In honor of what would have been the 150th birthday of their founder, Mary Virginia Merrick, women from the Washington chapter of the Christ Child Society gathered on Nov. 2 to pack layettes, just as the native Washingtonian had done for the first time more than 130 years ago.
In 1884, Mary Virginia Merrick, who lived the majority of her life with partial paralysis after an accident as a teenager, heard about a pregnant mother who was in need of clothing for her child. Merrick gathered a group of friends together to sew a layette, which is a kit of supplies for a new baby. This act of service began the legacy of her care for the poor and vulnerable that continues through the Christ Child Society today.
Soon after she and her friends sewed the first layette, Merrick asked a boy what he wanted for Christmas, and discovered that his family was too poor to give him a gift. She suggested that he write a letter to the Christ Child, whom she had a strong devotion to and described as “the giver of all good things.” She and her friends began delivering Christmas gifts to children marked “from the Christ Child,” and this was the beginning of the second program of the Christ Child Society, which Mary Virginia Merrick founded in Washington in 1887.
In the nearly 130 years that have followed, the society has expanded to include 44 chapters across the United States, all dedicated to serving low-income children. They each have different programs to meet local needs, but all participate in the Beloved Babies Layette Program, which Washington Chapter executive director Kathleen Curtin said, “ties us all together.” The Washington Chapter of the Christ Child Society now consists of 12 guilds, which take turns packing layettes.
On Nov. 2, the Mary Virginia Merrick Guild and the Tumulty Guild gathered together to compile the layettes, which were extra full due to the recent “Make a Difference Day” on Oct. 22, where hundreds of volunteers across the United States supported the Beloved Babies Layette Program in different ways. The Washington Chapter held a diaper drive that gathered more than 20,000 diapers.
“The Washington Chapter was thrilled to participate in our first National Make A Difference Day,” said Lulu Gonella, the president of the D.C. chapter, in a statement. “…We are so fortunate to have hundreds of members across the D.C. area who enthusiastically heed the call when we need goods or volunteers to support our programs. This effort was just another example of our members following the words of Mary Virginia Merrick when she said ‘nothing is ever too much to do for a child.’”
In addition to the diapers, each layette contains a set of clothes and towels for the baby, a book, a hand-knit blanket, and information for the new mother about things such as nutrition, immunization, and SIDS. The blankets are hand-made by more than 200 volunteers, and are each pinned with a medal and a note from the Christ Child. The Washington Chapter packs 800 layettes five times per year, totaling at around 4,000 annually. The layettes are then distributed to low-income mothers as a starter-kit for their new child.
Marlene Trimble, who joined the group to pack layettes for the first time on Nov. 2, is a part of a knitting group based out of St. Catherine Laboure Parish in Wheaton, which meets once a month for a few hours to knit the blankets that are given to new mothers. “I am just thrilled to be a part of all this,” she said.
Trimble has been knitting for more than 50 years, and she sees the group as a good opportunity to practice her skills while “knowing you’re doing something worthwhile.”
Robin Kramer, the coordinator of the layette program for the Washington Chapter, said lots of moms call and say to her, “Oh my gosh, somebody made this for me?” because they are struck by the generosity of people who do not even know them or their baby, but took the time to make them a blanket.
“A lot of our mothers do not have anything when their baby is born,” Curtin said.
Before they began their assembly line of packing the layettes, the group paused to pray for the canonization of Mary Virginia Merrick. Cardinal Wuerl began her Cause of Beatification and Canonization in 2011, which started the archdiocesan phase of the process. During this phase, experts are reviewing her life and works for theological soundness and historical accuracy, and will submit a report to an appointed tribunal. If the tribunal deems the evidence worthy, they will send the information to Rome to begin the Roman phase. If the cardinals and bishops in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints find it favorable, they will send it to the pope, and he may designate her as venerable. Then, one miracle connected to her intercession would need to be verified for her beatification, and a second would be needed in order for her to be canonized as a saint.
Many of the women who were present at the layette packing have long histories with the Christ Child Society. Rosemary Briggs, who has been a member for more than 70 years, remembers when the society used to put on plays to raise money. Mollie Buckey, the president of the Mary Virginia Merrick Guild, joked that she has been a member “forever,” because her mother was a member and signed her up when she was a child.
Membership of the Christ Child Society is intergenerational, with members ranging in age from their 20s to their 90s. When it is time for the guilds with younger members to pack layettes, the members gather in the evening in order to accommodate work schedules.
The Christ Child Society in Washington has several programs in addition to packing layettes, which have evolved over time based on the needs of the community. Currently, their Student Success Program provides tutoring, counseling services, material and volunteer support to local Catholic schools, and their Girls on the Rise Program empowers girls and their families in Ward 8 by building leadership, self-esteem and life-skills.
“That’s why we’ve been around so long,” Curtin said. “…The needs change, but our mission has been absolutely constant.”
Each of the 12 guilds also has a partner school. The Mary Virginia Merrick Guild is partnered with St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington, and the members go to the school once every year to have tea. Ann Grau described the experience of visiting with the students to have a “mutual benefit,” with both groups learning from each other.
Grau grew up in Washington, attending Holy Trinity and Georgetown Visitation schools. She said it is important to her to help her local community because of the Church’s teaching about subsidiarity, which means that help should be provided at the most local level possible.
“This is local. This is home,” she said.
Patty Myler, the former president of the National Christ Child Society, also grew up in Washington, and remembers being a child and seeing Merrick at Mass at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, where the Servant of God was a parishioner. While she never met her personally, she remembers that “there was some aura around her” and when she was there “people seemed a little quieter and would pray a little harder.”
Mary Virginia Merrick died in 1955 at the age of 88. She was declared as a “Servant of God” in 2003 and work on her canonization cause continues.
While Mary Virginia Merrick is no longer around to sew layettes, she did have a special presence on Nov. 2, as the women gathered around a birthday cake with her picture on it and sang happy birthday to their founder. Curtin described Merrick as a “forward thinking” woman, whose work to meet the needs of her community is “timeless.”
“What we do as a D.C. chapter is live out her legacy,” said Curtin. “…She continues to inspire us today.”
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