Co-Foundress and first Superior General of the Congregation of St Elizabeth
Maria Luisa Merkert was born on 21 September 1817 at Nysa in Slesia, Poland, then part of the Breslau Diocese and in German territory. Maria was the second daughter born to Anthony Merkert and Maria Barbara Pfitzner, from a strongly Catholic and middle-class family.
Maria assisted her mother during the illness prior to her death on 11 July 1842. This spurred her decision to serve the poor, the sick and abandoned. Two months later Maria, her sister Matilde and Frances Werner, on the advice of her confessor, joined Clara Wolff, a Third Order Franciscan, in her charitable work of serving the poor and sick in their homes.
Thus began the "Association of Sisters for the Assistance of Abandoned Sick, under the Protection of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus" on 27 September 1842. They prepared themselves for this step with an act of consecration to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, to which they remained wholeheartedly devoted. Fr Francis Xavier Fischer gave them his blessing.
Maria dedicated herself to assisting the sick and poor and collected alms for their needs. On 31 July 1844 the first five Sisters signed the Statutes of the young Association, but by 8 May 1846 their number dropped to four with the death of Matilde Merkert, who had contracted typhus while caring for the sick.
Discerning the young Sisters' need for religious formation, Fr Fischer encouraged them to enter the novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy of St Charles Borromeo in Prague, and on Christmas Day 1846 they began this period of religious formation.
On 30 June 1850, grateful for the formation they had received, Maria and Frances left the Sisters of Mercy to dedicate themselves to their original project of serving the homebound sick and needy. On 19 November 1850, Feast of St Elizabeth of Hungary, with full trust in God, the Sisters again took up their works of mercy at Nysa. They were known as the Grey Sisters of St Elizabeth. One month later Maria submitted the names of her companions as well as the Association's Statutes to the local magistrate.
On an ecclesiastic level the Institute was approved by Bishop Henry Förster of Breslau on 4 September 1859. The first General Chapter was held on 15 December 1859 and Maria Merkert was elected Superior General.
On 5 May 1860 Mother Maria and 25 Sisters professed the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, along with a fourth vow to assist the poor and sick. The Motherhouse was built in Nysa during the years 1863 to 1865. In 1887 the definitive approval as a Congregation of Pontifical Right was granted by Pope Leo XIII.
The life and work of Mother Maria Merkert was animated by a spirit of ardent charity for the suffering members of the Mystical Body of Christ. Her sequela Christi was marked by a radical and creative dedication to the sick and the most needy by putting into practice Jesus' words, "As you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25: 40).
Mother Maria's maternal solicitude was also directed toward her Sisters, to whom she gave a lofty spiritual and moral formation characterized by a profound spirit of humility. Mother Maria's generalate lasted 22 years, until her holy death on 14 November 1872 at the age of 55. During her lifetime approximately 500 Sisters joined the Congregation, which permitted her to enrich the Church with 90 religious houses in nine dioceses.
On 16 July 1964 her mortal remains were laid in the crypt of the Church of St James in Nysa, and on 19 September 1998 they were translated to a side chapel of the same Church. On 20 December 2004 Pope John Paul II declared her Venerable.