position … I suffered constantly … I made a resolution never to speak of my health … (then) the blow fell—I learned that I would never run with my sisters—and there stretched before me long years of helplessness that had always been harder to bear than suffering … I never doubted the love of the Father, but my spirit rebelled at the thought that I would be useless in His vineyard … I strove to serve as best I could… I resolved to do something every day for the Christ Child.
By the time she was 18, Merrick desired to form an organization that would help poor children in the area and enlisted the help of her family and friends to realize her dreams. Despite the many obstacles to her charitable work, at age 20 she founded the Christ Child Society in 1887.
The activities of the Christ Child Society were humble at first, but had a great effect. Merrick’s sister relates one such story that summarizes the love she had for poor children.
As so many of the activities of the Society grew from small beginnings, the Christmas giving followed the same pattern. … [As] a boy named Paul … stood by her couch one day, she asked him what he wanted for Christmas. “I want a red wagon,” he promptly replied, “but we’re not having any Christmas at our house, my father’s got no work.” … Again she heard the call of the Holy Infant. She … made the suggestion … that he write a letter to the Christ Child and ask him for the red wagon. “Who’s He?” asked Paul. “He’s the Giver of all good gifts,” she replied. … A few days later he appeared with a handful of letters, written by his sisters and brothers and little playmates in the neighborhood … With trust in her small band of workers she called them together and told them of her suggestion to Paul and his prompt response. … All the requests were carefully filled … each well-wrapped package was marked “From the Christ Child.”
As the years went be she made strong alliances with Catholic Charities and Community Chest, today better known as United Way. She also began offering programs in poor neighborhoods, helping children with English and other basic skills.
Later on she wrote about what fueled her and the Christ Child Society, “The guiding principle of the Society has always been personal service rendered for the love of the Christ Child to the least of these little ones. In developing this purpose the Society has widened and deepened its activities to meet the exigencies of its time.” She also held the motto, “Nothing is ever too much to do for a child.”
Eleanor Roosevelt recognized the great work the Christ Child Society had done in Washington, D.C., and praised Merrick for it in her Washington Daily News column.
Merrick died on January 5, 1955, and after her death the Society continued to serve children all over the United States. There are currently 43 chapters around the nation, with 6,000 members serving the poor.
In 2011 Cardinal Donald Wuerl initiated the cause for her canonization, giving her the title of “Servant of God.”
See more in our series on the Saints of the United States.