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Lawyer Kathleen Asdorian leads canonization effort for Mary Virginia Merrick

For some lawyers, there is nothing more holy than the law, but Bethesda attorney Kathleen Asdorian’s bible is not just the Constitution, but the good book itself.

Kathleen Asdorian holds photos of Mary Virginia Merrick, candidate for sainthood, in the offices of the National Christ Child Society in Washington, D.C., which Merrick founded in 1887.

Asdorian, who owns her own title company, Foundation Title Inc., moonlights as the leader in an effort to achieve sainthood for a Washington, D.C., woman who ran a charity for children in the early part of the 20th century.

Asdorian, 69, has a degree in canon law, the official law of the Catholic Church. She spends her free hours working on the sainthood project, officially called the “Cause of Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God Mary Virginia Merrick.”

Asdorian received her canon law degree from The Catholic University of America in Washington in 2006. A devout Catholic all her life, she said her interest in canon law was academic and she wanted to find out how the church operates within itself and the world.

“It suddenly began to dawn on me there was this whole body of information out there I wasn’t really privy to,” Asdorian said. “That was my motivation — to find out more.”

She graduated from Catholic University with her regular law degree in 1990. Asdorian worked for a medical malpractice firm for a few years, then at a title company for a few more years before starting Foundation Title Inc., which specializes in residential and commercial real estate transactions.

Asdorian said it was not a huge leap to translate her experience as a civil lawyer into canon law.

“Civil law has codes and methods for doing things and ways to approach various things,” Asdorian said. “The church has a comparable body of law in how it handles things in church.”

The project

While pursuing her canon law degree, Asdorian sometimes kept 15-hour days among studying, running her company and commuting from her office in Bethesda to Catholic University’s campus in Northeast Washington.

Since graduating, she has used her degree primarily in the project to canonize, or bring to sainthood, Mary Virginia Merrick, who founded the National Christ Child Society in Washington.

“The cause for canonization is a constant,” Asdorian said. “It’s something I work on at any spare moment.”

The only other times Asdorian uses her canon law degree is when speaking at seminars about Catholic schools and their relationships to the church, she said.

Asdorian became involved with the Merrick project in 2007. The man who was heading the effort to canonize Merrick, Msgr. Ronny E. Jenkins, had been appointed to another position and no longer had time for the project. He was one of Asdorian’s teachers in her canon law degree program and asked her to take over.

Asdorian was approved by the Archdiocese of Washington, and she took on the title of postulator, someone who heads a plea for a person’s canonization.

The cause

Merrick lived from 1866 to 1955 and used a wheelchair after an accident when she was a teenager. In 1887, she founded the Christ Child Society, in which she and other members sewed clothes for needy infants and children.

Ann Doyle, historian for the National Christ Child Society, examines a program from the society’s 100th anniversary celebration in 1987 with Kathleen Asdorian, right.

“She believed working directly with the poor was the true charity for people to pursue,” said Margaret Saffell, former executive director of the National Christ Child Society.

With more than 300 members by 1898, the group rented a house on H Street in Washington called the Christ Child House. Chapters were opened in Baltimore, New York, Chicago and Omaha, Neb., by 1908, and the groups were organized into a federation of chapters called the National Christ Child Society in 1916.

“I think the reason I am so interested in this woman’s life and story is that I can’t even comprehend, at a time when women had no rights, she actually was starting a corporation,” Asdorian said. “I find that mind-boggling. The mere fact that this entire thing was motivated by her devotion to the Christ child just shows the depth of spirituality in this woman.”

Today, the group has 40 chapters across the country. Each has varying programs, but all have the signature initiative started by Merrick, in which volunteers sew clothes for impoverished children, Saffell said.

At the Washington chapter, the group runs a counseling program at Catholic schools, hosts a six-week day camp for young inner-city girls, provides scholarships for inner-city kids to go to other summer camps and provides school uniforms to poor families, Saffell said.

The process

The society began discussing canonizing Merrick in the early 1990s, Saffell said, adding that the group would meet every once in a while to discuss how to move forward. In early 2004, the group formed the Canonization Advisory Board to oversee the project, said Roseann Anderson, chair of the board.

“It is a process where you don’t just go out and say, ‘So-and-so is a saint, so do it,’” Saffell said.

Someone with canon law knowledge is required to navigate the steps of the complicated process, Anderson said.

“Kathleen is extremely conscientious, extremely definitive about what steps should be taken,” Anderson said. “She’s also an extremely pleasant person with whom to work because she is knowledgeable but not overbearing with that knowledge.”

In the first stage of the three-step process to sainthood, called the Pre-investigative Phase, Asdorian and her vice postulator, Jeannine Marino, read volumes of writings by Merrick stowed in Catholic University’s archives.

The group and Asdorian had all of Merrick’s writings, scribbled in ink-dipped pen, transcribed for easier reading. Asdorian and Marino searched the texts for evidence of “heroic virtue” and reviewed the documents to make sure Merrick had never written anything contrary to church teaching, Asdorian said.

“Obviously, that would eliminate you,” she said.

Asdorian would sometimes spend 40 hours a week researching and writing. Other weeks were less busy, and she would spend about 10 hours a week on the project, she said. Usually, though, the time commitment would fall somewhere in the middle.

There are two reasons someone achieves sainthood — the person died a martyr to the church’s cause or lived a life of “heroic virtue,” Asdorian said. Asdorian and her vice postulator reviewed essentially everything Merrick had ever written, a lengthy process since Merrick was a “prolific” writer.

Asdorian said she compiled five binders full of materials, including a petition stating why Merrick deserves sainthood, which she submitted to the Archdiocese of Washington.

“You could equate it to a petition in a civil suit,” Asdorian said. “We said, ‘These are the reasons we feel this person should be considered for an official investigation.’”

On April 25, 2011, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, officially opened the investigation into Merrick’s sainthood.

The project is now in its second phase, the Diocesan Phase, in which it is reviewed again by the archbishop and a tribunal of judges he appoints. The group will submit a report on its findings.

If there is enough support for the cause to continue, the archdiocese’s report will be sent to Rome for consideration by the Vatican, which will then run its own lengthy investigation into Merrick.

At this point, it is still too early to tell whether Merrick will achieve sainthood.

“The idea here is to support that this woman spiritually lived a heroic life filled with heroic virtue,” Asdorian said. “That’s a little outside the realm of how things [in] about any sort of legal process work.”

Ultimately, Anderson said, the effort is not just about achieving the title of saint for Merrick, but also about spreading the word across the world about the cause to which Merrick devoted her life.

“Our efforts to bring Mary Virginia Merrick to sainthood are truly partially motivated not just to make her a saint, but to set forth an example of heroic virtue to highlight for the rest of our country and the world the needs of children who are suffering from neglect and poverty and lack of respect,” she said.