It was 1884 and nearly Christmas. In Washington, D.C., Mary Virginia Merrick found out about a desperately needy family with five small children. The father was ill and out of work. The mother was about to give birth to a new baby.
To help, 18-year-old Merrick sewed baby clothes and filled a layette for the new arrival. The parents were so grateful they named their new baby girl Mary, after their benefactress.
With this simple act, which Merrick said she did specifically to honor the Christ Child, the Christ Child Society was born. Today, members of the National Christ Child Society make and distribute thousands of layettes each year.
“New members in all chapters usually start with hands-on projects in the signature layettes program,” says Linda Toth, the organization’s current president. “Some chapters actually sew all the articles in the layettes. This is their tie to Mary Virginia Merrick because they are doing exactly what she did 120 years ago. It’s a very powerful feeling.”
Alicia Milla knows it.
“When I’m knitting a little blanket, I’m thinking about Mary Virginia Merrick,” says the society’s new national executive director. “It’s very moving doing something with your hands that will benefit a little baby and mother. It’s a beautiful step in welcoming someone into this world.”
Consisting of blankets, clothing, diapers and baby care products — some chapters add medals and books — the layettes are “step one” in helping one child at a time, says Toth. The layettes also offer childcare information, contacts to local Christ Child Society chapters and information on other services.
“The layette is a door opener for the chapters,” says Toth from national headquarters in Bethesda, Md.
It becomes a leverage tool to work with social-service agencies to serve the needs of the children and parents in the community. Often the chapters work with Catholic Charities.
In fact, the National Christ Child Society (online at NationalChristChildSoc.org) is a charter member of Catholic Charities.
Help doesn’t stop with babies. Many chapters have tutoring and mentoring programs for children and teens. They supply school uniforms or new clothes for children who have never had anything new.
The Cleveland chapter found a creative way to reach out to children who wind up in shelters because of family problems. Many arrive with next to nothing, explains their chaplain and spiritual moderator of 27 years, Father Ralph Waitrowski, pastor of St. Barnabas Parish in Northfield, Ohio.
“The chapter has ‘My Stuff’ bags for them, basically a duffle bag with changes of underwear, sweatshirts, sweatpants, toothbrush and toothpaste, books to write in,” he says. “It’s a modern adaptation of what Mary Virginia Merrick started.”
The Christ Child Society believes that challenging poverty “one child at a time” in these ways is a practical, positive — and effective — way to help children move out of the poverty cycle.
“This isn’t a new idea,” explains Roseann Anderson, a member of the Pasadena, Calif., chapter and past national president. “This was the idea of Mary Virginia Merrick when she founded the Christ Child Society.”
The founder also started the first Fresh Air Camp for Washington, D.C., children so they could see God’s creation beyond the stifling confines of the 19th-century city. President Benjamin Harrison’s wife sent Merrick a check from the White House by special messenger.
For her part Merrick, whose cause for canonization opened in 2003, was left paralyzed by a childhood accident. Although confined to a reclining position, often in a wheelchair, she remained national president until 1948. She led the D.C. chapter until she died in 1955 at age 88.
The child of a prominent Mid-Atlantic family, she ran the household after her parents died, caring for her six younger siblings when she was only 19.
“I was always in bed or on the sofa, but I learned to sew and write in this recumbent position,” Merrick wrote in her autobiography. “I strove to serve as best I could. … I resolved to do something every day for the Christ Child.”
That she did, and then some, even before the organization became official in 1887.
Today there are 43 chapters coast to coast with more 7,000 members, primarily women. According to Toth, chapters such as Cleveland, Omaha, and Detroit were started by people who personally knew the founder.
In 2003, the National Christ Child Society launched a new initiative called “Challenging Poverty One Child at a Time” to find even more ways to meet the needs of the community.
“We came to the conclusion the way to impact the children is to have an impact on the parents,” explains Mary Lindquist, a member of the Toledo, Ohio, chapter and also a program coordinator for Catholic Charities in that diocese. Parent support-and-education classes help parents at risk, especially those living in homeless shelters.
Lindquist says challenging poverty reaches to the layettes. “We include children’s books,” she says, “so mothers can start reading to their children from the start.”
Some members occasionally get a glimpse of the long-term results from helping mothers and children. Toth will never forget one meeting at the once-a-year collection for baby-care products. Members stand outside grocery stores and ask shoppers to purchase various items and place them into collection baskets.
“Once a woman came out of the store and put in two grocery bags filled with shampoo, soap, baby ointments and more,” says Toth. “She had spent a lot of money. I thanked her and she said, ‘Five years ago I got a layette from you people. I didn’t know how I was going to cover my baby when I came out of the hospital. Today I can afford to do this. This is my gift back to you.’”
Servant of God Mary Virginia Merrick must have been smiling.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.