The historic Linwood estate has been known for many things, from hosting a Confederate general to its current mission to help children and adults with autism live a better life. But if the National Christ Child Society gets its way, the antebellum property in Ellicott City might one day become sacred ground.
For it was in the whispers of a Linwood wheat field 134 years ago that an 11-year-old Mary Virginia Merrick felt the call of God on her heart and knelt among the golden stalks in prayer. From that day until her death in 1955, Merrick devoted her life to easing the suffering of poor children while she herself lived most of her hours in a bed or wheelchair in pain following an accident at age 13. Some have called her Howard County's uncanonized saint.
For nearly a decade, members of the National Christ Child Society, which Merrick founded at the age of 20, have worked to bring attention to their founder's extraordinary life. It seems their labor has not been in vain. A year ago, the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, officially opened the investigation of the Cause for Beatification and Canonization for Mary Virginia Merrick. In time, the world might know what Christ Child Society members have believed all along: Miss Mary lived a life worthy of imitation.
"We did not see this as an effort just to honor 'Miss Mary,' but we see it as an opportunity to bring to others an example of a true Christian, living her faith to the fullest in spite of her own incredible hardship and handicap," said Patty Myler, current president of the National Christ Child Society.
Summers at Linwood
Mary Virginia Merrick grew up in a privileged family, the second of eight children of Richard and Nannie Merrick, of Chevy Chase. Richard Merrick was a prominent lawyer and a devout Catholic, regularly hosting intellectuals and theologians in his home; Nannie devoted her life to raising her children and helping the poor in Reconstruction-era Washington. The Merricks purchased Linwood in 1877 as a summer home and spent May to November living and playing atop the hill overlooking Ellicott City. The family worshiped at St. Paul's Catholic Church, where they had their own box.
When Mary was 13, she fell out of a second-story window at Linwood, hurting her back. At first, she seemed unharmed and could walk, but within hours her back became inflamed and the pain started, eventually leading to paralysis. Years of consults with physicians yielded no relief.
Despite Mary's accident, the family continued to spend its summers in Ellicott City although Mary could no longer attend Mass. Special arrangements were made for a priest to deliver Holy Communion to Mary at Linwood. Confined to a bed, she read, knitted and wrote religious books for children. Mary's parents died when she was 18, and despite her illness Mary took on the role of overseeing the care of her sisters and brother. Upon learning that a family servant would not celebrate Christmas one year because his father was out of work, Mary told the young boy to write a letter to the Christ Child and bring it to her. She made sure the boy's family had gifts on Christmas morning -- all signed "From the Christ Child."
"Never can I forget how his eyes danced at the sight of the answer to his prayer, and those of his little brothers and sisters, and our own pleasure. I think it lifted the shadow cast on that first Christmas without our parents," Mary wrote in her diary.
Inspired to give
Inspired by this and the sewing of layettes for infants of poor families, Mary founded the Christ Child Society in 1887 to serve impoverished children wherever possible, at first by sewing garments, then running a "Fresh Air Program" to get children out of the city for two weeks each summer. Membership grew, and so did the society's activities. Sewing schools, singing classes, girls' clubs, a band and recreational activities were offered free to those who couldn't afford them. Christ Child Society chapters reached north and south and across the country.
"The labor was so intimately His," Mary, who never married or had children, wrote in 1903. "I leant on the Christ Child. I was doing what came to hand without much thought of the future. I had so many evidences of His care of the work."
Mary continued to summer at Linwood, traveling there by the B&O Railroad, and aided by her African-American butler, Oliver. Daily he carried her down the stairs to enjoy the sunshine from the wide front porch. She prayed and journaled from her wheelchair in the gardens, often with her dog, Bayard, by her side. She found inspiration in nature and the quiet of Linwood. She wrote books: "The Life of Christ" in 1909, and "Come Unto Me" in 1915, both geared toward children. More books followed as well as an autobiography. She hosted well-known theologians at Linwood, including Bishop John J. Keane, who would become the first rector of Catholic University of America. She found a kindred spirit in the Jesuit astronomer Rev. John G. Hagen, who visited Linwood to instruct Mary in theology by day and in astronomy by night.
She opened a free dental clinic in 1918, eventually securing more than $17,000 in appropriations from Congress to establish similar clinics to serve underprivileged children in Washington, D.C., schools. Her work crossed color barriers. During World War I, the Society's reach stretched across the Atlantic to help children in Europe. In 1927, the National Christ Child Society held its first national conference at Linwood. Members came from as far away as Omaha, Neb.
Mary began to receive awards for her charity. She was given the Laetare Medal for Philanthropy from Notre Dame University in 1915 and the Cosmopolitan Medal for Service in Washington, D.C., in 1932. In 1937, Pope Pius XI bestowed the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Medal on Merrick. She even was photographed for the April 1951 issue of Life magazine. Mary continued in her work, still serving as president of the Washington, D.C., chapter, until her death Jan. 10, 1955. She was 88.
'Life of great charity'
Mary's diaries and journals are held at Catholic University, presently inaccessible to the public while under review by the Archdiocese of Washington. The quotes from her writings come from a 2002 biographical sketch of Mary's life written by a former doctoral student at Catholic University and given to the National Christ Child Society. If Merrick's cause for canonization is approved in Washington, it will proceed to the Roman phase of investigation.
"Whether she becomes an official saint in the church remains to be seen," said Myler, "but she certainly lived a life of great charity. ... She refused to be cast aside by society due to her own physical handicap, and as a result, she began a national organization whose members are dedicated to hands-on service to children for love of the Christ Child."
The wheat fields where Mary first bowed her head have long since disappeared. Dwindling finances forced the Merrick siblings to sell Linwood to the Peach family. Then a good friend of Mary's, Jean Simons, who was also a member of the society, purchased the house to use as a school for "mentally disturbed" children, disregarded and discarded from society. Today, Linwood is home and school to people diagnosed with autism.
So the work of helping children continues at Linwood. Perhaps it is already consecrated ground.