Virgin of la Merced

The present Constitutions of the Order of la Merced proclaim : “For Her intervention at the beginning, and life of the Order which bears Her name, we the Mercedarians call Mary the Mother of Mercy and worship Her as the inspiration of the work of Redemption”.

In the middle ages, mercy was a synonym of compassion, but compassion exercised on the poorer, the more needy and marginalized people of the society of that time, who were then the Christian captives. Pedro Nolasco and his followers devoted themselves to the redemption of these captives and for this they were called “men of mercy” and their convents “houses of mercy”; as the friars attributed their foundation to the Virgin Mary and because they were especially devoted to Her, “mercy” ends up being Her denomination and title: Virgin of la Merced or of la Misericordia (compassion).

The friars were convinced that the Virgin Mary intervened in the foundation of the Order, therefore in the Constitutions of 1272, the first of the Order, they made the name of Mary the official title calling it the Order of the Virgin Mary of la Merced of the redemption of the captives.

When the Mercedarians build their first church in 1249 they dedicate it to Holy Mary, whose image began to be known as Santa María de la Merced (Holy Mary of Mercy), and from there her worship will be spread to all the churches wherever the Mercedarians settle.

In the evangelization of America, since Columbus’ second voyage in 1493, María of la Merced always went with the Mercedarians, whose cult spread throughout the whole continent, where the popular devotion even modified with new resonance the meaning of her name calling her Our Lady of the Mercedes, that is deliverer of all the gifts which Her Son the Redeemer has placed in her hands.

And because the worship to Mary, under the patronage to la Merced, acquires great resonance, the church itself in 1616 with Pius V, in 1684 and in 1696 extends her cult to all Christianity setting her feast day on 24th September.

The Mare de Déu de la Mercè in Barcelona

The patronage of Santa María de la Merced wants to make the maternal compassion of Mary present in the mystery of the church for those who suffer captivity and are in danger of losing their faith; it expresses an aspect of the maternal compassion of the Mother of God: the aspect of redeemer .Mary is the compassionate redeemer who updates the work of Christ in favour of the captives and the poor, She is the most intense expression of the redeemed love of Christ as gospel of liberation. The Mare de Déu de la Mercè in Barcelona The devotion of the Mother of God of Mercy practically starts from the very origin of the Order which, do not forget, was initially dedicated to Saint Eulalia although her Marian Attitude was constitutive of her identity and her most primitive essence. 

In 1255 there was already a Brotherhood devoted to the Virgin of the Merced and it appeared in the incipient church of the Mercedarian Friars. In 1259 Pere Salat left a legacy so that two lamps would burn in the church “one during the day and another at night continuously before the altar of the Holy Mary constituted there”. At the end of the 12th century Friar Bernart de Corbera, who introduced the custom of celebrating mass to the Virgin and the hymn of Salve Regina on Saturdays, exercised his ministry there.

The convent enjoyed a great reputation in the city as it was customary for the liberated captives to walk through some streets of Barcelona in procession, wearing their captive chains as ex-vows and visiting the Virgin of la Merced; in the same church they publish a notice with their names and origin of the people rescued. The popularity of the convent of la Merced grew towards the middle of the 14th century, with the tradition of the miracle of the conversion of the bread and coagulated blood into “homo conventual” the night of an 8th December. In 1361 Pere de Moragues was commissioned with the elaboration of the image which today presides the altar of the basilica, and the new wooden altarpiece at that time (today it is no longer there).

The Rabal deis Códols is situated in the maritime district, so it is only natural that the first worshipers of the Mare de Déu de la Mercé were seamen and that there was a great reputation for the devotion to Saint María de Cervelló, hence the image of the saint always holding a boat in her hands. During the 15th century the Virgin de la Ribera becomes the Virgin of the city.

The favours of the Blessed Virgin influenced in this transformation just as much as the processions of the redeemed, the presence, in the temple of the incorrupt body of Saint María de Cervelló the “jus patronus”, of the counts-kings, the commercial character of the city of Barcelona and that avalanche of liberated captives who pay homage to the Mestre of la Mercé at each redemption and remain a time in the care of the convent. Councillors, canons and the people of Barcelona all turn to her requesting help and giving thanks.

The city thanked the Mare de Déu de la Mercé for her help with the plague in 1651 and the drought in 1680.When the plague of locusts ended in that same year the Consell de Cent made Maria of la Merced the Patron Saint of Barcelona on 25th September,1687 because “ having extinguished this plague thanks to the intervention and protection of Holy Mary of Mercy” and they asked the Pope for confirmation of the title.

The Consell de Cent was magnanimous in the restoration of the sacristy in 1687, and the placing of the altars of Saint Pedro Nolasco and Saint Pedro Pascual. From that year onwards the city began to celebrate the commemorative feast of the Descent of the Virgin on 2nd August, with veneration of the “Councillors” included.

On 13th February, 1692, Pope Innocent XII confirmed that homage had been being paid to Saint María de Cervelló, for a long time. After the festivities they decided to build a special chapel for the saint, where her relics would be kept in a silver urn which the Councillors donated for this purpose. The chapel of the saint was blessed on 12th August, 1708. The Pope himself changed the feast of la Merced to the 24th September, which had been celebrated until then on the Sunday closest to 1st August, and extended the service and mass of the Virgin of la Merced to the entire church.

In 1711 the Order obtained the power to sing their own mass instead of the votive on Saturdays. In 1789 the Order of la Merced received the privilege of being able to celebrate solemn Mass at midnight preceding 24th September. On 2nd August, 1794 “et in descensione” (“and in descent”) was introduced in their own preface of the mass of la Merced.

From the middle of the 18th century the convent supported a school for poor children and Father Joan Oliva founded the Escolanía of la Mercé with them, thanks to the testamentary legacy of Josep Gloria. In the first third of the 20th century Luis Millet I Pagés, founder of L’Orfeo Catalá , was director. The Escolanía vanished in 1978.

In 1861the Diocese of Barcelona obtained their own service and mass of the Virgin of la Merced. On 27th February, 1868 She was declared Patron Saint of Barcelona and its Bishopric. They took advantage of the festivity of the second of August to give thanks for the special favour they had just received.

On 21st October,1888 the image of the Mare de Déu de la Mercé is crowned in the cathedral by the Bishop of Barcelona, Jaume Catalá, complying with the approval of Pope Leo XIII on 31st May. The officiants and the people sang “The joys of the Mother of God of Mercy” which Mossen Jacint Verdaguer wrote for the occasion with music by Josep Rodoreda: “Star of Barcelona/Queen of Mercy/give the people that crown you/love and faith”. In that same year Leo XIII raises the Virgin of la Merced’s prayer to a double rite for all Spain. And since 1904, all those who visit the church of la Merced on 24th September can earn their jubilee.

On 24th September, 1918 Barcelona celebrated the VII centenary of the Descent of the Virgin and the foundation of the Order of la Merced with great solemnity. Bishop Reig I Casanova imposed the sceptre on the Virgin in Catalunya Square. Pope Benedict XV granted the church of la Merced the title of Minor Basilica, in commemoration of which a statue of bishop Reig, kneeling before the Pope receiving the afore-mentioned privilege, was placed in one of the doors of the high altar.

At the beginning of the Spanish Civil War Mrs. Teresa Coll Muñarch’s negotiations saved the image of la Merced. First, she removed it from the church when this was set on fire in July, 1936 and took it to the Capitanía General (Captaincy General) and on 27th September, 1936 handed it to the Junta de Salvació del Patrimoni (Board of Salvage of Heritage), delivering it to the Museum of Art of Catalonia (Museu d’Arte de Catalunya).

The statue of the Virgin was returned to its place on 24th September, 1939. Beforehand it was restored by Feliciano Veciana, in Barcelona as it presented a small defect on the forehead and an arm and both hands were missing, which were found in 1936, by accident, among the pile of rubble from the basilica after the fire. Mrs Teresa Coll Muñarch died on 31st May, 2001; some years earlier The Brotherhood of the Merced admitted her as one of its members as Sister of the same order.

The body of Saint María de Cervelló was hidden by Mr. Francesc Ráfols in his house and he delivered it to the basilica when the conflict ended.

Between 1940 and 1976 the Basilica of la Mercé was restored. The sculptors Miquel I Llucia Oslé make the great statue that crowns the dome; Joseph Obiols and Pau Maciá I Pons work on the fresco paintings and interior murals; the statue of la Mare de la Mercé is restored and enthroned in 1959 and in 1963 it is placed on a magnificent silver throne that rests on a carved rock from Montserrat.

Since 1964 the sacred image can be contemplated without the overlapping clothes that covered her. The Baroque marble canopy over the high altar passed to the chapel of Soledad and the façade originating from the ancient church of Sant Miquel (Saint Michael) was restored. In 1981 the Plaza de la Mercé was built on when they demolished the block of flats that occupied it.

And here ends this little tour through the history of the Mare de Déu de la Mercé of Barcelona. How beautiful and consoling are the verses by Mossen Jacint Verdague, which resonate under their vault “Joys of the Mother of God of Mercy”

“Mother and Patroness of captives / you who have come down from heaven/ Princess of Barcelona, Protect your city”