L'ordre de la Mercè (The Order of Mercy)The Order of Mercy was founded in the year 1218 by Saint Pedro Nolasco, in Barcelona, relying on the approval of Jaime I, then still a child, and the Bishop of Barcelona Berenguer de Palou. Its foundation took place in the cathedral of Barcelona and obtained canonical approval on 17th January, 1235, by Pope Gregory IX.
Although the Order of Mercy emerges at a time when with the growth in cities, business and trades there begin to appear mendicant orders (such as the Franciscans and Dominicans).It had in its origins military orders of the period when there were some armed Mercedarians who were in charge of guarding and defending the Mercedarian expeditions, constituted to redeem captive Christians. The military Mercedarians also collaborated in the Reconquest. It was in 1327 when the Order of Mercy lost this initial military character becoming exclusively a religious Order, made up of co-operator brothers and priests.
The Order of Mercy originated in order to devote itself to the redemption of captive Christians. Saint Pedro Nolasco was the prior of the Alms for the captive in the Hospital of Saint Eulalia, situated right next to the cathedral. In that hospital, founded in the 10th century by the Count of Barcelona and which always counted on Royal protection, the poor were attended to, the sick taken care of and the starving were fed. Also alms were collected in order to rescue the Christians held by the Muslims whether they were prisoners of war or kidnapped in acts of piracy at sea or on land (nocturnal raids). These Christians were taken to Muslim territory as slaves under very harsh conditions. Many died or tried to improve their conditions of life by renouncing their Christian faith and becoming second-class Muslims, never failing to receive contempt from their captors.
Thanks to the commercial relations that never failed to exist, a price was demanded for them in exchange for their freedom, and this message was received by their families who very often did not have the money for their ransom of if they did, they fell into debt so as to bring their loved ones home. There were even some traders called “exeas” or “alfaqueques” who acted as intermediaries for such purposes.
This fact explains why alms and inheritances were received to assign them for the redemption of the captives, and the hospital of Saint Eulalia organized these redemptions. It is for this reason why in 1203 we have Pedro Nolasco rescuing more than 300 captives in Valencia as Prior of the Hospital even before the founding of the Order of Mercy which was started in the Hospital of Saint Eulalia, so much so that the first name given to the followers of Nolasco, after the foundation of the Order, was the Order of Saint Eulalia. It was later when these friars were identified for what they did: “mercy” since in the language of that period “hacer merced =do a favour” was a synonym of rescuing captives. In the middle of the 12th century these friars were already known as the friars of la Merced or María of la Merced. Hence from there to being named “mercedarios” (Mercedarians) was a short time.
The emblem that will characterize the Mercedarians is their famous shield, which is divided into two parts: at the top there is the emblem of the cathedral of Barcelona: a white (or silver) cross on a red background; and at the bottom the coat of arms of the Crown of Aragon, with its vertical red and gold stripes, and the royal crown as the finishing touch of the top part of the insignia. This shield is found on the Mercedarian friars’ white habit and will be established in its churches and convents.
The last redemptions took place at the end of the 18th century. It is calculated that the total number of people redeemed by the friars of la Merced since its foundation amounted to 80,000 liberated.
The Order of la Merced also played an important part in the evangelization of America, since there was a Mercedarian friar already present on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the New Continent. Witness to this important Mercedarian mark in America is the deep-rooted devotion of the Virgin of la Merced in all Spanish speaking countries: churches, basilicas, patronages, festivals, names, universities…… Proof thereof is that ,at present, most of the Mercedarian Provinces that form the Order are situated in America: Mexico (that covers Mexico, Honduras and Cuba), Argentina, Chile, Ecuador (that has convents in Bolivia and Columbia too), Peru, Brazil … and those that are not in America (Aragon, Castilla and the Romana province), have parishes in this wonderful continent Aragon, in Venezuela, Guatemala, El Salvador and Panama; Castilla in Puerto Rico; Romana in USA). Besides the ones in the province of Aragon , the one in Castilla and the one in Chile they also have foundations in Africa (Mozambique, Ivory Coast, Angola….) and the Romana in Asia (India).
Together with the male branch there exist several female branches in the lush tree of the Mercedarian family: the cloistered Sisters of Mercy of the Order of la Merced, who originate from Santa María de Cervelló (whose incorrupt mortal remains have been present in the basilica since 1290), the Missionary Sisters of Mercy, the Mercedarian Sisters of Charity, the Nuns of Our Lady of Mercy, the Mercedarian Sisters of the Child Jesus, the Mercedarian Sisters of the Holy Sacrament, the Sisters of Mercy of Berríz……. And also a barefoot branch of Mercedarian Friars and Sisters. For more information about the Mercedarian family we recommend you consult this web page: www.ordendelamerced.org
Finally we must not forget the Mercedarian saints in this brief summary who represent the mirror into which each Mercedarian or friend of la Merced should look to follow the footsteps of Nolasco in an exemplary manner: Saint Pedro Nolasco, Saint Ramon Nonato, Saint Pedro Armengol, Saint Serapio, Saint Pedro Pascual, Saint María de Cervelló, Blessed Mariana de Jesús, Blessed Margarita Maturana, Blessed Juan Nepomuceno Zegrí Moreno and the blessed martyrs of the bloody Spanish Civil War P. Mariano Alcalá and 18 Mercedarian companions.
At present the Order of la Merced is composed of about 900 religious members. Its apostolate is directed to the world of prisons (prison pastoral care), missions in poor countries, refuge for immigrants, care for “children on the streets”, parishes, sanctuaries, some schools, .... It has its General Curia in Rome and our General Superior is the Peruvian P: Juan Carlos Saavedra.