A LAY ORGANIZATION
After fifteen years of admirable mercy in the redemption of Christian captives, Peter Nolasco and his friends were seeing with concern that, instead of decreasing, day by day the number of captives was growing excessively. Our determined leader, with a strong personality, clear ideas, a strong faith, a solid and balanced devotion to Christ and to his Blessed Mother, a compassionate heart, a serene and resolute trust in God, Peter Nolasco did not feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mission undertaken and his own insignificance. In his fervent prayer, he sought divine inspiration to be able to continue God’s work which he had started. At that point and in these circumstances, during the night of August 1, 1218, a special intervention of Blessed Mary occurred in Peter Nolasco’s life: an amazing Marian experience which illumined his mind and stirred up his will to transform his group of lay redeemers into a Redemptive Religious Order which, with the Church’s approbation and the protection of the king of Aragon, would pursue the great work of mercy which had started.
On the next day, Peter Nolasco went to the royal palace to explain his project to young King James I and his advisers, the first of whom was the Bishop of Barcelona, don Berenguer de Palou. Peter’s plan, inspired by God through Mary, was to establish a well-structured and stable Redemptive Religious Order under the patronage of Blessed Mary. The proposal pleased the king and his advisers since, after the failed attempt by Alfonso II with the Order of the Holy Redeemer which did not prosper, the noble aspiration of the royal house of Aragon to have its own redemptive order was becoming a reality.
On August 10, 1218, the new Religious Order for the Redemption of Captives was officially and solemnly constituted at the main altar erected over Saint Eulalia’s tomb in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Barcelona. Bishop Berenguer de Palou gave Peter Nolasco and his companions the white habit that they would wear as characteristic of the Order; he gave them the Rule of Saint Augustine as a norm for their life in common and he gave his authorization for the sign of his cathedral, the Holy Cross, to be on the habit of the Order. After that, Peter Nolasco and the first Mercedarians made their religious profession right there before the bishop.
For his part, King James I the Conqueror established the Order as an institution recognized by the civil law of his kingdom. In the very act of the foundation and as an important rite of the ceremony, the monarch gave the Mercedarian friars the habit which, in the language of military orders, is the shield with four red stripes over a gold background, that is to say, the sign of the king himself. Along with the cross of the cathedral, this emblem would form the Order’s own shield. On that memorable day, James I endowed the Order, of which he considered himself the founder, with the Hospital of Saint Eulalia which served as the first Mercedarian convent and as a house of welcome for redeemed captives.
In the proem of the first Constitutions of the Mercedarian Order of 1272, three very important elements referring to the foundation stand out: the name, the founder and the purpose of the Order.
The name with which the Order founded by Peter Nolasco is identified, is mentioned first. Prior to the 1272 Constitutions, the Order had several names among which: Order of Saint Eulalia, Order of the Mercy of Captives, Order of the Redemption of Captives, Order of Mercy. But the proper and definitive title is: Order of the Virgin Mary of Mercy of the Redemption of Captives.
Then it is stated that Brother Peter Nolasco has been constituted “servant, messenger, founder and promoter” of the new Institute. Peter Nolasco is the real founder of the Order or the “Procurator of the alms of captives” as defined on March 28, 1219, by the first document referring to him after the foundation.
Finally, it is clearly specified that the purpose of the Order is “to visit and to free Christians who are in captivity and in power of the Saracens or of other enemies of our Law… By this work of mercy… all the brothers of this Order, as sons of true obedience, must always be gladly disposed to give up their lives, if it is necessary, as Jesus Christ gave up his for us.”
All these valuable and reliable historical details of the foundation of the Order of Mercy are gathered in the letter of January 11, 1358, sent by King Peter IV the Ceremonious to Pope Innocent VI and kept to this day in the Archives of the Aragon Crown, a reliable guarantee of all the Mercedarian history of the first centuries.
The first friars who received the white habit of Holy Mary of Mercy with Peter Nolasco may have been laymen. Peter Nolasco was not a priest. There is, however, the possibility that on the day of the foundation, there may have been a priest present to serve as chaplain. From the lieutenants designated by Brother Peter Nolasco, we can make up the list of those who donned the Mercedarian habit with him on the day of the foundation: Brother Pascual of Perpignan, Brother Juan de Laers, Brother Bernardo de Corbaria, Brother Guillermo de Bas, Brother Juan de Verdera, Brother Bertrando, Brother Bernardo de Cassoles and Brother Carbó de Llagostera.
With the solemn and official support of the Church and of the state, Peter Nolasco and his friars, constituted as a Redemptive Religious Order of lay brothers, gained new energy and, with renewed fervor, they continued their peregrinations of charity to collect alms for the redemption of captives in Saracen lands.
In trying to specify the nature of the Order of Mercy in relation with other existing religious institutes of common life approved by the Church, we have to say that it could not be classified as a monastic order of contemplative life along with the Benedictines, Carthusians, Cistercians and the Premonstratensians because contemplation was not their objective. It was not a mendicant order of active life like the Franciscans, Augustinians, Dominicans and Carmelites since they begged from the faithful what they needed for survival in exchange for apostolic services. Neither was the Order of Mercy a clerical religious redemptive order like the Trinitarians. Instead, according to documentation, it was made up of lay friars.
The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy was a lay order of active life in common. Its objective was to defend the faith through the redemption or ransom of those Christians at risk of renouncing it due to the circumstances of their captivity in the power of the Saracens or of other enemies of the law of Jesus Christ. In looking for similarities to other Church approved institutions existing in 1218, the Order of Mercy was undoubtedly more like the Military Religious Orders whose purpose was to defend the faith although through the vow of fighting infidels by force of arms.
Therefore, it should be said that the Order of Mercy was born as a redemptive religious order with a military character. The similarity of the Order of Mercy to military orders, strictly speaking, is well-known: it was exclusively made up of lay brothers. It had the shield heraldically formed by the white cross of the Barcelona Cathedral over a red background and the royal coat of arms of King James I who participated in the foundation. The use of a horse and shoes for every brother like the Templars. The titles Master for the supreme hierarch of the Order was, at that time, a title only used by military orders; Lieutenants of the Master as his representatives at different sees and regions; Prior for the Barcelona superior; Commander [superior] in charge of the ‘encomienda’ or house, these titles were only used by military orders. The Order was entrusted with the defense and custody of the Rebollet castle, with the obligation of the staticum or military permanence for its defense. Later, the Order was dispensed from this obligation by a deed authorized in Gandía on January 2, 1281. The 1272 Mercedarian Constitutions were written with the military orders’ constitutions in mind. Some provisions are not only inspired by but copied from those of the Knights of Saint James. In a letter of January 4, 1301, to ask Boniface VIII to confirm Arnaldo de Amer as Master General, King James II stated that the orders of “Hospitallers, Templars, Knights of Calatrava and of Saint James follow a rule similar” to the Mercedarian rule.
The use of force by Mercedarian brothers, without scandalizing Christians or Moors “in the redemption of captives in the power of pagans and in taking them to Christian lands” is another point of similarity of the Order of Mercy to military orders. While the latter emphasized waging war against infidels to defend the Catholic faith, the Order of Mercy tried to save the faith of Christian captives by rescuing them peacefully and force was used only when the defense of redemption and of the redeemed demanded it. Finally, the recumbent effigies of the sepulchers of two brothers are preserved, one with a full-length habit and the other with a short habit like that of the military knights.
The letter about this matter sent on May 11, 1303, by the city of Segorbe to Pope Boniface VIII is worthy of note: “The redemption of captives cannot be carried out by clerical brothers as easily as by laymen due to the impediment of sacred orders since, in order to redeem Christian captives from the power of pagans and to bring them back to Christian lands, they have to use force and, at times, they have to engage in dreadful deeds inappropriate for clerics.
In the first century of its existence, the Mercedarian Order had a clear concept of its redemptive mission and it was organized in terms of said mission.
The Order was governed by a Master as the supreme authority, a position held by Peter Nolasco from 1218 until his death. It is true that Peter Nolasco preferred less pompous titles. As documents of his time show, he liked to be called Procurator of the Alms of the Captives, Rector of the Poor of Mercy, Collector and Custodian of the Alms of the Captives, Commander of the Hospital of the Captives, Administrator of all the Almshouses of the Captives’ Friars. Above all, Peter wanted to be known as Minister of the Captives’ House.
Nevertheless, in the bull of confirmation of the Order, Pope Gregory IX gave Peter Nolasco the title corresponding to him as the highest authority of the Redemptive Order of Mercy with a military character.
Peter Nolasco, the first brother and the first Master of the Order, asked the Holy See to decide succession in the leadership of the Order by election. On April 4, 1245, Pope Innocent IV responded with the bull Religiosam vitam eligentibus in which he ordered: “When you, the actual Master, die… let no one come forward to govern… other than the one whom the brothers by common accord or a majority of brothers do elect in accordance with God and the Rule of Saint Augustine.”
The Master’s Lieutenants and Commanders
The lieutenants, also called major commanders, were very important in the government of the Order during the first century. They represented the Master. In a generous display of decentralization of power, Peter Nolasco granted them broad powers to proceed with matters pertaining to the Order in sees where Mercedarians were present. The following men acted as the first Lieutenants—among others—of the Master: Juan de Laers in the Majorca Diocese, Carbó de Llagostera in the Vic Diocese, Bernardo de Corbaria in the Barcelona Diocese, Guillermo de Bas in the Gerona Diocese, Bertrando in the Urgel Diocese and, with the title of major commanders, Jaime de Aragon and Brother Castelló in the Valencia Diocese.
At the head of each house of the Order, also called encomienda, preceptory or bailiwick, authority was exercised by a brother with the title of Commander. He was appointed by the Master with the consultative vote of the prior and of his four definitors or counselors.
Lay Brothers and Clerical Brothers
During its first hundred years, the Order was a lay religious institute in the sense that lay brothers were governing at various levels and the charismatic goal of the institute, the redemption of captives, was carried out by lay brothers.
On the other hand, even in Peter Nolasco’s time, the presence of a few clerics and priests is historically documented. They had received sacred orders in order to be chaplains and to serve the Order’s churches like El Puig de Santa María donated to Peter Nolasco by James I in 1240. During that year, it was converted into a parish and given to the Order by the Bishop of Valencia, Ferrer San Martín.
The Master appointed one of these religious priests as Prior General. His exclusive mission was to provide and to organize spiritual care for all brothers. He had no function in the government and the temporal regulations of the institute.
Since the Founder’s time, in addition to lay and clerical brothers, pious lay people were also living in the houses of the Order. They remained at the service of the community and shared in the Order’s spiritual and temporal goods. Within a determined period of time, the Order was committed to give them the habit if they asked for it. These people were the donates or ‘conversi.’ In due time, they also took religious vows like other brothers and they were like today’s coadjutor brothers.
In summary, therefore, during the hundred years of lay rule, the Order of Mercy had three types of members in its communities: lay brothers, clerical brothers and donates.
It is evident that almost from the start of the Order, there were Mercedarian Sisters who were received by Saint Peter Nolasco himself. In the deed of the donation made by John of Bayonne in Concentaina on December 5, 1253, it is stated that the donation is made to Brother Guillermo de Bas, the Master, ” and to the brothers and sisters of the Santa María de El Puig.” On the other hand, the 1272 Constitutions regulate the admission of sisters into the Order; they include the deceased sisters in the October 10 anniversary and they are made equal to the brothers in the suffrages to be applied in the Order for each one of them upon hearing the news of their demise.
The sisters who were part of the Mercedarian Family in the thirteenth century were women from well-to-do families, with sufficient means at their disposal to enable them to live conveniently in their own houses. Animated with a genuine redemptive spirit, they devoted themselves totally to the service of God, the captives, the poor and the sick and they observed the Rule and the Constitutions of the Order of Mercy inasmuch as it was compatible with their womanhood.
The General Chapter
The chapter was the representative assembly of the whole Order. It was held every year on the feast of the Holy Cross, on May 3. The Master summoned it and presided it in the place which he designated and it lasted three days. All commanders were required to attend along with one brother from their respective houses as representative of that house. The ordinary general chapter was an administrative and disciplinary assembly with special attention given to preparing the redemption of captives which was to be carried out in that year. Each Mercedarian general chapter unfolded in three stages.
The first day was the information stage. Everything referring to the Order’s main goal or the redemption of captives was dealt with: the amount of the collections, the possibility of undertaking a redemption during that year, appointing redeemers, where the redemption would take place and the organization of the journey.
The second stage involved the consolidation of the Mercedarian brotherhood and it included: fraternal correction, sacramental confession of all brothers and the admission of new members into the Order.
The third and last stage dealt with elections. It was the day for naming commanders “with their eyes set on God alone, the benefit of the Order and on being helpful to captives.”
On the basis of his own personal experience, the experiences of his companions and with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, Peter Nolasco succeeded in creating an almost perfect method of liberating captives. His greatest achievement was to have known how to instill in his followers, the agents of redemption, the ideological and concrete principles which would subjectively prepare them to accomplish redemptive work successfully in such a way that Mercedarian brothers must “always be gladly disposed to give up their lives, if it is necessary, as Jesus Christ gave up his for us.”
The great novelty which Peter Nolasco introduced into this system was for him and his brothers to stay behind as hostages in Moorish lands to guarantee the amount of money that had been agreed upon for the ransom of the captives who had already returned to Christian lands and kingdoms as free people.
Collection of Alms for Redemption
By virtue of his profession, every brother became an authentic beggar for redemption. He was assigned part of the territory close to his house so that only the designated religious would collect alms in that area. In these cases, the houses or encomiendas were left in the care of the donates.
The alms did not only include cash but also goods and other material means which made redemption possible. Very early, the Order found an original way of encouraging people’s help for captives. The redeeming brother along with redeemed captives would travel through cities and towns preaching the next redemption and collecting alms for the churches. After this was done, the captives had their beards shaved, their hair cut, they were provided with clothes, given an allowance for the journey and they were dismissed to go back to their lands “in joy and gladness.”
Another way of raising money consisted in strategically placing money boxes, poor boxes and bags in churches, crossroads, porches (today we would say stock exchange), mills and furnaces.
Peter Nolasco also channeled the collaboration of lay people in alms collecting by using people sensitive to the problem of captivity. They entered in the service of the Order as volunteers or under contract. They were called collectors and when they were carrying out their roles, they had to wear white clothes.
Lay Mercedarian associations organized in the Association of the Alms of the Captives were also established by Peter Nolasco, They were other efficacious collaborators in this difficult redemptive ministry. They cooperated with the brothers at the Saint Eulalia Hospital and they were an auxiliary, efficient means of collecting alms for redemption. These associations, forerunners of the present association, were established in the most important cities of the kingdom.
Since the alms collected varied greatly, the Order created the Redemption Fund with amounts which came from more stable and more permanent sources. These were the legacies, responses and all the possessions of the Order.
Testamentary legacies for captives were frequent in the thirteenth century even though the amount was not high.
Responses were the fixed quotas which every house of the Order had to give yearly to the redemption fund. This fixed contribution was arranged by Master Peter Nolasco.
Finally, all the possessions of the Order, as determined by the Founder who had invested all his own and his companions’ assets in the redemption of captives, were always at the disposal of the poor who needed redemption. This explains that on more than one occasion, chalices and ciboria of Mercedarian churches were sold in order to redeem captives in danger of losing their faith.
Naturally, the Order established strict control over all the wealth and the goods assigned to the redemption of captives and, with severe penalties, it prohibited investing in other things of what had been collected for redemption.
Statistics about Redemptions
The redemptive system, conceived and put into practice by Peter Nolasco and the first Mercedarians, must have worked satisfactorily since it continued to be used in the following centuries. In attempting to count the number of redemptions and of redeemed captives, very little can be said with total certainty. We should bear in mind that the thirteenth century brothers of the Order were neither desk people fond of statistics, nor secretaries who documented everything. Instead, they were redeemers who, prior to going to Moorish lands, had to invest their time in collecting alms for redemption by covering great distances on foot. As a result, they did not have free time to write records of their redemptive expeditions. Furthermore, firm believers in divine Providence, medieval redeemers trusted that the statistics of their redemptions and of the redeemed captives were all kept flawlessly in the Book of Life in Heaven.
The actual count that is more reliably documented indicates that Mercedarian redemptions were very frequent in the thirteenth century since the main reason for holding a general chapter each year was to organize the annual redemption. There were years during which it was not possible to carry out redemptions and, on the other hand, there were other years when, with the help of the Blessed Virgin Mary, two redemptions occurred. This enables us to divide up 11,615 captives redeemed from 1218 to 1301 among the governments of the first Masters. It indicates the following result, not mathematically exact but quite approximate: Peter Nolasco, 3,920 redeemed, Guillermo de Bas, 2,100, Bernardo de San Román, 980, Guillermo de Bas II, 420 and Pedro de Amer, 4,195.
Here of course the captives redeemed by Peter Nolasco and his companions, prior to the foundation of the Order, are not taken into account.
A Few Redemptions of that Period
The desire to break the captives’ chains continued to inspire Mercedarians with enthusiasm even after the Founder’s death. To verify this, we are going to relate three redemptions which took place in the years immediately after Peter’s death.
At the General Chapter held in 1247, in Tarragona, Peter of Saint Denis, a French priest, and Bernardo de Pradas, a noble Catalan, were appointed redeemers. In that same year, both religious went to Tunis where they ransomed 209 captives. However, since they did not have the money to liberate others in great need of being redeemed, Brother Bernardo returned to Spain with the former captives while Brother Peter stayed behind in Africa to comfort the unfortunate and to avoid their renouncing their faith. He accomplished his mission with such enthusiasm and zeal that infuriated Moslems arrested him, mistreated him and beating him through the whole city, they took him outside the walls and beheaded him. His body was thrown into a bonfire.
There was a redemption in Tunis in 1253. Appointed redeemers, Brothers Teobaldo of Narbonne, a Frenchman, and Fernando of Portalegre, from Portugal, embarked in Barcelona and with a safe-conduct, they entered Tunis. There, after a few days of bargaining, on October 16, they settled the ransom of 129 captives. As soon as they arrived and started this redemption, two powerful Tunisians had asked the Mercedarians to buy some captives they were holding. Since they had brought enough money, Brother Teobaldo offered to redeem them. But when they found there were many children, women, religious, priests and knights to redeem at a very high price, they used up all the money they had collected which prevented them from fulfilling what they had promised to those Moors. They took it as an affront and an offense and they decided to take revenge on Brother Teobaldo and they planned a trap. They persuaded a beautiful Moorish girl to complain to the king of Tunis saying that this Christian man who was so handsome and good-looking had spoken to her with a promise of marriage and that he was deceiving and ridiculing her, indicating the two Tunisians as her witnesses. The woman presented her complaint, the witnesses confirmed it and the king issued a decree to imprison Brother Teobaldo. The king’s order was carried out and Brother Fernando defended his companion before the king. But the latter issued the sentence, ordering Tebaldo “to give up his faith in Jesus Christ and to marry the Moorish girl, otherwise he would be burned alive.” Brother Fernando who was insisting to prove his companion’s innocence was beaten and forced to embark. He was not even given time to see his companion or to say good-bye. Moreover, afraid of losing the redemption, with great sorrow before the captives’ tears, he returned to Spain. Brother Teobaldo of Narbonne was burned alive and since he did not die right away, he was stoned to death at the end of October 1253.
In the redemption carried out in Algiers in 1295, the redeemers were Brother Denis Roneo, a Frenchman, and Brother Vicente de Prades, a Catalan. They embarked in Barcelona on a ship of Catalan merchants to go to Algiers. “But once on the open sea, they ran into such a violent storm that they believed they were completely lost” and entrusting themselves to Saint Mary the Helper who had died a few years before, it pleased God to stop the storm which had lasted two and a half days. When they thought they were safe, they were attacked by privateers who ambushed them and, without effort or blood, they seized the ship, the people, clothing and the money. Since it was night, they hurried to plunder the ship and to share the booty putting the two religious, their clothing, the redemption money and two other passengers on a skiff to dispose of them later. In their rush, they did not secure the boat which got loose from the vessel’s mooring ropes. The rising storm pushed the skiff out to sea where it disappeared in the night and the Moors were not able to prevent this. The next day, they met two Genoese vessels which saved them. The redeemers attributed all of this to Saint Mary of Cervellon’s protection. The boats had a safe-conduct to go to Algiers and under the Genoese’s safety, the religious landed and ransomed 97 captives. The Moors thought that the religious did not go there to redeem but that they were sent by the king of Aragon. The Moors arrested them, put them in jail and sentenced them to death. After a long verification of the truth, the Moors gave them their freedom and permission to return to Spain without the captives. The Mercedarians refused and they threatened to come back for their captives with the Catalan and Genoese fleets… After a thousand hardships, they left Algiers and arrived happily in Barcelona with all their captives.
Other Works of Mercy
Since 1203, Saint Peter Nolasco’s charitable work was, without a doubt, the great work of mercy of the redemption of captives, a work which defined and classified his mission in the Church and in society in the thirteenth century. However, from 1218 on, the Order of Mercy also practiced all the works of mercy for the sick and the poor whom they cared for in their houses known by the generic name of Saint Eulalia Hospital.
Pope Innocent IV confirmed the existence of the Order’s social and hospital work in his bull Si iuxta sapientis sententium issued in Lyons on January 13, 1246, with these words: “thus, as the beloved sons, Master and brothers of the Saint Eulalia Hospital of the Barcelona Diocese, where they devote themselves to serve God by redeeming captives from pagan hands, at the same time, they work very hard to help the poor who come from everywhere and the sick in their need…” These words from the Supreme Pontiff make it very clear that “the poor” whom the Mercedarians looked after and cared for in the houses of the Saint Eulalia Hospital were not only the ransomed captives but also the poor sick and poor pilgrims. In other words, all the marginalized people of the time.
On the other hand, in 1255, Alexander IV specifies that although the Master and the brothers of Saint Eulalia house help poor pilgrims and attend to the needs of the sick, nevertheless they devote themselves “mostly to liberate captives from the hands of pagans.”
In assuming assistance to the poor, sick and pilgrims— the purpose of the military orders of the time—as his own work, but not the main work of the Order, Peter Nolasco demonstrated that he had understood the full meaning of Christian liberation which cannot be limited to liberation from iron chains. It must also include and expand to liberation from any social situation which put God’s children in prison and in captivity with obvious affront to human dignity. As the Amerian Constitutions state, in the captives, Peter Nolasco and his brothers recognized the “imprisoned, hungry, thirsty, naked and homeless” of the Gospel.
In his Barcelona convent, Peter Nolasco was able to receive the great news of the pontifical confirmation of the Order which he had founded. With the bull Devotionis vestrae, on January 17, 1235, in Perugia, Pope Gregory IX canonically incorporated the new Order in the universal Church. For that reason, with its brief text and simple structure, this bull is especially important for the Order’s history. Some fundamental elements proceed from it.
When the bull was sent, the Order of Mercy already existed as an organized religious institution with its Master and its brothers living together like the military orders and it was known as the House of Saint Eulalia of Barcelona.
The Order had requested the bull. In fact, it was addressed to the Master, namely to Peter Nolasco and to his brothers as the response to the plea sent to the pope.
In addition, the bull presupposed that the said religious organization was functioning with the approbation of the appropriate diocesan authority. If the Roman Pontiff had not had reliable documents to that effect, he would not have granted the confirmation bull.
Likewise, it presupposed that from its foundation in 1218, the Order of Mercy was following the Rule of Saint Augustine in what pertained to the organization of life in common. However, it had not yet been officially incorporated in any of the religious institutions approved by the Church. In fact, at the time, the religious institutions approved by the Church formed several groups according to the Rule which they observed in keeping with the dispositions of the Fourth Lateran Council: the group observing the Rule of Saint Basil, the group following the Rule of Saint Augustine, the group serving under the Rule of Saint Benedict and the group of those who had their own Rules with the approbation of the Holy See. This bull ratified the addition of the Order of Mercy to the group of religious institutions which observed the Rule of Saint Augustine.
In Peter Nolasco’s lifetime, the Order has as many as 18 houses. They were the fruit of donations or purchases in which the founding Patriarch intervened in person or in which his lieutenants who had ample authority intervened. Chronologically speaking, they are as follows:
Saint Eulalia Hospital of Barcelona (1218), the first house of the first Mercedarian community. It was constructed in the tenth century by a nobleman, Guitardo, and donated to the Order by King James I.
Saint Eulalia Hospital, a new edifice built along the sea by Raimundo de Plegamans. In 1234, the brothers moved there. It is considered as the Motherhouse, the beginning and the head of the Order.
Perpignan. The Mercedarian house of the city was established there on a building site received by Brother Pascual in Peter Nolasco’s name in 1227.
Gerona. On October 25, 1234, Peter Nolasco personally received the donation made by Ferrer and Escalona of Portello of all their assets. By the same act, the spouses were admitted into the Order as donates.
Palma de Majorca. On January 3, 1235, a lieutenant of Master Nolasco, Juan de Laers received from Beatriz, Berengario’s widow, some “houses that had belonged to Saracens… to be built up.”
Valencia. After conquering the city of Turia, on October 9, 1238, don James I donated to Peter Nolasco houses in which a convent was established and a mosque converted by the Mercedarians into a church dedicated to Saint Dominic of Silos, redeemer of Christian captives.
Tortosa. On November 22, 1239, the bishop of the city, don Ponio and his entire chapter made a donation to Master Peter Nolasco of a building site where the Mercedarian convent was built outside the city.
El Puig de Santa María. After the Saint Eulalia Hospital, the El Puig of Saint Mary house founded in 1240, by Peter Nolasco was the most famous of the Order. King James I donated to the Order a few houses, a parcel of land for a garden and a recently built Gothic church. This was the first parish of the Order. This is the reason why this Mercedarian community always had a priest to preside over the parish. Peter Nolasco was especially fond of this house since it was built on the same hill (puig) on which in the year 1237, he had discovered under a bell the Byzantine image of Blessed Mary, known from that time on as Our Lady of El Puig.
Vic (Barcelona). On January 5, 1239, Brother Pedro de Perra was already established and on May 8, 1240, Brother Carbó de Llagostera served as Peter Nolasco’s lieutenant.
Sarrion. Donation from James I to Peter Nolasco in 1241.
Denia (Alicante) In 1244, James I donated a few houses in Denia to Peter Nolasco. The Mercedarian house was established there. According to a disposition by James I, Master Guillermo de Bas entrusted the care of a hospital in the same town to that particular house.
Narbonne. On October 31, 1244, Peter Nolasco appointed Brother Bernardo de Cadulis as his representative in that city.
Santa María dels Prats (Tarragona). In 1240, the hermit who was taking care of this solitary church entered the Order under the name of Brother Raimundo and along with other goods, he gave the church to the Order. The brothers built a convent there. This is where Peter Armengol was the superior and where he died at the end of the thirteenth century.
Arguines. An important donation by Ramón de Morella to Peter Nolasco on March 3, 1245. When the donor, Ramón de Morella, was received in the Order as a friar in 1251, he donated a hospital that he had built and the Algar farmstead to the Arguines convent.
San Nicolás de la Manresana. A donation from the chapter of the Church of Solsona to Peter Nolasco and his lieutenant, Brother Bertrando, on June 8, 1245. In the fifteenth century, this convent received the name of Saint Raymond.
Calatayud (Lérida) and Saragossa are also foundations of Peter Nolasco before 1245.
As we have just seen, even in the saintly Founder’s lifetime, the Order had expanded to the kingdom of Aragon and Southern France with its 18 houses as indicated in the bull of Pope Innocent IV, Religiosam vitam eligentibus of April 3, 1254. At the time, there were approximately 100 Mercedarians and twice as many by the end of the century.
Thanks to the discovery of the deed of the Arguines donation in the general Archives of the kingdom of Valencia, it has been possible to determine the exact date of the death of the Founder of the Order. Because of the importance and the significance of the obligations that the Order would have to assume by accepting it, the donation deed was taken from Valencia to Barcelona to be approved by the general chapter which was held every year on the feast of the Holy Cross in May. The chapter accepted the donation and to signify they were in agreement, all the capitular brothers who were present added their signatures to the original deed before a notary, Pedro de Cardona. The document, endorsed by the capitulars, was returned to be duly sealed by the Valencia notary, Bernardo de Locadie who did it with these words: “And this was sealed without the signature of the aforementioned Brother Peter Nolasco because during the time that the present document was taken to Barcelona to be signed by him and by the other Brothers and which the aforementioned Master, Brother Guillermo de Bas, and the other friars signed, Brother Peter Nolasco himself had left this world.”
To this is added the most accurate understanding of the precept of the 1272 Constitutions which orders that “the anniversary of the first Master of our Order be celebrated on the day after Ascension.” Since in medieval Catalonia and other European countries—Italy, for example—the Lord’s Ascension was celebrated on a fixed date, May 5th, it is logical to infer that the founding Patriarch of the Order of Mercy died on May 6, 1245, in Barcelona, in the Order’s Motherhouse built by the sea by Raimundo de Plegamans.
Peter Nolasco’s venerable body was buried in the church of the Arguines convent. In attendance at the exequies and at the burial of the first Master were friars who had come to Barcelona to participate in the ordinary general chapter which was to start, as usual, on May 3. But that year, it could not take place on that day because of Peter Nolasco’s illness and death. The names of the capitular friars who were present at the death of the first Master and Founder of the Order were: Guillermo de Bas, Guillermo de San Julián, Juan de Laers, Bernardo Caselles, Bernardo de Corbaria, Berengario de Cassá, Pedro de Caldes, Poncio de Solans, Arnaldo de Prades, Berenguer de Tona, Ferrer de Gerona, Raimundo de Montoliú, Pedro de Huesca, Domingo de Ossó and Raimundo de Ullastret.
The humble lay Brother Peter Nolasco was always considered as a faithful imitator of Christ the Redeemer and thought to be a saint. His veneration quickly spread through all the countries where his spiritual sons were present. To ratify this universal conviction, the Church canonized him years later.
Friar Guillermo de Bas (1243-1260)
After celebrating Saint Peter Nolasco’s funeral rite in the presence of King James I, the bishop, the chapter and the people of Barcelona, all the friars were summoned to the first elective General Chapter held by the Order of Mercy according to what was stipulated by Pope Innocent IV in his mentioned bull. This chapter, which elected Guillermo de Bas as Master General of the Order, took place in Barcelona in the new Saint Eulalia Hospital, on June 12, 1245. After his election, the Master elect went to the cathedral with the entire chapter to receive the investiture or official confirmation from the king and the bishop in front of the main altar. On that same day, after the election of the Founder’s first successor, the assembly accepted the donation of the Arguines farmstead. It is from that deed that we know about Saint Peter Nolasco’s death.
Guillermo de Bas was a great man of action for expanding the Order and he was extraordinarily active in the redemption of captives, in the implantation of the Brotherhood and in his excellent relationships with Popes Innocent IV, Alexander IV, Urban IV and Clement IV from whom he obtained blessings, encouragement, praises and the protection of the Holy See for all the houses and possessions of the Order. He also counted on the friendship of King James I who continued to help the Order with generous donations and notable privileges.
Guillermo founded the following convents: Valencia (convent and church of San Vicente de la Roqueta), Tarragona, Huesca, Algar, Purganiel (in Montpellier), Seville, Córdoba, El Olivar, Saragossa, Barcelona (Saint Mary Church), Toulouse (France), Auterive (France), Carcassonne (France), Sessa, Burriana, Játiva, Gandía, Concentaina, Segorbe, Mula (Murcia), Arjona, Almansa, Vejer de la Frontera, Teruel, Daroca, Rafalinarca and Rafalaceyt. Guillermo died early in 1260.
Friar Bernardo de San Román (1260-1267)
The exact day of his election is not known but it was certainly before May 8, 1260, since on that day, as Master General, Brother Bernardo received some properties from Gil de Atrosillo as a donation for the house of Santa María de El Olivar.
This Master is credited with having introduced Mercedarian community life for women. At the Lérida chapter, he authorized the formation of the first community of Sisters of the Order of Mercy which was established in Barcelona under the leadership of a noble Catalan lady, Mary of Cervellon, a woman of proven virtues who made her profession in the Order on March 25, 1265. It should be said that in Saint Peter Nolasco’s day, the sisters or beatas of the Order used to live in their own homes. They participated in communal ceremonies in the churches of the Order and they were united to captives, the poor, the sick and pilgrims in charitable services. It was at that point that Master San Román set up the first convent of Mercedarian religious.
Moreover, the following houses were founded during his government: Molina, Toledo, Montflorite, Murcia, Lorca, Toulouse (Saint Eulalia Church, outside the city), Villefranche (France), Cuenca and Munébrega (Saragossa).
Bernardo de San Román gave up the supreme government of the Order during the first half of 1267, by his irrevocable resignation prompted by his sincere humility. On August 1 of the same year, his immediate successor, Guillermo de Bas II, appointed him superior of Játiva before the city notary, Guillermo Morales.
Friar Guillermo de Bas II (1267-1270)
He had the same name as Saint Peter Nolasco’s immediate successor. Both were born in the same town in the Province of Gerona, San Esteban de Bas. This humble friar, who was the superior in Perpignan when he was elected, started to add the adjective humble, humilis, to the title Master. In the documents he authored, he always said: “Brother Guillermo de Bas, humble Master of Saint Eulalia of Barcelona of the Mercy of Captives.”
He founded the Ubeda convent and he purchased a property for a convent in the parish of Santa Eugenia de Berga.
His responsibilities were ended by his untimely death which occurred before December 1, 1267.
Friar Pedro de Amer (1271-1301)
During the foreseen three months period of vacancy, Pedro de Amer was elected Master General. According to a document of March 8, 1271, he was in charge of the government of the Order at that time.
He is one of the most important Masters General of the Order of Mercy: the first legislator of the Order, the author of the first Constitutions. He expanded the foundations in Spain and in France and by resorting to the Holy See and to kings, he was able to defend the Order’s prerogatives in terms of alms collection and the practice of the redemption of captives.
He had a noteworthy role in promoting the foundations of new convents. The following were founded during his time: Minorca (Santa María de Esterón, the present sanctuary of Santa María de Montetoro), Ciudadela (Minorca), Burgos, Valladolid, Medina del Campo, Aurignac (France), Sangüesa (Navarre), Groín (Calahorra), Fuentidueña, Beja (Portugal), Soria, Toro, Elche, Orihuela, Almazán and Logroño.
Pedro de Amer governed the Order with admirable wisdom and moderation during the final restless years of the thirteenth century when Mercedarian clerics started to show that they wanted to change the system of the Order by placing a cleric in the supreme government of the Order founded by a layman, Saint Peter Nolasco. Loved by God, admired by people and distinguished in the Order, Pedro de Amer surrendered his soul to his Creator in El Puig on June 8, 1301. His body lies there in a sarcophagus whose cover represents the recumbent image of a lay friar.
Saint Peter Nolasco did not begin his redemptive work thinking about the Order. He was thinking about captives. He did not initiate his task by defining his charism or by writing a Rule or Constitutions. First, he redeemed and gathered a group of friends to redeem even better. He started by redeeming; he did things before speaking or writing about them. This is why Mercedarian logic begins with action before theory.
Pedro de Amer saw that his religious institute had already achieved a remarkable expansion and that there was a risk of different and even contradictory interpretations of the dispositions, promulgated by previous Masters, which could endanger fraternal communion and the efficacy of redemptive action. Thus, with unique insight, he decided to give the Order a stable code of laws or Constitutions. He wrote the first Constitutions of the Order of Mercy in Catalan and he presented the text for discussion and approval at the Barcelona General Chapter held on May 1, 1272. The Constitutions were approved and promulgated. This first Mercedarian code of laws, also called the Amerian Constitutions, is brief, plain and candid, with categorical, military-like phrasing.
Contents of the Amerian Constitutions
The constitutional text is preceded by a Proem and it contains 50 numbers or articles. In this cornerstone of the laws pertaining to the Order of Mercy, the constitutive elements of the Order are imprinted and set up, an authentic declaration of principles.
All that constitutes the immutable peculiarity of the Order of Mercy stands out in the Proem which can be defined as Saint Peter Nolasco’s spiritual testament: its origin by a decision of the Holy Trinity, its name, its founder, its apostolic goal, its charism to redeem captives, its spirituality based on imitating and following Christ the Redeemer and devotion to his mother, Mary, who is associated to redemption.
The practical dispositions concerning the life of the Order are already indicated in the text: the form of government, the norms to regulate communitarian life, the way of practicing fraternal correction and of imposing penances.
In particular, the text regulates what pertains to redemptions and to the election of redeemers who have to be moderate in eating and drinking, wise and prudent in buying captives. The text provides norms for conventual life as well as details about the habit and vestments.
On that subject, it stipulates that the habit should be white and made of wool, the tunic should be round, the breeches or stockings without pumps and shoes like the Templars’. Friars wear the shield of the Order on their capes and scapulars; they do not use leather gloves or sharp knives; they sleep with their clothes on, each in his bed; they do not wear tabards or habits made of Narbonne cloth or any other kind of material except for ‘floch,’ that is to say, wool.
In reference to food, meat may only be eaten on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, friars may eat eggs, cheese or fish; they must fast every Friday of the year, during Lent and from the feast of All Saints until Christmas. They are not to drink or eat barefoot and without their habits. Guest brothers are to be welcomed lovingly and treated well.
Once a year, the Master and the Prior General separately visit all the houses of the Order, either in person or through delegates. The Master must be accompanied by a friar who is a priest so that he can hear the friars’ confessions. No friar is to travel alone but always with a companion who is a friar. No friar is to be godfather at baptisms or weddings and no Mercedarian sister is to be a godmother.
Concerning the assets and revenues of the Order, it is prohibited to sell, alienate and pledge them without special permission from the general chapter. A contract made without a license will be legally null and the friar who made it will receive a penance of a year in jail and he will never be able to be a superior. The Master General cannot give, sell or trade the Order’s assets unless it is for the redemption of captives. In this case, he has to do it with the counsel of the Prior and of the four definitors of the general chapter.
In terms of the friars’ prayer of the hours, it is established that clerics are to recite the ordinary Office and the Office of the Virgin Mary daily and, furthermore, when the ordinary Office included three lessons, they had to add the Office for the dead. As to lay brothers, they had to pray daily the equivalent of the clerics’ canonical hours, or 150 Our Fathers, the so-called laymen’s Psalter.
In addition to the above, everyone was to add three Our Fathers for the first Master of the Order, three for the present Master, three for the pope and three more for the king of Aragon and his children. Then, the Constitutions established suffrages for the deceased brothers and sisters and the anniversaries.
The characteristics of the Mercedarian spirituality, which inspirited the lives and the redemptive work of the first century friars, is the same as the spirituality which had enlivened the being and doing of Mercedarians in every age. Its basic elements are:
Imitating and Following Jesus Christ the Redeemer
As Redeemer, Jesus Christ is the focus of the Mercedarian spiritual movement. In contemplating Jesus Christ’s redemptive work and in studying the work of redeeming Christian captives set in motion by Peter Nolasco, the 1272 legislators detected such a similarity between the two that while preserving the infinite distances, they dared to point to the following aspects found in both.
The two redemptive works, that of Jesus the Redeemer and that of Peter Nolasco the redeemer, proceed from the “great mercy and compassion of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
The two redemptive works were conceived and carried out for the sake of captives: Jesus’ for the sake “of the whole human race which was as if in jail, captive, in the power of the devil and of hell” and Peter Nolasco’s for the sake “of Christians who are in captivity, in the power of the Saracens or other enemies of our Law.”
The two redemptive works are continued in visible and stable institutions: the Church, of which Jesus Christ, “the servant of Yahweh sent by the Father” is the founder and the promoter and the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy of which “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit named Brother Peter Nolasco as servant, messenger, founder and leader.”
The work of Jesus the Redeemer was carried out with the free and active maternal participation of the Virgin Mary. Nolasco’s redemptive work became possible through the efficacious mediation of Mary, the Co-Redemptress of humankind.
The work of Jesus the Redeemer found its causal impulse in his merciful love which led him “to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). Peter Nolasco’s redemptive work demands “that all the brothers of this Order, as sons of true obedience, be always gladly disposed to give up their lives as Jesus Christ gave up his for us.”
Before this passionate vision of Christ the Redeemer, we can understand why the 1272 Constitutions demanded that before making their profession, novices had to promise to “endure all the austerity and poverty of the Order, out of love for Jesus Christ, throughout their entire lives.”
Love and Devotion to the Virgin Mary
The first Mercedarians always held the firm conviction that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, had intervened in a direct and efficacious way in the foundation of the Order. This is why they called her Mother and Foundress. They firmly believed that just as the Holy Trinity had used Mary, the servant of the Lord, to introduce the Redeemer Jesus into the prison of this world, the Holy Trinity also sought to use such a faithful intermediary to send Peter Nolasco and his brothers to Moslem prisons. At the beginning of the Constitutions, the 1272 Mercedarian legislators acknowledged their faith in the divine motherhood of Mary, in her perpetual virginity, in her coredemptive mediation and in her final glorification as they proclaimed her Glorious.
In the promulgation decree, Master Pedro de Amer states that the Constitutions are established “in honor of God and of the Virgin, his Mother.” Furthermore, in legalizing the Order’s title, he established that Mary’s name be included first: Order of the Virgin Mary… He ordered that on the first day of the general chapter “the solemn Mass of Holy Mary be sung.” He imposed on all religious clerics the obligation to recite daily, in addition to the ordinary office, the office of Saint Mary and he ordered lay brothers to pray a determined number of Our Fathers in lieu of that office and therefore, in honor of Saint Mary.
Service to the Catholic Faith
Considering the need of faith for eternal salvation, Mercedarians have always understood the redemption of captives as a permanent service for the faith of those Christians who were most in danger of denying Jesus Christ and, as a result, in danger of losing their souls.
The Amerian Constitutions state that the brothers profess “their faith in Jesus Christ.” And when the constitutional text asks all brothers to “be always gladly disposed to give up their lives, if it is necessary, as Jesus Christ gave up his for us,” it is indicating to the Mercedarian redeemer that if he should see the need to liberate one or several captives to avert the danger of their denying their faith, then by virtue of his profession in this Order, he had the obligation to surrender himself for the captive or captives as Jesus Christ gave himself up for us. The unique criterion which Mercedarian redeemers must follow in selecting the captives in whose place they have to stay behind as hostages and give up their lives, is the real danger of denying their faith.
With their sober and direct style, the first Mercedarian Constitutions are a passionate call in defense of the Christian faith of the captives, the oppressed and the marginalized. Mercedarians will not defend the faith by destroying the enemies of the Law of Christ but instead, by gladly and generously giving up their freedom and their lives for oppressed and oppressors if it should be necessary for the eternal salvation of both. This apostolic heroism was the reason why, in his bull Quoniam ut ait Apostolus, addressed to all faithful Christians, with enthusiasm and emotion, Pope Alexander IV wrote that the Mercedarians were “at this time of grace, the new Maccabees who, forsaking all they had, did not hesitate to surrender themselves for the sake of their captive brothers.” The bull was sent from Naples on April 9, 1255, when Guillermo de Bas was Master General.
Practice of Merciful Charity
According to the Amerian Constitutions, the fundamental facet of Mercedarian spirituality is born of the infinite love of “God the Father who, in his great mercy, sent Jesus Christ, his Son into this world” and “the most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with great mercy and compassion, decided to found and establish this Order.”
Mercedarian spirituality, which proceeds from the Holy Trinity, is aptly called the Order of Mercy of the Redemption of Captives. And the redemption of captives is considered as a work of great mercy.
The passion for freedom creates in Mercedarians the mystique of the liberation of those brothers and sisters who are in the power of the enemies of the faith. The first Mercedarian Constitutions insist repeatedly on affirming that the mission or goal of the Institute is to visit and to free Christians who are in the power of the Saracens or other enemies of the faith. In order to liberate Christian captives, this mystique encourages the use of every licit recourse, including the one inspired by the greatest charity: Giving one’s own freedom and life!
This Mercedarian spirituality, intensely lived day after day in the convents of the Order, produced extraordinary fruits of quiet sanctity and heroic deeds of martyrdom ever since the beginning.
The redemption of captives in Moorish lands was constantly placing Mercedarian redeemers in imminent situations of total communion with the sufferings of Christ the Redeemer.
Saint Peter Nolasco categorically forbade the use of the funds of the Order for anything other than the liberation of Christian captives. Faithful to their Founder’s precept, the Order of Mercy never toiled or spent its wealth in canonizing its saints. And Mercedarian martyrs alone are too numerous to count! The canonized Mercedarian saints were first acclaimed as saints by Christians. Only later did the Apostolic See officially elevate them to the altars.
Dangers were lying in ambush on land and sea. Mediterranean crossings claimed a high share of redemptive brothers’ lives.
Yet, the hardships endured by the redemptive brothers in Saracen lands were more numerous and greater. In the words of a chronicle of the time, “many times, they are slapped, stoned, beaten, wounded by sword, spat upon, dragged through the streets and the mud and finished off as martyrs.”
At the time of the important 1317 chapter, the white habit of Holy Mary had already been reddened by the blood of numerous martyrs. The best known are:
Raimundo de Blanes, protomartyr of the Order. He was beheaded in Granada in 1235; Diego de Soto, from Toledo, the second martyr of the Order, died near Granada in 1237; Guillermo de San Leonardo and Raimundo de San Victor, two Frenchmen martyred in Mula (Murcia) in 1242; Fernando Pérez from Castile and Luis Blanch from Aragon were captured by pirates in 1250 and thrown into the sea with stones tied to their necks; in 1251, when he was sailing to Algiers, Fernando de Portalegre, a Castilian, was seized by Moslem pirates who hanged him from the ship’s mast and shot him with arrows. His companion of redemption, Eleuterio de Platea was cruelly whipped and finally run through with a sword. Both bodies were thrown into the sea. Teobaldo of Narbonne, thrown alive in a bonfire, burned to death in Algiers in 1253; Guillermo of Sagiano, an Italian, was stoned and burned alive in Algiers in 1270; Pedro Camín, a Frenchman, was martyred on the coast of Africa in 1284; Matías Marcos from Toulouse was hurled from the top of a tower of a castle in ruins in Tunis in 1293; Antonio Valecio from Liguria, a 60-year old redeemer was stoned to death by kids in Tunis in 1293; Luis Gallo stayed behind as a hostage in Morocco and he was burned alive in 1268; Guillermo Novelli, also known as Florentine Guillermo because he was born in Florence, was martyred in Algiers in 1306; Pedro de San Hermes was cruelly martyred in Almería in 1309; after achieving a redemption, two Catalans, Jaime and Adolfo, were both murdered and the captives were sent back to their dungeons in Tunis in 1314; Alejandro from Sicily was burned alive in front of the palace of King Muley Mahomet in order to entertain the people of Tunis in 1317.
Quite often, Moslems did not honor the safe-conducts that they themselves had issued. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, Peter Nolasco and his brothers experienced in person and ahead of time the cruelties of what is now called Moslem fundamentalism.
Saint Raymond Nonnatus
Raymond, universally known as Nonnatus or not born due to his atypical birth, is the Mercedarian saint who achieved the greatest popularity among Christians in the places, kingdoms and nations where Mercedarians became established.
According to the most reliable Mercedarian tradition, Saint Raymond was born in the town of Portello, situated in the Segarra region of the Province of Lérida at the dawn of the thirteenth century. He was given the surname of Nonnatus or not born because he came into the world through an inspired and urgent incision which the Viscount of Cardona made with a dagger in the abdomen of the dead mother. In his adolescence and early youth, Raymond devoted himself to pasturing a flock of sheep in the vicinity of a Romanesque hermitage dedicated to Saint Nicholas where an image of the Virgin Mary was venerated. His devotion to the Holy Mother of Jesus started there.
He joined the Order of Mercy at a very early age. Father Francisco Zumel relates that young Raymond was a “student of the watchful first brother and Master of the Order, Peter Nolasco.” Therefore, Raymond was a redeemer of captives in Moorish lands. In a redemption which took place in Algiers, they had to stay behind as hostages. It was then that he endured the torment of having his lips sealed with an iron padlock to prevent him from addressing consoling words to Christian captives and from preaching the liberating good news of the Gospel. After he had been rescued by his Mercedarian brothers, Pope Gregory IX appointed him Cardinal of the Church of San Eustaquio. Summoned by the Supreme Pontiff, Raymond was on his way to Rome when he met death in the strong and rocky castle of Cardona in 1240. The Order of Mercy, the viscount and the city of Cardona were all arguing over his dead body, and where it should be buried, it was entrusted to Divine Providence on the harness of a blind mule. Without anyone leading it, the mule accompanied by a crowd trotted to Saint Nicholas hermitage where the venerable body was buried.
Irish by birth, Serapion was born around 1179. He enlisted as a soldier in the army of his king, Richard the Lion-Hearted, and later in the company of the Duke of Austria, Leopold VI the Glorious, he enlisted in his squadron to go to Spain to help the Christian army of Alfonso VIII who was fighting Moslems. Once he was in Spain, Serapion decided to stay in the service of the king of Castile to continue fighting to defend the Catholic faith. There, he had the opportunity to meet Peter Nolasco and his brothers who dedicated themselves to the defense of the same faith except that they were not fighting against the Moors. Instead, they were freeing Christian captives from the power of the Moors and they pledged their own lives in this endeavor.
In 1222, Serapion requested and received the Mercedarian habit. He carried out several redemptions. In the last one which he carried out with his redeeming companion Berenguer de Bañeres, Serapion had to remain as a hostage for some captives in danger of renouncing their faith. The other redeemer traveled quickly to Barcelona to look for the ransom money. Peter Nolasco, who was in Montpellier at the time, wrote an urgent letter to his lieutenant Guillermo de Bas asking him to notify all the monasteries to collect alms and to send them immediately to Algiers. But the money for the ransom did not arrive at the stipulated time and the disappointed Moors inflicted an atrocious death on Serapion. They nailed him on an X-shaped cross, like Saint Andrew’s cross and they savagely dismembered him. The barbarian and cruel King of Algiers, Selín Benimarin, was the one who gave the Church and the Mercedarian Order this saintly martyr on November 14, 1240.
Saint Peter Paschasius
The son of devout Mozarabs, Peter Paschasius was born in Valencia in 1227. Peter Nolasco and his brothers knew young Peter’s family and they stayed at their house near the Gate of Valldigna when they were on their way to a redemption. Peter Paschasius started his ecclesiastical career in his native city and he completed his studies at the University of Paris. Upon returning to Valencia, he was honored with the post of canon of the cathedral church.
Soon after, he left his post to join the Order of Mercy and he received the habit in the Valencia Cathedral at the hands of Arnaldo of Carcassonne in 1250. He traveled to Rome in 1296 and Pope Boniface VIII appointed him bishop of Jaén. On February 20, 1296, he was consecrated by Cardinal Mateo de Acquasparta in Saint Bartholomew’s chapel of the island on the Tiber. Later, when he was making a pastoral visit to his Jaén Diocese, he was attacked and taken captive to Granada by the Moors of that kingdom. While in jail, he wrote in Provençal: Dispute of the Bishop of Jaén with the Jews and Refutation of the Mohammedan Sect, two very interesting works with apologetic content to provide Christian captives with arguments against the proselytizing sermons of the Jews and Moslems. Peter also wrote: The Book of Gamaliel dealing with Christ’s passion and death, The Destruction of Jerusalem, Treatise against Moslem Fatalism, The Gloss on the Pater Noster and The Gloss on the Ten Commandments.
This learned Mercedarian doctor has the honor of having publicly defended the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary in Paris and in his work, Life of Lazarus, written in 1295, long before any other Western theologian.
Several times, his fellow redeemers sent him the ransom money but Peter preferred to have other captives recover their freedom instead of him. The fifty years he had been wearing the Mercedarian habit had left a Mercedarian imprint on his soul. On December 6, 1300, while he was still wearing the vestments he had used to celebrate Mass, he was beheaded in his dungeon. He was buried in the place where the prison was and where he died. Christians called this place, Martyrs’ Hill. Peter’s written works constitute a valuable legacy of the Order of Mercy. Some Mercedarian writers like Manuel Mariano Ribera, 1720, Juan Interián de Ayala, 1721 and Peter Armengol Valenzuela, 1901, have defended the religious status and the Mercedarian profession of this distinguished bishop of Jaén. His works were compiled and published by Fathers Bartolomé de Anento, 1676 and Peter Armengol Valenzuela, 1905-1908.
Saint Peter Armengol
Related to the Counts of Urgel, Peter Armengol was born in Guardia dels Prats (Tarragona) in the middle of the thirteenth century. He spent his childhood and adolescence in a quiet family atmosphere of honesty. But having barely reached the threshold of youth, Peter was drawn by bad company to the abyss of dissolute and criminal life of a bandit. In an encounter of armed people sent by James I to rid the area through which the royal suite was to travel of evildoers, with his sword in his hand, libertine Peter Armengol found himself face to face with his own father, Arnaldo. This providential circumstance made Peter lay down his weapons before his progenitor, ask for his pardon and, with iron will, decide to change his life. His father’s prestige saved his son from the deserved punishment and Peter Armengol badgered the Mercedarian friars to accept him in the Order since he wanted to dedicate the rest of his life to the work of mercy of the redemption of captives so that the Lord would use his infinite mercy with him.
After he was received in the Order, Peter was able to go twice to Moorish lands to carry out the ministry of redemption. On his second trip in 1266, he remained as a hostage for captives in Bejaïa. He had stayed behind as a pledge but the money for the ransom did not arrive in time and he was hanged from the gallows. However, thanks to Mary’s singular protection, he was not hurt. The day after the hanging, when Brother Guillermo of Florence arrived with the money agreed upon, he found Peter alive. As a result of his ordeal, he had a twisted neck for the rest of his life. Upon returning to Spain, for almost forty years, Peter lived in seclusion in the convent of Santa María dels Prats where he died a holy death in 1304.
Saint Mary Cervellon or the Helper
The first Mercedarian sister from the noble family of Cervellon was born in Barcelona, on Moncada Street, on December 1, 1230. She was baptized on December 8, on the ancient sarcophagus of the protomartyr of Barcelona, Saint Eulalia, which was used as the baptismal font of Santa María del Mar parish. Immersed in the aura of charity created by the brothers-redeemers of captives in her native city, young Mary felt attracted by their liberating commitment and she became the consolation of the poor, the sick and captives in Saint Eulalia Hospital. There, she met the first great figures of the Mercedarian Order who were gathered around Peter Nolasco.
She requested the white Mercedarian habit and she made her religious profession on May 25, 1265, as a sister of the Order at the hands of Brother Bernardo de Corbaria, promising to work for the redemption of captives. With her, young ladies from prominent families formed a community: Sisters Eulalia Piños, Isabel Berti and María de Requesens soon to be joined by Sister Colagia.
Mary is also known by the surname of Socós, Socorro or the Helper. This is because during her life and after her death, on several occasions, Sister Mary was seen on the wings of the wind helping the redemption ships pounded by the rough sea. Mary died on September 19, 1290. Her mortal remains were buried in the church of the Mercedarian friars of Barcelona, today the Mercedarian basilica. Her uncorrupted body reposes on the first altar to the right. Ever since the thirteenth century, Mary was considered as a saint. She has been invoked as the patroness of sailors and she has her parish church in Barceloneta, that is Barcelona’s port.
Origin of the Name of the Order of Mercy
In the thirteenth century, the term mercy was synonymous with the corporal work of mercy by antonomasia, namely, the work of redeeming captives. Thus, for example, the houses of the Order of Saint James, usually involved in the redemption of captives, are called houses of mercy in medieval documents.
On April 29, 1249, the friars obtained permission from the Bishop of Barcelona, Pedro de Centelles, to erect a church dedicated to Saint Mary in the Saint Eulalia House-Hospital built by the sea. In their love of brevity, the people of Barcelona simply started to call the house of the Mercedarian friars the house of the Order of Mercy and even more simply, The Mercy. As a result, the image of Saint Mary, venerated by everyone in the new church of the Barcelona’s Mercedarian house, began to be known as Saint Mary of Mercy. The cult to Mary under the title of Mercy began in that church and from there, it spread to all the churches where the Mercedarians became established. From then on, all the churches to be built would either be dedicated to their Foundress, the Virgin of Mercy or they would have one of their altars dedicated to her.
From the beginning, in honor of Saint Mary of Mercy, the Order celebrated the following rites:
Giving Saint Mary’s habit to all new friars and brothers. Postulants were asked: “Do you wish to receive Saint Mary’s habit?” to which they responded: “I do.”
The daily Office of Saint Mary, obligatory for all clerics and a corresponding office for lay people.
The Saturday Mass and the Salve. Saint Peter Nolasco himself probably introduced in the Order the beautiful custom of the Mass of Saint Mary and the singing of the Salve in her honor on Saturdays. It is a fact that in 1307, Galcerán de Miralles donated three pounds of wax to the church of Santa María de Bell-lloch so that, every Saturday, it would have a lighted candle during the celebration of the Mass of the Virgin and the singing of the Salve.
Acts of immemorial Marian custom which may well have started in Saint Peter Nolasco’s time were: the farewell to redeemers about to leave for Moorish lands, an act which took place in front of the main altar of the church and, on their return, the procession of redeemers and redeemed with their banners to the Mercy church to give thanks to the heavenly Protectress for her protection in the vicissitudes of the redemption.
Mary’s Name in the Title of the Order
As we have already said, at the beginning, one of the titles used to refer to the Institute founded by Saint Peter Nolasco was Order of Mercy or of the ‘misericordia’ of captives. Mary’s name was added very early to this title.
The first time that Mary’s name is found in a document in the title of the Order is in the bull Prout Scriptura testatur of Pope Alexander IV, issued on May 3, 1258, in Perugia. Writing to archbishops, bishops, abbots, etc., to inform them of the spiritual graces and the faculties granted to the Mercedarians because of their beneficent work for the sake of captives, the pope states: “Considering that the Master and the friars of Blessed Mary of Mercy, also called of Saint Eulalia… work with all their power…” As the pope joins the name of Mary to the term mercy, we have the denomination Blessed Mary of Mercy as part of the Order’s title. From the context of the bull, it can be inferred that the name of Mary of Mercy was already known. One should not assume that the pope would have used the name of Mary without any motive or that he imposed it by his authority. Furthermore, the pope did not send the bull directly to the friars of the Order. The logical explanation must be sought in the interdependence between the Blessed Virgin and the Order dedicated to the redemption of captives. Mercedarians were convinced that the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary, intervened directly in the Order’s foundation. Consequently, the legislators of the 1272 Constitutions made Mary’s name official in the title by calling the Order: Order of the Virgin Mary of Mercy of the Redemption of Captives of Saint Eulalia.
Because of this belief, the name of the first Master, Peter Nolasco, never appears in the Order’s title in thirteenth century documents so that the glory and honor of the foundation would be attributed to the celestial lady, the messenger of the Trinity, whom the Mercedarian Order considers as its Foundress and Mother. Since the Mercedarian historian, Nadal Gaver (1445), this presence of Mary has been concretized in the account of the Virgin Mary’s apparition to Saint Peter Nolasco, ordering him because it was God’s will, to establish in her honor an Order committed to the redemption of captives.
Images of Mary, Mercedarian Churches and Sanctuaries
Ever since the beginning, there were always images of Mary of Mercy in all the houses of the Order. The first one was a white marble sculpture of the Virgin seated with the Child. Saint Peter Nolasco had it done and it is kept now in the museum of the Barcelona Cathedral. Because the sculpture was too small for the church which was expanding, it was replaced in the fifteenth century by another one done by Bernardo Roca, the cathedral’s sculptor, according to a contract of September 13, 1361, between said artist and the prior of Barcelona, Brother Bonanato de Prixana. As patroness of Barcelona, this is the sculpture which now presides at the main altar of the Mercy Basilica in that city.
In addition to the veneration and cult to Mary of Mercy, during the first century of the Order, Peter Nolasco and his brothers had a special predilection for the churches in which Mary was honored, either because they were entrusted with existing churches where Mary was honored or because the Order built them and dedicated places of worship to Mary. The first and most remarkable Marian sanctuary of the Order of Mercy in the thirteenth century was that of Santa María de El Puig, Valencia.
Other churches are also dedicated to the Virgin: Santa María dels Prats (Tarragona), Santa María de Sarrión (Teruel), Santa María de Arguines (Castellón), Santa María de El Olivar (Estercuel), Santa María de Acosta (Huesca), Santa María de Montflorite (Huesca), Santa María de Perpignan (France) and Santa María de El Puig or Montetoro, a Marian sanctuary on the island of Minorca.
Beyond the shadow of a doubt, the Order was born, expanded and operated in an atmosphere overflowing with love and veneration for Mary, ever Virgin.
Without the intervention, the presence and the solicitous care of the Heavenly Queen and Mother, it would be impossible to provide an adequate explanation for the following: the Order’s origin, the attraction that the churches dedicated to Saint Mary exercised on Peter Nolasco and on his immediate followers, the idea to consecrate and dedicate to Saint Mary the church of the Barcelona house, head and foundation of the Order, since it was known then as House, Hospital and Order of Saint Eulalia, the persistent determination to introduce the holy name of Mary in the Order’s title after having tried and used other names, or how an Order with a few brothers and a military character, founded by a layman for the redemption of captives, was able to introduce a new Marian title in the Church, that is, the name of Saint Mary of Mercy.
A proof of this Marianism in the Order, from the beginning, is that all the donations for redemption were made in Mary’s name. Many existing documents of donations, made by benefactors to the Order for redemptions, specify a Marian motivation. On October 25, 1234, Ferrer of Portello and his wife Escalona offered their possessions to Peter Nolasco for the redemption of captives “for the glory of God and of the Virgin Mary and for the good of their souls.” Likewise, on March 3, 1245, when Ramón de Morella donated the Arguines hospital to Peter Nolasco, he did it “in honor of Our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, his Mother.” On May 15, 1300, King James II granted a benefice to the Order “out of reverence for the Virgin Mary.”
If people were giving these alms to honor Mary, it means that the religious were requesting them in her name. They could not have done that if they had not been convinced of a special intervention of Mary in the foundation of the Order.