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Miriam Marks

By Mary L. Putrow


Miriam Marks (1896-1961) was a woman of incredible energy, capabilities and dedication.  She traveled the United States in promoting and organizing diocesan Chapters of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.  At the national headquarters she was sometimes called the executive secretary and at other times, the field representative.  Whatever the nomenclature, persons who worked with her testify to the multiple tasks she performed in promoting Catholic religious education in the United States.


What was a cultured, well-educated southern belle doing in the hinter lands of Montana, Oregon, Idaho and in the inner city neighborhoods of New Jersey as well as in the Washington DC offices of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops?  This is the story of Miriam Cecilia Marks, born April 26, 1896 in Tacoma, Washington of Charles Willoughby (1860-1900) and Annie Teresa Ryan (1866-1944).  Both her maternal grandmother and her father had become Catholics, the former from the Methodist tradition and the latter from the Episcopalian Church. Willoughby, Charles and John were her brothers; Estelle, her only sister. With her four siblings Miriam was raised in a strong Catholic environment.  Unfortunately, the family was visited with a heavy sadness in the midst of World War I when the oldest son, Willoughby, was killed in action.

        Because of the family’s relocation patterns Miriam spent her early years in Georgia and then moved to Florida. It was in the south that her basic as well as her college education took place. She attended St. Mary Catholic Grade and High School in Apalachicola, Florida and matriculated at Florida College for Women.  Formal education was but one piece of the learning available to the Marks children.  The education provided in the home and travel opened Miriam and her siblings to multiple worlds. By the time she was seventeen she notes “I had traveled into every corner of the United States and into Canada and Mexico… and it was from father that we learned to read so many things” (Edwards, 1941, p. 11). With this type of background it is understandable that Marks struck out into wider horizons for graduate school at Columbia University in New York, and in Chicago. These years she pursued study in the field of art. Just about the time she began to settle down and seek a career path, her southern family declared that no career woman should be on their family tree.  In response to their wishes Ms. Marks returned home and tried to cultivate the image her family demanded of her.  Just as she was about to declare her inability to fulfill that role, she received an invitation from the public schools of Hot Springs, Arkansas to be art supervisor for that system. She then moved in with her aunt and uncle who lived in that city. Without teaching or supervisory experience Marks more than compensated with her exceptional organizational and people skills, as well as her innate desire to work hard at any task before her. During the three years that she was there (1920-1923) she also became active in the Junior Red Cross and eventually was elected chairperson of the organization. Never given to passive roles of any sort, Miriam also engaged in volunteer work with the Red Cross. Through the work of this organization Miriam was introduced to poverty and the dire conditions which afflicted families without necessary means for sustenance.  She felt compelled to learn more about service among the poor and needy and what could be done to improve their lot.

To find these answers she moved to Washington, DC and enrolled in the National Catholic School of Social Service in that city. Shortly after her graduation in 1926 she volunteered for social service at the National Council of Catholic Women.  While there her competency caught the eye of Miss Margaret Lynch, Assistant Executive Secretary of the Council of Catholic Women.  She extended an invitation to Marks to do a study of the Council’s work in different fields, including the Vacation Bible Schools. Marks’ response to that suggestion was “I was downright dumb” as she had never heard of Vacation Bible Schools but nevertheless accepted the challenge.

            Her first summer into that work was filled with simple tasks of chauffeuring, filling in, supplying materials and the like.  Nevertheless, her eyes and ears were attuned to all that was going on. She later became a teacher in the program and was engaged with a small group of “colored children” (Edwards, 1941, p. 16) who assembled under the shade trees. Even with her involvement she yet was not clear about the nature and purpose of the Vacation Bible Schools.

Clarity came with a meeting in the Richmond, Virginia diocese where she met Fr. Edwin O’Hara.  At first unaware of his background and activities, she was delighted later to learn that he was the initiator of the Vacation Bible Schools. Accounts of the meeting indicate that the women involved were finding their work very difficult.  With O’Hara’s response, “Yes, there are always difficulties – but where the work of Jesus Christ is concerned, there are no irremovable difficulties” (Edwards, 1941, p. 16).  The strength of O’Hara’s remarks moved those present, including Miriam, to continue with the tasks of Vacation Bible Schools.

            Marks became deeply involved with the project. She filled no single role but was engaged in teaching, program planning, projects, plays, etc.  Obviously her many talents did not go unobserved. At the end of the summer, Marks was invited to join Juliette Haag as an assistant at the Catholic Neighborhood House of Newark, New Jersey. It was located in a less than desirable neighborhood surrounded by factories and a brewery.  The clients who came to the house reflected the dire surroundings in their dress and social habits.

            Under Ms. Marks’ direction the house soon became a conglomerate of social services.  A number of agencies sent their personnel to help with the task of serving those in need.  The Catholic Neighborhood House became a popular locale in the area.  Marks spent two years there and proved herself the competent administrator.  By her own admission she “never ran in the red once”. (Edwards, 1941, p. 16)

            One might suggest that in Marks’ life, invitation piled upon invitation.   The opportunity arose for another adventure.  She was asked to direct the Girls’ Club of St. Anthony’s Guild in Paterson, New Jersey. The club drew from surrounding towns and numbered over one thousand members. Marks accepted the invitation and remained there for two years.

This woman had incredible talents combined with an avid enthusiasm which made her stand out among her coworkers. She was then recruited from the Girls’ Club to be part of the editorial staff of St. Anthony’s Guild.  Here she experienced the daily work that went into church publications, writing, editing, proofreading, etc.  Little did she know that at this place her life’s work with the church would catapult into more and more positions of responsibility and into the situation where she became best known among Christian educators the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD).

            No life story of Miriam Marks would be complete without mention of Fr. (and later Bishop) Edwin O’Hara, the founder of Vacation Bible Schools (aka Religious Vacation Schools). In 1922 O’Hara had discovered a supportive ally in St. Anthony Guild and Fr. John Forest, OFM. When he sought publication of some of his materials at the Guild Fr. Forest offered to print them at cost.  With time, he became a regular visitor there. Later, as Bishop of Great Falls, Montana (1930-1939), he continued his association with the Guild. Observing Ms. Marks at work there he was reminded of her enthusiasm and competency when she worked with the Vacation Bible Schools. For a number of years O’Hara had sought to advance the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD). His appointment as Bishop granted him the office from which to promote the organization. However, his diocese was expansive and few competent helpers were available. He posed an offer, “Would Ms. Marks be interested in assisting in the organization of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for the Diocese?”  Her affirmative response led her to a life time of promoting the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Fathers Joseph Collins and Augustine Walsh, OSB who worked with her as part time directors exerted a good deal of influence on her but it was Bishop O’Hara who most strongly influenced the thought and work of Miriam Marks.

            While Ms. Marks was traveling through the Great Falls Diocese establishing the Confraternity in parishes, O’Hara was lobbying the Bishops to expand the Confraternity as a structure for furthering religious education in all parishes.  To advance his cause O’Hara was able in 1933 to influence the Catechetical Congregation of the Council in Rome to write a letter to the U.S. Bishops requiring the establishment of the CCD in every parish in the United States.

            Meanwhile Ms. Marks was busy with many practical aspects of the Confraternity. Her travel lust cultivated early in life by her father served her well, especially as other invitations appeared on the horizon. Bishop Finnegan of Helena, Montana asked Marks to help with the organization of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for his diocese. This invitation was followed by one from Bishop White of the Spokane diocese and then from many others.  Within the extent of her professional career Marks had continued this task in more than sixty dioceses both in the United States and Canada. The work was not easy; transportation, certainly not relaxing.  One description offered by Marks herself gives an indication of the nature of the travel this work entailed:


            I will never forget that palatial train of ancient vintage on which an assistant and I traveled to a mining town in the Helena diocese. The train had become known on       jerkwater lines as a combination train.  It was smoky and there was a stove to heat the      car, except that the stove had no lid.  Mailbags occupied one corner of the car, the other    was taken up by a shipment of geese and another of rabbits.  We were two hours and a     half going thirty-two miles so you know how fast it was (Edwards, p. 16).


            When the Bishops agreed in 1934 to establish a National Center for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine in the United States at the National Catholic Welfare Office, Bishop O’Hara was elected chair of the Episcopal CCD Committee.  The Center opened on May 10, 1935 with Fr. Augustine Walsh OSB as director and Ms. Miriam Marks as Executive Secretary.  Because the director’s position was only a part time position, the greater part of the tasks associated with the office fell to Ms. Marks. In addition to the daily routine of the office, she edited and prepared materials for publication, and organized, arranged and promoted the Annual National Confraternity Conferences. 

            In 1935 the first National Conference was held at Rochester, New York.  Among the presenters was Miriam Marks, then designated as the ‘field worker of the National Center of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine’.  “Most remarkable was the way” Fr. Walsh describes (1935, p. 22) Marks’ demonstration on how study clubs should be conducted.  He offers the end result of her presentation, “Many departed with the conviction that the study club is the salvation not only of faith in a great degree but of family life and the home” (ibid.)

             The report of the Third National Congress of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine at St. Louis  in 1937 notes that the work of Miriam Marks was there recognized with the papal award  “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” at St. Louis Cathedral (Walsh, 1937, p. 8). This distinction is awarded to a lay person who has promoted the welfare of society, church or papacy.

From 1935 on the Congresses were held every year up to 1941 when World War II was in progress. It was then decided that the Congresses would be convened every five years.  This was the pattern until 1971 when the Congresses were discontinued. Catechesis was entering a new age and the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine seems to have served its time.

            Given that the priests who worked at the Office of the Confraternity were part time, Marks was responsible for the majority of the work of the Office including that required by each Congress.  She did the planning, made the contacts, negotiated the locations, solicited local assistance, and arranged for the necessary printing. She even was a presenter at a number of the Congresses. A less known activity of O’Hara and thus of Miriam Marks was the promotion of the cause of Pope Pius X for beatification.  The Confraternity Office became the site for the dissemination of material about Pius X as well as the organizational point for pilgrimages; it became the main source of publications about Pius X . “O’Hara and his associates played a pivotal role in shaping the public image of the pontiff for American Catholics” (Avella, 1997, p. 65).  With the formal approval of the Bishops Conference the Confraternity office began  planning the national effort to raise Pius X to sainthood.  Marks was involved in promoting the prayer campaigns, publishing prayer cards and information about the life and work of Pius X.  Access to the CCD directors throughout the United States provided a natural conduit for the distribution of materials. “At Marks’ suggestion a ‘Pius X Plaque” was commissioned and O’Hara endorsed it as a way of stoking the enthusiasm and devotion of CCD directors to whom he intended to present them” (Avella, 1997, p. 65).

            Perhaps it was through the influence of her friend, Sr. Madeleva Wolff, author and President of St. Mary College in South Bend, Indiana that educational institutions also recognized her extensive work in religious education. Being the “right hand” of Bishop O’Hara was an added benefit as he and Sister Madeleva were closely associated in planning the summer theological  programs for women.  During the summers of 1938, 1939 and 1943 Ms. Marks taught at St. Mary College and Notre Dame University.

            Whether she retired or resigned is a question. Several situations suggest that after O’Hara’s death in 1956 Miriam was tiring. She has almost become O’Hara’s “alter ego at the center” (Dolan, 1992, p. 146). He was extremely confident of her skills and left to her the majority of the work of the office.  While he was alive O’Hara reflected “a tenacious defense of his personnel, especially John Forest and Miriam Marks” (Dolan, 1992, p. 152).  Dolan describes her manner at times as being “imperious” (Dolan, 1992, p. 116).   Many of the circumstances surrounding Marks’ 25 years of work with O’Hara and the Confraternity had changed with O’Hara’s death. The system of the Confraternity was beginning to be called into question, as were the modes and content of instruction promoted by the CCD.  Joannes Hofinger was publically criticizing the Confraternity’s revision of the Baltimore Catechism and Marks did little in response, much to the consternation particularly of Fr. John O’Brien of Notre Dame.  The church was approaching a new era of religious education and many of the aspects of the Confraternity no longer fit the reality of the times.  Minutes of the meetings of the Bishops’ Committee of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine November, 1960 indicate that Marks submitted a letter of resignation which was accepted by the committee. Some would say she retired. Whatever the situation of her departure from Washington, in 1960 she returned to the land of her youth, Apalachicola, Florida.  Records indicate that the Committee voted to award her a pension of $125 a month.  Unfortunately she collected very little, as six months after she retired Miriam Marks died of lung cancer on July 18, 1961.

            Today in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, the entrance to the Pius X Chapel there hangs a plaque, commemorating Miriam Marks for all her work with the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. It was the gift of the National Center and Diocesan Directors of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine

It would be difficult to overestimate the contributions of Miriam Marks to Christian Religious Education in the United States.  While Bishop O’Hara headed the Office of the Confraternity, it was no secret to anyone visiting there or experiencing Ms. Marks in the field that she was the one who facilitated the tasks of the office from editing material under the heading of the National Office of the Confraternity to planning National Congresses. Her talents were numerous, her energy boundless. Father Joseph Collins, a director of the National Office at one time wrote of Ms. Marks:   

            Any history of CCD in America must give adequate place and praise in Miss Miriam        Marks, a native of Florida and Executive Director of the National CCD Office from its            beginning in 1935 to her retirement in 1960 at the age of seventy-one.  … No detail of the             CCD anywhere escaped her dedicated attention.” (Collins, 1975, p. 695) 

Her writings are sparse but her endeavors and projects immense.  Her work lives on in the persons across the United States and Canada whose faith formation was cultivated by involvement in the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.


Avila, S. with Zalar, J. (Fall, 1997). Sanctity in the Era of Catholic Action: The Case of St. Pius X. U.S. Catholic Historian (15)4, 57-80.

Clement, C.D. (2000, Winter). Catholic Foremothers in American Catechesis. Living Light (37) 2, 55-68.

Collins, J. (1975).  National Center for CCD. American Ecclesiastical Review (196)10, 690-702.

Dolan, T.M. (1992).  Some Seed Fell on Good Ground. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.

Edwards, D. (1941, July). Miriam Marks. Catholic Woman’s World (7), 10-11.

Romig, Walter (1942—1943). The American Catholic (Vol. 5).  Detroit: Walter Romig and Co., 296.

Walsh, F.A. (1935, December). The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.  Catholic Action (17), 26.

Walsh, F.A. (1937, November). The Confraternity at St. Louis. Catholic Action (19), 7-8.


Marks, M. (1933, January). The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Journal of Religious Instruction (3), 430-434.

Marks, M. (1936).  The Discussion Study Club.  In Proceedings of the National Catechetical Congress of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (pp. 50-54). Paterson, NJ: St. Anthony Guild Press.

Marks, M. (1936). Activities of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. In Proceedings of the National Congress of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. (pp. 32-39).  Paterson, NJ: St. Anthony Guild.

Marks, M. (1940). Choose Your Place in the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. In Proceedings of the National Congress of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. (pp. 38-40).  Paterson, NJ: St. Anthony Guild.

Marks, M.  (1944). New Apostles of the Gospel in the Very Midst of Learned Society. In Proceedings of the National Congress of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. (pp.335-342). Washington, DC: Publications Department Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.

Marks, M.  (1945, October) Parish Reconverts. Catholic Action 27, 16.

Marks, M. (1952). Teaching Christ in America. In Ward, L.R. (Ed.).  The American Apostolate  (pp. 187-203). Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press.

Marks, M. (1955, January). Study Clubs for Adults, High School and College Students. Journal of Religious Instruction (5), 436-440.

Other Resources:

The archives at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC hold the O’Hara papers and materials from the former Office of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.

The archives of the diocese of Helena, Montana hold a collection of newspaper articles about Marks’ Confraternity of Christian Doctrine activities at various sites in the diocese.

Excerpts from Publications

Today Marks’ efforts could be called total community catecheses.  Every age group was included in her vast efforts to spread the Word of God. With the spirit of an evangelist she promoted greater knowledge and practice of the faith.

Marks, M.  (1944). New Apostles of the Gospel in the Very Midst of Learned Society. In Proceedings of the National Congress of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 342.

 “It is time now for the laity to put on the armor of God and combat spiritual illiteracy. 
For this crusade a vast army is needed, for the advocates of materialism are not complacent, they are organized.  They are legend. They strive with a fiery zeal to spread their doctrine everywhere.  Shall we do less in our service to the Savior of mankind, the Prince of Peace?”

Marks, M. (1933, January). The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Journal of Religious Instruction (3), 430.

“Religious instruction of the child is an imperative need.  There are now, throughout our country, hundreds of thousands of children that are ours for the asking;  children who are ours by the bond of faith.  It is within our power to save them from spiritual starvation.  If we fail in our task, priests in a few years will be striving valiantly to bring back to the church these souls we can now win.  It is for us to see that Catholics are conscious of this need.  It is for us to assume a personal responsibility in offering every child the Christ Child’s love. “

Marks, M. (1937). Activities of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. In Proceedings of the National Congress of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. 37.

 “The religious discussion study group is designed to promote further knowledge of our holy faith in all is beauty as a program of life, and to develop in the Catholic laity the ability to express this information in an articulate, coherent, attractive manner.  In many localities in the United States these clubs for high school students and adults are promoted on a diocesan scale … .”

Marks, M. (1933, January). The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Journal of Religious Instruction (3), 430-434.

Edwards, D. (1941, July). Miriam Marks. Catholic Woman’s World (7), 10-11.

            This short article contains pictures of her at work and introduces the reader to the person of Miriam Marks.  It contains material not found elsewhere.

Dolan, T.M. (1992).  Some Seed Fell on Good Ground. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.

The author had access to the archives at Catholic University of America and notes the correspondence material by or about Ms. Marks, and aspects   otherwise unknown of her style of leadership and modes of interaction.

Collins, J. (1975).  National Center for CCD. American Ecclesiastical Review (196)10, 690-702.

            This is a first-hand accounting of the work of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and the place Miriam Marks played in its effectiveness.


Author Information

Mary L. Putrow

Mary L. Putrow, OP is on the faculty at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. She holds a B.A. and M.A. from Siena Heights University, an M.A. from the Catholic University of America and a Ph.D. from Michigan State University.