INCEPTION OF EVANGELIZATION
When the New World burst on the stage of European history, along with Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians (the only religious orders authorized by the Reyes Católicos to go to America), the Order of Mercy zealously undertook the task of evangelizing the inhabitants of these virgin lands.
It has been ascertained that no priest or religious took part in Christopher Columbus’ first journey. Christian faith came to the new continent with the second voyage (1493). The Italian chronicler, Peter Martir de Anghiera, a necessary reference for all who seek reliable information about that event, is certain that Mercedarians went with Columbus at the beginning. He has irrefutable proof of the Mercedarian presence in the Americas since he quenched his thirst for knowledge by direct contact with the protagonists and witnesses of the events which he narrates meticulously. In relating the exploration of the coasts of Cuba, this author provides a text dealing with the presence of a Mercedarian friar. Because this text is so important in the history of the Church in the Americas, it is quoted literally: “When firewood was being cut and barrels filled, one of our crossbowmen went hunting in the forest. There, he came upon a man clothed in white so suddenly that at first sight, he thought he was a brother of the Order of Saint Mary of Mercy whom the admiral had taken along as a priest” (De Orbe novo Decades, Compluti 1516, f. 9).
According to de Anghiera’s cited text, the presence of at least one Mercedarian friar with Columbus on his second journey is undeniable. In the many testimonies from dependable historians, from the Order and from others, we can verify the names of three Mercedarian religious who accompanied Columbus: Juan Infante, Juan de Solórzano and Jorge de Sevilla. Modern authors have attempted to identify the Mercedarian mentioned by Peter Martir with Friar Jorge, the superior of the Seville convent, who was in the Indies in April 1495. In his instructions to Columbus, the king requested the friar’s return to Spain and after the religious organizer of the missionary expedition of 1493, Minim Bernardo Boyl had returned in December of the previous year. Friar Jorge was in Spain as provincial of Castile in 1505.
Preliminary General Situation
The redemptive Order of Mercy was about to assume its mission from a missionary perspective which would have a profound impact on the evangelizing task in the Americas.
When it was proven that the new continent was not a deserted, empty and uninhabited land belonging to no one but that, instead, it was inhabited and it had a very advanced culture and civilization, the Order’s superiors felt a strong impulse to evangelize the people. The Mercedarian Province of Castile generously provided an uninterrupted contingent of brothers. Along with the Gospel, they brought their Mother, Mary of Mercy, from Central America to Tierra del Fuego.
The provincial of Castile, Father Antonio de Valladolid, had the invaluable insight to send the first Mercedarians to America. Juridically, the Province of Castile could establish itself in these lands since they were subject to the kingdom of Castile. This is why the Mercedarian religious, who went from Spain to America, belonged to that province.
In May 1493, Pope Alexander VI had granted the Reyes Católicos the rights to conquer the islands and the lands of the American continent, with the condition that they would send God-fearing men to teach the Catholic faith and Christian customs to the natives. The kings of Spain never forgot this condition and they observed it as a precept from the Roman Pontiff who was in charge of the propagation of the Gospel throughout the world. Ever since the beginning of evangelization in America, the kings of Spain asked the Orders’ provincials, either through letters or summoning them in person to the Court, to look in their communities for the most suitable and willing religious who wanted to go to convert non-Christians in order to send them to the new continent for at least ten years.
At this point, one might wonder why the Order of Mercy, a redemptive Order, decided to become involved in the evangelization of these new people. Friars contemporary with these events already endeavored to respond to this concern. In his Chronicle, Father Bernardo de Vargas shows that in going to America to evangelize aborigines, Mercedarians were doing this in the spirit of redemption which characterized their institutional charism. The redemption of the soul is essential and the redemption of the body is only a means to obtain the former. On the other hand, in a letter addressed to his provincial. Friar Juan de Vargas, Father Luis de Valderrama, a missionary in the Tucumán region, tells him: “the multitude of believers increases daily and our sacred Institute, founded in Spain to redeem captives, dedicates itself in these remote lands to another lofty kind of redemption; it liberates souls from the deception of the devil and it redeems so many of them that it is impossible to know their number.” The principle of a genuine theology of liberation is found in these expressions: the truth of the Gospel is the only truth which can lead to total liberation and to human promotion. In his work, Chronicler Vargas himself states that the natives’ conversion to faith in Christ constitutes an authentic redemption from the slavery of idolatry, of superstition and of the devil.
Santo Domingo, the First Convent of the Americas (1514)
Father Francisco de Bovadilla’s arrival in America was very important for the Mercedarian presence in these lands since he was responsible for the foundation of the Santo Domingo convent.
A document of July 15, 1514, preserved in the General Archives of the Indies, is the earliest mention of the foundation of the Santo Domingo Mercedarian convent which subsequently became a house of observance and studies and the missionary center of the Order.
We know from this document that in the apportionment which took place in the city of Santo Domingo, the Order of Mercy was assigned three naborias (day laborers) who were to work to build the convent and the church. During the first decades of the evangelization of the Indies, this important large convent housed ten or so Mercedarian missionaries in its cloisters. In 1528, there were fifteen religious in the community (9 priests and 6 professed). Between 1528 and 1534 alone, twenty-seven religious, in their white monastic habits, walked through the luminous arcades of this historical Mercedarian abode. Their names will not be easily forgotten since many of them would become the founders of new convents on the continent. From then on, Santo Domingo will be the arrival point of Mercedarian religious from Spain to America and a center of expansion to other regions. Their convent would quickly be the largest and best structured. On July 15, 1530, the Council and Government of the city wrote a letter to the king stating: “Among the monasteries in the city, there is one of Our Lady of Mercy… and until now it has not been possible to begin work in said house which is why nothing has been done as what is now planned… A very sumptuous church for said house has been started…”
As a result of the first battle in which Columbus faced natives in May 1495, when the miracle of the cross and the apparition of the Virgin of Mercy occurred, a chapel was built according to Columbus’ testament. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary of Mercy, proclaimed Patroness of Santo Domingo, on September 8, 1616. Today this first American Marian sanctuary is an accredited center of cult to Mary. Her image was a gift from Queen Isabella to the first Mercedarian religious. Therefore, we have grounds to assert that the Virgin of Mercy was the first Marian title known and venerated by natives in the New World. Soon a Mercedarian convent was built there.
After Santo Domingo, the Mercedarians founded the first convent on the continent in Panama in 1522. It would become the starting point of Spanish expansion to South America. A good friend of Pedrarias Dávila, the founder of the city (1519), Father Francisco de Bovadilla set up the foundation of this convent which would later belong to the Province of Lima.
At Pedrarias’ request, the active missionary went back to Spain and he attended the provincial chapter of Castile in Burgos in 1526. There, he gave an extensive report on the Mercedarians in America and their needs. The chapter agreed that Father Francisco should return as vice provincial to Santo Domingo and take twelve religious with him in order to start regular observance. Pedrarias begged Charles V to receive Father Francisco de Bovadilla, an exemplary and knowledgeable person who was going to report to him, the emperor received him on four occasions. He confirmed the foundation of Mercedarian monasteries in America and authorized him to open others.
Back in America, this active organizer, established the first convent in Santa Marta, Colombia, at the end of 1527. He left Father Juan de Chaves there as superior with three other religious whom he had brought along from Spain.
The following year, with his friend Pedrarias Dávila and a group of Mercedarians, Father Francisco headed for Nicaragua where, with four religious, he established a Mercedarian convent in the new city of León (1528). He named Father Diego de Alcaraz as superior and as conventuals, Fathers Diego de Salazar, Pedro de Málaga and Alonso Dómino. There, he also preached the Gospel with passion and baptized many natives.
Around 1536, Father Bovadilla was at work elsewhere. In Peru, in October 1537, he was appointed by Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro to arbitrate the dispute between both conquerors about possessing the city of Cuzco. “The arbitrator did not pass quick judgment but only after previous study and knowledge of the cause and when it was possible.” However, everything ended abruptly with the battle of Salinas (1538) near Cuzco when Almagro was defeated and executed by the Pizarro brothers. As superior of Cuzco, Mercedarian Juan de Vargas has the sad mission of burying Chile’s discoverer in the Mercedarian Church.
The dynamic Francisco Bovadilla surrendered his soul to God in Lima during the winter of 1538.
Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica
The first bishop of Guatemala, Francisco Marroquín, writes that the Mercedarians were the first religious to arrive in the region in 1535 and that Father Juan de Zambrana was the most distinguished evangelizer of the country. He was also the founder of the Mercedarian convent in the old city of Santiago de Guatemala.
Another renowned missionary, a good organizer and a companion of Father Juan de Zambrana was Father Marcos Dardón, the founder of the convent of Ciudad Real of Chiapas (1537). In 1549, at the request of the President of the Royal Audiencia [Court] of Guatemala, don Alonso López, Father Dardón founded the convents of Gracias a Dios, Tencoa and Comayagua in Honduras. In 1551, Bishop Marroquín made him responsible for a group of seven doctrinas in Guatemala. Father Dardón evangelized them and he died in the capital city in 1558. Missionaries Juan de Zárate and Francisco Alcaraz were his contemporaries and companions. They continued to spread Christianity in Guatemala and they were also active in El Salvador.
Costa Rica was discovered by Columbus in 1502, but Spaniards only came in 1560, with Juan Cavallón who brought Mercedarians Lázaro Guido and Cristóbal Gaitán as chaplains. They obtained the conversion of Indian Chief Coyoche who was the most important leader in Costa Rica. The two Mercedarians were the first missionaries of that country where they were baptizing with the permission of the prelate of León. They did not establish any convents there.
The first priest to set foot on Mexican land was Mercedarian Bartolomé de Olmedo. He was Hernán Cortés’ friend, chaplain and adviser. He arrived in America in 1516, at the age of 31. From Santo Domingo, he went to Havana and landed with Cortés’ expedition first in Cozumel and then in Veracruz (1519). He had to comfort Spanish soldiers in the Noche Triste [Sad Night] episode (July 1, 1520) during which many soldiers and natives died in a bloody night confrontation which ended up with Spaniards abandoning the city. The friar’s life was miraculously saved.
Historians of the conquest of the Aztec Empire are unanimous in their favorable expressions of praise for the many-sided activities that this young Mercedarian had to undertake. They underline his intelligence, culture, sound judgment, his loyalty to his friends, his knowledge of the natives’ idiosyncrasies to promote a better understanding among people. Chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo presents the Mercedarian in various situations, many of which were very difficult for Cortés. From all of them, this self-sacrificing missionary emerged unharmed. Some of these situations are interesting because they enable us to know Father Olmedo’s rich personality. He was a kind man, evangelical, candid with Spaniards and natives, shrewd, erudite, wise and always ready to fulfill his mission. Transcending his role as the Spaniards’ chaplain, Father Bartolomé was the pioneer of the missionaries of Mexican natives and of the evangelization of the great Aztec Empire.
He introduced devotion to the Virgin of Mercy among Mexico’s early inhabitants. He would place an image of the Virgin on the altar. She was “small but very beautiful and Indians fell in love with her and the friar would tell them who she was.” Later, this Marian seed would bear fruit and Mexicans would center their love of Mary on Our Lady of Guadalupe. Díaz del Castillo said that the good Bartolomé de Olmedo was a saintly friar who worked hard with the natives preaching to them and teaching them the articles of faith. During the entire time of the conquest, he remained with Cortés as his faithful adviser. He died at 39 in Mexico in November 1524. Alonso Suazo gave the news to Cortés, telling him that “all of Mexico had mourned his death and that the Indians had not eaten from the time of his death until he was buried.” The Franciscans celebrated his funeral and preached the homily saying that Bartolomé de Olmedo had given more to the natives that the emperor since he had given them the knowledge of God and gained their souls for heaven. According to his own admission, the Mercedarian baptized over 2,500 natives including the famous Malinche, Cortés’ interpreter, since she knew Spanish, giving her the Christian name, Marina. Bartolomé was buried in Santiago de Tlatelolco.
With Father Bartolomé’s premature death, the Order lost the opportunity of establishing convents in Mexico. This is because he went there alone and especially as Cortés’ chaplain rather than with other Mercedarians to establish the Order in Mexico.
After him, another great missionary, Father Juan de las Varillas, replaced him as Cortés’ adviser and chaplain, accompanying him on his expedition to Honduras in 1524. From Guatemala, he attempted to establish the Order on Aztec land but he did not succeed. The Mercedarians had no monasteries in Mexico until 1597, when the houses of Antequera and Puebla de Los Angeles were founded.
The first Mercedarian to set foot on this little Venice was Father Antón Merino, chaplain of conqueror don Juan de Ampiés, the founder of Coro (1527). There, this Mercedarian from the island of Santo Domingo celebrated the first Mass in Venezuela. However, neither of these men were able to achieve what they wanted and they had to return to their starting point.
More than a century elapsed and during that period the Order of Mercy spread throughout the rest of South America except in Venezuela. It was only in 1637, that Mercedarians Juan de Espinoza and Baltasar the Jaque landed in La Guaira. They founded the first Venezuelan convent in Caracas in 1642.
The Mercedarians had already landed in Colombia in 1527 with Father Francisco de Bovadilla. The Gospel and devotion to Mary of Mercy came to Colombia with another great Mercedarian apostle, Hernando de Granada. He accompanied Captain Sebastián de Benalcázar as chaplain and he quickly earned the renown of being a man of God and lover of the natives.
With his participation, the cities of Santa Ana de Anserma, Popayán and Cali were established between 1535 and 1542, and he established convents there. In turn, missionaries Diego Meléndez and Juan de la Orden, who had come from Quito, founded the important convent of Pasto, a center of great devotion and cult to Mary of Mercy.
In 1543, the secular town councils of Popayán and Cali wrote Charles V to request the bishopric of Popayán for Father Granada. In November of the following year, he was in Seville preparing to return to America and to bring more missionaries along with him. But in May 1545, he found out that the prince, the future Philip II, had ordered that they should not be allowed to leave, a measure which was related to the 1543 royal cedula which reduced the number of Mercedarian monasteries in America. Friar Hernando de Granada had to resign himself to stay in Spain. However, he had the satisfaction of having founded several convents where other friars, dressed in white, continued his work of evangelization.
When conqueror Sebastián de Benalcázar arrived in Ecuador and most of Colombia, he was accompanied by Mercedarians Hernando de Granada and Martín de Victoria. These religious were present at the first Quito foundation (August 28, 1534) and at the second (December 6, 1534), both being the work of Benalcázar. In a very Christian gesture of gratitude to Mary, Benalcázar made a donation of lands to our Lady of Mercy as the first Colonist of the city. Father Granada immediately founded the convent, the starting point of the rich history of Mary of Mercy in Quito and in Ecuador.
It was in this convent that the first school of Quito was founded by Martín de Victoria who had a great deal of ability to learn native languages since in a very short time, he succeeded in speaking Incan fluently. This is why Father Victoria taught Quechuan to religious of several Orders so that they would be able to teach natives. Father Victoria himself wrote the first grammar of the Quechuan language. It should be mentioned that the chair for teaching the Quechuan language at the University of Lima was created by a royal cedula only in 1580.
After he established Quito, Benalcázar left with Hernando de Granada for the estuary of the River Guayas in order to found the city of Santiago de Guayaquil on the river banks. At the same time, the missionary founded a Mercedarian convent (1535). On March 12 of the same year, Mercedarian Dionisio de Castro came to Manabí with Captain Francisco Pacheco. The former had a Mercedarian convent built in Portoviejo at the same time that the city was being established.
From Quito, the Mercedarians also evangelized the Bay of San Mateo in Manabí and they went to the Amazon with the expedition of Francisco de Orellana who was accompanied by Father Gonzalo de Vera.
From the Panama convent, Mercedarians Miguel de Orenes, Diego Martínez and Sebastián de Castañeda arrived in the Incan Empire as they accompanied conquerors Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro. Their first foundation was in San Miguel de Piura (1532). Father Antonio Bravo celebrated the first Mass in Lima on January 18, 1535, possibly before the Spanish foundation of the city. The same year, Father Miguel de Orenes established a Mercedarian convent in Lima and, in 1534, Father Sebastián de Castañeda founded the convent of Cuzco, the capital city of the Incan Empire, which would soon become a major evangelization center from which frequent missionary expeditions would leave for more remote areas.
The Order of Mercy was expanding very rapidly and during the sixteenth century, it established convents in Trujillo (1535), Huamanga (1540), Arequipa (1540), in Chachapoyas (1541) and in the Upper Peru (Bolivia now) territories: Chuquisaca (1541), La Paz (1541), Potosí (1549), Cochabamba (1587), Santa Cruz de la Sierra (1557) and La Plata, Sucre, now.
Among the most distinguished missionaries in evangelizing the inhabitants of the vast Peruvian territory, we must also remember Fathers Juan de Vargas, Antonio Bravo, Alejo Daza, Miguel Troilo and Gabriel Alvarez de la Carrera.
Father Diego de Porres was the most eminent missionary figure of the Order. He worked with tireless zeal and effort in evangelizing the Andean people in the sixteenth century. Born in Spain in 1531, he went to Mexico and from there, he went to Peru as a soldier with Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. After the viceroy’s death in 1552, Porres received the Mercedarian habit in Cuzco. He was ordained to the priesthood in Lima on June 3, 1558. In the setting of the Lima Archdiocese, Porres quickly set his intensive missionary work into motion. Later, he moved on to the Province of Chacalla (now Cangallo) and from there to Cuzco where he worked as a missionary in the region of Chumbivilcas and Marcapata. He was superior of the Chuquisaca convent, vicar provincial and visitator of the Provinces of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and Paraguay. He worked as a missionary in the Santa Cruz de la Sierra area for twelve years, “teaching and preaching to the Indians because I understand the Chiriguana language” and as Porres himself explains, “where I have endured hardships, hunger and risks for my life.”
He made a trip to Spain in 1583 and he informed the king about his working for 33 years preaching the Gospel and converting natives. Father Diego de Porres himself even prepared a map of the Province of Santa Cruz and Southern Peru which he knew like the palm of his hand and gave it to Philip II who granted him a life annuity of 1,500 pesos per year. He went back in 1586 with 20 Mercedarian missionaries whom he personally assigned to the houses most in need of personnel. Porres continued his apostolic work evangelizing the Chiquito, Itatin and Chiriguano natives and organizing the Church among them. Subsequently, this missionary worked in Argentina and years later, he was appointed superior of the large convent of the Assumption in Paraguay.
In his well-known Memorial de servicios, Porres himself relates that during his life he was responsible for many Indian doctrinas and Indian assemblies, that he baptized and married many natives in the Church and built more than 200 churches in indigenous towns.
This illustrious Andean missionary died between 1604 and 1605, well on in years, in his city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
It should be noted that at the end of the civil wars in Peru, Mercedarians devoted themselves to the evangelization of natives in the many Indian doctrinas which they took over.
In the sixteenth century, Mercedarians penetrated what is Argentina today from three independent fronts and several years apart.
From the Atlantic, they arrived with Pedro de Mendoza’s fleet to Río de la Plata. Fathers Juan de Salazar and Juan de Almasia were present at the foundation of the port of Buenos Aires on February 2, 1536. They are credited with revealing the Marian-Mercedarian title of Our Lady of Buen Ayre or Buenos Aires, under whose name don Pedro de Mendoza founded the city in the port of Santa María del Buen Ayre. Later, Father Salazar accompanied Juan de Ayolas on the expedition to Paraguay and he was present at the foundation of Asunción on August 15, 1537. At that time, he founded the convent and church of his Order and stayed there almost ten years during which he evangelized the natives until his death as a martyr.
The second front to enter Argentina was through the North, from Cuzco. The expedition which left Cuzco on July 3, 1535, to discover Chile under the leadership of Diego de Almagro, included Mercedarians Antonio de Solís and Antonio de Almansa. They were the first religious of the Order to set foot on Argentine soil before crossing the Andes.
The third front came from the West. Francisco de Villagra and reinforcement troops for don Pedro de Valdivia in Chile started out from Peru. They camped out approximately where the present day city of Mendoza is located in May 1550 and they finally arrived in Chile in October 1551. Father Antonio Sarmiento Rendón accompanied this expedition. From Chile, after crossing the Andes Mountains, Mercedarians established the Mendoza convent (1562) and they evangelized the territory.
During Juan Pérez de Zurita’s government, Father Diego de Porres founded the convent of Santiago del Estero (1557), the first Mercedarian house in Argentina. In the lands of the Tucumán’s government, Mercedarians were present since the arrival of Spaniards and their convent dates back to 1565. In 1568, the superior of Santiago del Estero sent Father Luis de Valderrama, a native of Quito, who built the convent of Talavera del Esteco. The Mercedarians carried out their evangelizing work among the Diaguito, Chiriguano and Tamacoci natives. Missionary Fathers Luis de Valderrama, Gonzalo Ballesteros, Pedro de Cervantes, Antonio Pereyra, Pedro Castillo and Cristóbal de Albarrán who was martyred later, were especially outstanding in the area.
Adelantado [at the time of the Spanish conquest, the person with highest power in America] Diego de Almagro crossed part of Bolivia and Northern Argentina to discover Chile (1535). He brought Mercedarians Antonio de Almanza and Antonio de Solís as chaplains. They were the first priests and religious to tread on Chilean territory. For Almagro, this trip was an odyssey and a disaster: crushed, defeated by indomitable Araucanians and impoverished, he returned to Cuzco. The Mercedarians went back with him and they were in the same physical condition.
Years later, on February 12, 1540, Pedro de Valdivia, also from Cuzco, succeeded in founding Santiago (Chile). In 1548, the following priests settled in the future Chilean capital: Fathers Antonio Correa, from Portugal, the first historically recognized apostle of Chile and founder of the Santiago convent which would become the alma mater of the Province of Chile; Antonio de Olmedo and Miguel de Benavente who joined the first Mercedarian community in Chile. On Huelén hill, now Santa Lucía, Father Correa used to celebrate Mass and to evangelize the natives through singing and music, a method which proved to be original and very effective among sixteenth century Mercedarian missionaries in the Americas. In 1551, this incipient community was reinforced by Father Antonio Sarmiento Rendón, later called the Apostle of Arauco, a people he evangelized for over twenty-five years. He was a priest in Angol and Villarica and Osorno’s first pastor.
In the sixteenth century, several Mercedarian convents rose rapidly on Chilean territory: Santiago (1548), Concepción (1550), Imperial (1550), Villarica (1550), Valdivia (1552), La Serena (1556), Mendoza (1562), Angol (1564) and Osorno (1578).
It is worth underscoring the vicissitudes which the Araucanian convents endured, especially La Concepción. It was destroyed along with the city by Araucanians in 1554. It was rebuilt in 1558, once again destroyed by indomitable Araucanians in 1564 and once more rebuilt by the no less determined Father Juan de Zamora in 1566.
It is necessary to think that like any Europeans, Mercedarians had no knowledge whatsoever of the reality of American people. They neither knew their language nor the idiosyncrasies of so many different peoples. Therefore, it was difficult to penetrate into the intimacy of the hearts of unknown people. Nevertheless, the depth, the vitality, the magnitude and the fruits of Mercedarian missions on this continent are wonderfully surprising. Mercedarians only knew they were coming to preach the Gospel and to convert a pagan multitude.
The languages, so different from that of Cervantes, were the first obstacle. Although the richness of languages is something that is culturally positive, for the missionaries, it was one more obstacle since from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego there were various languages very different from one another. Like other missionaries, Mercedarians started to proclaim the Gospel by following the inspiration from the Holy Spirit and their good Christian sense. They were using rudimentary methods.
In South America, missionaries came across great difficulties for evangelization such as the enormous distances, swift rivers, high mountains, thick forests and vast deserts. But they also found many factors which benefited evangelization especially in the territories of the Incan Empire: royal roads crisscrossing Incan domains, established towns, large cities, a developed agriculture, a very advanced social organization, a general language and, above all, the good disposition of the inhabitants to accept the Gospel.
In addition to their ministry in cities, Mercedarian missionaries were going to evangelize natives who lived far away. These people were scattered in large and small towns, very distant from one another. Missionaries had to go look for them on their evangelizing visits. At times, the religious would stay to live among them in order to intensify the teaching of religion. Missionary shortage and the distances made the frequent repetition of such visits difficult.
The missionary’s success depended on whether the natives received him well or not. If he was welcomed, he would begin the catechesis in the open. A cross would be erected first and then the construction of a church would start. In this way, people were learning the first rudiments of faith. This was the earliest way of preaching the Gospel.
The catechetical methodology was very simple although it was rather effective: the first didactic resources were the cross and Mary’s image. With these as a basis, missionaries would explain the foundations of faith, through gestures at first, then through a native interpreter and finally, after they had learned the language, in their own words. Fathers Bartolomé de Olmedo in Mexico, Antonio Correa in Chile, Marcos Dardón in Chiapas and Martín de Victoria in Ecuador, used music as a novel and effective way of capturing the attention of their listeners.
The conquistador of American lands became the owner. He would assign or entrust [encomendar] people with their lands and goods to Spanish settlers with the condition that, in exchange for tribute and service, they were to provide either a cleric or a religious to teach Christian faith to the encomendados. The person in charge of an encomienda or allotment was called an encomendero. Because he had to provide a priest and pay his salary, the encomendero was practically in charge of evangelization. This is why the priest felt conditioned by the encomendero’s wish. This system, legalized by the crown, was the source of abuses which the Church had to confront in order to defend the natives. In part, this process helped evangelization but it also had negative results for missionaries and their teaching work.
The missionary priest taught Christian doctrine in the encomienda. This is why the site where the evangelical proclamation took place was called a doctrina and the person in charge of a doctrina was a doctrinero. In general, the terms missionary and doctrinero had the same meaning. A doctrinero could not govern a doctrina [usually including a church, priest’s residence, school, hospital, cemetery and a workshop] if he did not speak the language of the natives. Despite good royal legislation, as long as the colony lasted, there were polemics. It is regrettable that bishops, clerics and religious were their protagonists.
In fact the doctrinas were catechetical centers, genuine rural parishes. Each doctrina included several villages separated by great distances. The main village served as the principal center. It usually had a church as a meeting place, for teaching and learning Christian prayers. With regard to the dynamics of the teaching, adults were meeting twice a week for catechesis and children had to attend daily. The beginnings of a doctrina were difficult: missionaries had to travel long distances to get in touch with every village. Later on and only when the encomiendas were suppressed did the doctrinas take on the nature of missionary centers under the zealous vigilance of bishops and religious superiors.
Throughout America, Mercedarians had numerous and very important doctrinas.
Defending the Natives
Spanish legislation about aborigines was undoubtedly humane and its inspiration was Christian. However, its practical application left a lot to be desired and it was the source of countless abuses.
The Order of Mercy raised its voice against this everywhere from the start of the conquest. It had not fought for the sake of freedom for three hundred years on the old continent for nothing. In America, Mercedarians confronted conquistadores, drawing encomenderos’ attention and constantly informing the king by letters and reports. This went on in the historical period from the time that American convents belonged to the Province of Castile until they were later constituted as new autonomous provinces.
Thus, among others, Father Marcos Dardón, an untiring Mercedarian missionary in Central America, was named by the Guatemala Royal Assembly as “protector and defender of the Indians,” a responsibility which he carried out diligently for five years. In León, Nicaragua, Father Francisco de Bovadilla was a great defender of the natives as he himself expressed in a letter from Toledo to Queen Joan, on July 31, 1551. In 1550, by a royal cedula, the king of Spain ordered 500 natives be set free following the advice and intercession of Mercedarian missionary, Juan de Almazán. In 1551, Father Bartolomé de Montesinos presented the same defense of the natives working in the Potosí mines to the Charcas Assembly. In 1576, from New Granada, Father Alonso de Avila informed Philip II about the abuse to which encomenderos subjected natives. In Chile, Fathers Antonio Correa, Antonio Sarmiento Rendón and Miguel de Benavente staunchly defended Indians from mistreatment by encomenderos.
This attitude toward those who held temporal power placed missionaries in a key position for natives to believe and trust them.
The friars had a hard time adapting to the new life which their apostolic activity in America imposed on them. Everything was very different from the convent life which they had led in their peninsular monasteries. Yet, they did their best to maintain communal life by establishing strategic convents which served as starting points for evangelizing expeditions and as centers of observance. Thus the so-called major or large convents were fundamental. They were Santo Domingo, Panama, Guatemala, Quito, Cuzco, Lima, Santiago (Chile), Buenos Aires and Asunción in Paraguay. Prayer and life in common were springs which vitalized evangelizing work and made it fruitful. Father Antonio Correa organized praying Matins at midnight at the Santiago convent. Other convents did the same. Testimony of one’s life was the best way to support preaching.
Mercedarian missionaries did all their work prompted by their love of Christ and they endured hardships, discomfort and the deprivation which the environment imposed on them. Human interest did not rule their actions and they let natives know that their concern was to make them good Christians. With efforts and sacrifices, they built the first churches dedicated to Mary of Mercy.
Most of the first convents were very modest buildings. At times, charitable patrons would provide the material means to build a more solid and larger church and convent. It should be noted that though Mercedarians were present at the foundations of many cities and though they had received lots on which to build a church and a convent for their Order, they managed to build their own houses and the house of the Lord only later. On the other hand, the prolonged struggle of the conquest, implied a great deal of effort, a lack of security and anguish for Spaniards as well as for the natives.
Only friars who were solidly formed in Saint Peter Nolasco’s spirit succeeded in sowing faith in Christ and love of Mary of Mercy. They were the ones who created the now flourishing American Provinces.
Vocations, Formation and Studies
During the sixteenth century, the Order of Mercy sent 387 missionary friars from Spain to America. To them, one should add friars originally from Spain and many Creoles who received their formation in cloisters and were consecrated priests in the New World.
As the houses of the Order multiplied and the territories, which became part of the Spanish Empire in America expanded, the Province of Castile received the enthusiastic and essential help of American vocations. A glance at the books of professions shows that the vocational movement was slow at first but it was continuous. From 1575 on, many more men took their vows in the Order of Mercy. They were not adolescents but more mature young men. Almost all of them were candidates to the priesthood and a few of them to coadjutor brothers.
Novices and young students, formed in American convents, emerged marked by the missionary spirit of the pervading atmosphere of these lands. Their formation was not inferior to the one received in Spain since it was based on the Constitutions and most of the professors were from Spain and trained in Spanish universities. The first Mercedarian priests of the New World were formed like European novices and professed. They observed the same Constitutions; they were steeped in the same charism and similar methods. They studied theology in convents of the Order and in universities of major American cities. When the Province of Chile was set up in 1566, there were already three priests formed in Santiago.
Among the first group of American-formed friars during this initial period, the following men excelled: Antonio Correa, Alonso Muñoz, Antonio Carvallo, Diego de Yuva, Alejo Daza, Diego de Porres and Antonio Bravo. Born in Santo Domingo, Antonio was an illustrious missionary in Guatemala and later in Peru. Father Marcos Dardón lived as a student for several years in the Santo Domingo convent before he was ordained a priest. In 1550, the son of a Spaniard and of a Christian native, Friar Gabriel Alvarez de la Carrera, received the habit and studied in Cuzco. Before becoming a religious (1549), he served as an interpreter and wrote the deed in which Incan Cayo Topa, Atahualpa’s cousin, made a donation to the Cuzco convent.
Many of the first American vocations emerged in Guatemala. After being professed, these young Central Americans would go to study at the Royal University of Mexico with an older religious who served as a teacher. This pattern started in 1574. Since the Order did not yet have any convents in the land of the Aztecs, religious students lived outside of the city in a house loaned by a friend of Father Olmedo. When they completed their studies, after six years, they would return to Guatemala and other young religious came to study in the same manner.
Process of Autonomy of the American Provinces
With the expansion of the Order to places separated by enormous distances where convents were established, religious residing in South America soon felt the need to have some autonomy from the Province of Castile from which most of the Spanish friars came. In fact, from Spain, it was impossible to govern so many convents located so far apart. The huge distances, the affairs whose nature required immediate attention and other inconveniences prompted American religious to become an autonomous province as was the case with other religious orders. With time, these aspirations gathered strength among the friars. Thus, the religious who were working there experienced the need to have a central government with closer headquarters within reach of the places where they were doing their apostolic work.
A certain independence was conceded to them with the appointment of vicars provincials who resided in America and could intervene in the name of the provincial of Castile in the life of the convents and in the missionaries’ work. As time went by, this proved insufficient and American religious sought a broader and more complete organization. Father Juan de Vargas went from Spain to Santa Marta (1533) and shortly after (1537), to Peru. In November 1556, he summoned an assembly in the Cuzco convent in which the superiors of Cuzco, Lima, Trujillo, Panama, Quito, Chachapoyas, Arequipa and eight professed friars took part. They elected Juan de Vargas—the one who had called the meeting— as provincial of Peru, Tierra Firme, Popayán and Chile. The participants designated Fathers Miguel de Orenes and Alejo Daza as their representatives to appear before the pope, the king, the authorities of the Council of the Indies and of the Order to negotiate their respective approvals.
For this cause’s sake, Father Juan de Vargas, the visionary leader of the creation of the first American Mercedarian Province and of the total autonomy of the Indies’ convents, traveled to Rome to explain the friars’ position with valid and powerful arguments and reasons. He succeeded in obtaining a bull from Pius IV, in Rome, on December 30, 1560, according to which the election of Cuzco was “confirmed and approved.” After a lot of hard work, Father Vargas was heard by the Castile provincial who yielded to the motives and demands of the priest and granted autonomy to American religious. Then, in a document of January 13, 1563, Gaspar de Torres, the provincial of Castile, divided the Order of Our Lady of Mercy of America into four provinces: the Province of Guatemala with the convents of Guatemala, Chiapas, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and for a while Mexico; the Province of Cuzco with the existing convents in the Cuzco region, Charcas and the ones to be founded near Río de Plata; the Province of Lima with the houses of the territories of Lima, Quito, Popayán, New Kingdom of Granada and Panama and the Province of Chile with the pre-existing houses and those to be set up around the Magellan Straits.
Father Vargas returned to America. He brought seven more religious with him. In appreciation for his persevering struggle for independence, Father Vargas was elected as the first provincial of the new Mercedarian Province of Cuzco.
The Masters General
During this period, six Masters General steered the bark of Saint Peter Nolasco as his successors for life.
After hearing the news of the death of the Master General, Antoine Morell, in Toulouse on June 15, 1492, Juan de Urgel (1492-1513), the prior of Barcelona, summoned electors to gather in chapter in Barcelona on September 8 of the same year and he himself was proclaimed Master General. In 1493, he held his first chapter in Huesca. Important measures for the life of the Order were taken at that chapter. During his government, the first Mercedarians went to the New World with Christopher Columbus and, among others, the Oran convent was established (1509). Juan de Urgel died in Barcelona on August 26, 1513.
Jaime Llorens de la Mata (1513-1522) was born in La Mata (Teruel). He received the Mercedarian habit in the convent of Santa María de El Olivar. He was a doctor in theology and a professor at Huesca University. He was the superior of El Olivar when he was elected Master General on November 23, 1513, and Pope Leo X confirmed his election on January 18, 1514. He held his first chapter in Játiva in 1514. During his generalate, Friar Bartolomé de Olmedo went to America and thanks to him, the new church of El Olivar convent was built. Father de la Mata promoted the redemption of captives. He encouraged studies in the Order and sent students to Paris and to Alcalá de Henares. He died in El Olivar convent on June 7, 1522.
Benito Safont (1522-1535) was from Elche (Alicante). He was a philosopher and a renowned theologian. His election as Master General occurred in Barcelona on August 20, 1522 and it was confirmed by Pope Adrian VI on October 24 of the same year. The following year, Safont held his first chapter in Barcelona. He fostered the cultural movement of the Order by increasing the privileges of theology masters bringing them to the same level as doctors in law or canons. He chose responsible and prestigious religious as vicars general for Italy. He died in Barcelona on August 20, 1535.
Pedro Sorell (1535-1546), a Catalan by birth, was chosen for the supreme government of the Order on November 11, 1535, when he was the Barcelona prior. His election was confirmed by Paul III. He held his first chapter in Saragossa in 1536. During the chapter, for redemption’s sake and in a spirit of greater restraint, he renounced certain privileges enjoyed by the Master General and a collector was appointed for each province to collect the responses and the dobla (share paid by each capitular for the chapter’s expenses) to deposit the money in the Taula or the Bank of Barcelona and it was established that collectors should also get the convents’ contribution for the support of a student from each province in Paris. Sorell died in Barcelona on February 10, 1546.
Miguel Puig (1546-1567) was the Barcelona prior when he was elected on May 2, 1546, by the chapter held in that city. Paul III confirmed his election. He held his first chapter in Gerona on October 17, 1547. Numerous masters, preachers and writers were in attendance. At that chapter, Master Gregorio Arcisio exposed his conclusions (an academic exercise on a doctrinal theme). It was the first time on record for such an exercise which would later be the norm at the Order’s chapters. In reference to promoting studies, the chapter made the Paris College support one student from each province. Master Puig made sure that the chapter’s provisions were put into practice without neglecting the redemption of captives. The 1561 redemption involved many captives. Puig died in Barcelona on November 22, 1567.
Matías Papiol (January 1568-July 1568) was the Barcelona prior. At Master Puig’s death, he convoked electors for January 20, 1568. The chapter was held and he was elected Master General. The election was not confirmed by express wish of Philip II to the Holy See. Matías Papiol died in Saragossa on July 23, 1568. He was the last Master General for life of the Order of Mercy.
Upon his death and in keeping with the Constitutions in force at the time, the prior of Barcelona, Bernardo Durán, headed the Order as vicar general. However, due to instructions of King Philip II and to the appointment of apostolic visitators for the Provinces of Aragon and Castile by Pope Pius V on August 20, 1569, no general chapter was held until 1574, in Guadalajara.
New Foundations and Residence of the Procurator in Rome
During that time, there were different foundations. Some of them would become very important at a later time.
Immediately after the conquest of Granada in 1492, a convent was established less than a mile away from the city and in 1500, it was moved close to the Elvira gate. Gonzalo de Ubeda, the superior and auxiliary bishop of Granada, had the church and most of the convent built between 1521 and 1525.
In 1499, Mercedarians accepted the donation of the hermitage of Vera Cruz and other properties outside of Málaga offered by Alonso de Ribera, one of the city’s conquerors, to erect a convent. Because the place was threatened by pirates’ raids, in 1507, the Mercedarians moved inside the ramparts to a site given to them by the city and confirmed by Queen Joan.
In 1509, the Counts of Palma founded a convent in Ecija in the Province of Seville and Alonso de Godoy, the superior of Huete, accepted the donation.
In 1515, Father Nicolas Barrère completed a foundation in Paris on a plot behind the Sorbonne donated by the Count of Dreux, Alain d’Albret. It was the headquarters of the College.
An important college was founded in 1518 in Alcalá de Henares in houses donated by the University with the honorable obligation for the superior to be the University curator.
The Ronda convent was established in 1522. Antonio de Chaves was its first superior and don Pedro Martín de la Mata, its patron. When Pedro de Orense was the superior, it was transferred to a better location in 1551.
New foundations were also started in Italy during the second half of the fifteenth century. Around 1567, Father Juan Ordoñez from the Province of Castile, went to Italy with the task of visiting existing convents and of founding others. In 1567, he founded the convent of Santa María del Monte in Naples. However, due to a flood, it was abandoned two years later. In 1569, the religious moved to the Santa Ursula convent in Naples, a convent with a long history.
The year Father Ordoñez went to Rome (1569), he agreed with the canons of Santa María in Trastevere to look after the church of Santa Rufina. In 1582, Father Ordoñez was named procurator general and, in that house, he set up the center of the Order’s procurators general. In fact, all religious who, before him, had to handle special matters with the Holy See, came to Rome for a while and they would stay in that place until they had completed what they had come to do. Procurators general will also serve as vicars general for the houses in Italy.
Around 1590, Father Pedro de León founded the Rocca di Papa convent which would later go to Discalced Mercedarians.
The extensive data contained in the minutes of the 1547 Gerona General Chapter reveals the Order’s make up around the middle of the sixteenth century. In the Province of Catalonia , there were 14 convents with 87 friars; in Aragon and Navarre, 15 with 124; in Valencia 7 with 78; in Castile, 32 with about 300 and in France, 14 with 140. The three Italian convents, Cagliari, Naples and Palermo could have had as many as 30 religious. There were about 20 houses in America. Several of these were missionary residences with 154 religious altogether. Therefore, in the Order as a whole, there were approximately 900 religious in 106 houses.
A Difficult Situation in France
With the Protestant turmoil, religious wars broke out in France. They were especially directed at religious houses. In part, these did not have a lot of personnel and they were heavily burdened with extraordinary taxes. During this period, the Order of Mercy and the other religious institutes suffered great losses in human lives and properties in the houses of Southern France.
In 1548, the Mercedarians of Auterive, in the Foix County, presented a petition to the king of Navarre—they were his subjects—asking for the preservation of their assets described in the inventory they presented, assets which were threatened by reformers. The resistance lasted until 1570, when the convent was destroyed. Years later, in 1598, King Henry IV gave a contribution to restore it.
In 1547, the Montpellier superior, Pedro Penxinat, had serious difficulties in sustaining his community made up of about ten religious and he had to sell a few properties. Jean Dufoure was elected superior at the 1561 chapter and he saw his convent destroyed in the same year. In spite of that, he stayed there for some time. He rented some community properties which were later assigned to the Carcassonne convent by the 1586 Toulouse chapter. Later, this Montpellier convent was rebuilt.
The Toulouse convent lost several properties, especially with the fire of a mill near Carmail in 1560. But, it managed to avoid destruction thanks to the prestige of Father Antoine Tremoulières who had been a member of that city’s parliament.
The Béziers convent had a worse fate since it was destroyed by rebels in 1562. Provincial Pedro Penxinat filed a claim with the authorities who gave him heretic Léon Malvoyr’s house. The religious settled there until 1584 when the same authorities gave the house back to its owner. The Mercedarians left the place. Their convent in ruins was given to the Jesuits.
In 1563, the Maleville convent burned down causing serious damages. Other convents also suffered losses because of the religious wars but they were able to survive. They were poor and became even poorer.
Not only properties but above all, people were lost in this struggle: several religious were murdered. Some authors writing toward the end of the century exaggerated in indicating the losses and the number of dead and the Mercedarians also believed this exaggeration. Since there were about 150 religious in France, there could not have been that many dead.
In that situation, the Province of France was ruled by vicars provincial for several years. But, things were gradually returning to normal. At the May 8, 1599 chapter held in Toulouse, Jean Castet, who had been a vicar and the superior of that convent, was confirmed. In 1597, this friar had founded the Salies-du-Salat convent where he had also set up the Confraternity of Mercy for which he asked the procurator general, Bernardo de Vargas, to obtain the approval of the Statutes from the Holy See for the spiritual benefit of the members.
Among Mercedarians, no religious supported the reformer’s ideas. On the contrary, some of them fought against errors, both orally and in writing, like Fathers Tremoulières and Dionisio de Altoponte. All religious remained faithful to the Church and once peace was obtained, they devoted themselves to material and spiritual reform in keeping with the impetus of the Council of Trent and the decisions of the Order’s general chapters.
As the number of friars and of convents was increasing, it became evident that some constitutional provisions should be modified to be more suited to the circumstances.
Thus, at the Huesca chapter (1493), an important decision was made to suppress perpetual encomiendas entirely since their results were deplorable. It was also determined that no one was to graduate from a university without permission from the Master General or the provincial. It was also agreed to have chapters in each province so that friars would not have to make long journeys, a mandate which was later added to the Constitutions. It was also decreed to amend the Constitutions at the chapter concerning clothing which specified that every friar was to wear the shield on his cape and on his scapular. From then on, it should read: on the cape or the scapular. Wearing tabards or capes when traveling is allowed whereas it was absolutely forbidden before.
The records of this chapter also note that many breviaries and missals were not according to the Order. Because the cost of manuscripts was very high, friars used whatever they were given as it was done in the thirteenth century. This must have made the Master General, Juan de Urgel, think it would be convenient to have them printed. This was done in 1503, by Lucantonio Giunta in Venice.
The Council of Trent, which started in 1545, had finally and vigorously led the way to the desired reform of the Church both at the top and in its members. The 1547 chapter, held in Gerona and attended by many and highly qualified religious, indicated that reforms would take place within the Order. Some innovations already had a renewal flavor. Ample powers were given to the Master General to remove unworthy superiors and the recently restored Algar castle in Spain and the Toulouse convent in France were designated to incarcerate those who would not reform. Superiors and subjects were rigorously ordered to recite the Divine Office publicly and privately under severe penalties. In 1561, Master General Miguel Puig ordered the use of the breviary recently printed by him in Lyons and he arranged the purchase of new missals to make the celebration of Holy Mass and the recitation of the Divine Office uniform in the Order. Provincials were to serve for six years except for the colleges of Alcalá and Salamanca where the superior could be reelected for another three years. Definitors were to be elected by the chapter and they could not be reelected.
The Castile provincial, Gaspar de Torres, made sure that the canons of the Council of Trent were introduced in the edition of the Constitutions which he ordered prepared and published in Salamanca in 1565.
The Redemption of Captives
The redemption of captives, the principal ministry of the Order of Mercy, continued to be the Mercedarians’ essential task during this period. Redemptions were not as frequent as they had been in the first 270 years of liberating activity when, at times, there were as many as three expeditions per year. The number of redeemed captives also decreased. Thus, in 74 years (1499-1573), there were 41 redemptions with some 7,000 redeemed captives with an average of 170 people freed in each rescue.
One of the reasons for this decrease was a royal decree of King Ferdinand the Catholic in a 1511 cedula according to which alms collected in our churches had to be given for the Crusade. Mercedarians complained to the King that, under such circumstances, they could not meet the demands of redemption but their appeal was not heard. It should also be noted that almsgiving generally decreased in the whole peninsula. Nor should it be forgotten that in some places, bishops also tried to meddle with alms collection for redemption by limiting the rights which the Holy See had conceded to the Mercedarians in this matter. In this difficult period, for the first time, the Order had to resort to loans (1495) in order to carry out a few redemptive expeditions. In France, in a cedula issued in Lyons on November 29, 1515, King Francis I authorized the Mercedarians to solicit alms and to travel throughout France, with or without captives, and the king also ordered prelates and civil authorities to welcome and support the friars.
On the African coast, the strategic Oran house, founded by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros in 1509, rendered very important services to redemption. Father Pedro de Bustamante was Oran’s first superior. Normally there were eight religious in that convent which permitted dealing with the captives’ rescue without jeopardizing the money. However, its upkeep cost the Order great sacrifices due to constant sieges by the Moors. In 1532, this convent came under the Master General’s direct jurisdiction.
It is impossible to summarize all the redemptions which took place during that period. Therefore, only a few of the most significant ones are mentioned here.
In 1514, Master General Jaime Llorenz de la Mata held his first General Chapter in Játiva. Among other things, Arnaldo de Duce, the Toulouse superior, Juan Lupi, the Huesca superior and Luis Boil, the Valencia superior, were elected redeemers. Either at the end of 1515 or the beginning of 1516, they embarked and following a hard voyage, they arrived in Tunis where they rescued 458 captives. However, because plagues were raging in that country, some of the redeemed died, others became sick and stayed behind and, to live more freely or to give in to their vices, still others fled and went back to the Moors. Distressed by the loss of these souls, the redeemers tried to gather the rest and left for Spain.
Despite the hardships and the tribulations which the redeemers experienced in this redemption, neither they nor the Order became discouraged. In just over two months, enough money was collected for another redemption and the same friars went back to Tunis in the same year, 1516. They rescued 70 captives who cost a considerable sum of money because many important people were among them. The group left Tunis and arrived in Trapani, Sicily. The redeemers decided to go to Rome and to present the redemption to Pope Leo X. They arrived in Rome in July and after obtaining permission, they went in solemn procession to give thanks to God in Saint Peter’s Basilica and to kiss the pope’s feet. Rejoicing over so many redeemed captives, the pope confirmed all his predecessors’ blessings and privileges for redemption as it is recorded in the bull, Dum grata Deo of July 28, 1516, and welcoming the redeemers’ petition, Leo X named Cardinal Francisco Remolino protector of the Order on September 24, 1516.
At the General Chapter held in Saragossa in 1525, the following redeemers were appointed: Martín de Labayén, the Pamplona superior, Jerónimo Pérez, an educator, Domingo de Clavería, the Gerona superior, Juan de Potja, the Toulouse superior and provincial of France. The group was to go to Tunis. This took place in 1525, after the redeemers had gone for the Holy Year Jubilee in Rome where they obtained from Clement VII the confirmation of the most important privileges conceded to the Order by a bull issued on September 22. They left Rome and going through Sicily, they arrived in Tunis where they redeemed 234 captives. They did not arrive in Spain until 1527.
In 1561, the General Chapter was held in Barcelona. On that occasion, the Master General, Miguel Puig, sought to prove the Order’s vitality by organizing a redemption which would combine redeemers from Aragon with those from Castile. The Aragon redeemers were Fathers Matías Papiol, secretary general, and Fortunio de Esparza, the Pamplona superior, and those from Castile were Antonio Martínez, very experienced in this ministry, and Juan Vallejo, a model of recollection and fervor, who saw the threshold of martyrdom on his way to Algiers. There were 427 redeemed captives, a number never reached since the start of the foundation. Some of them were very expensive. The Order celebrated this redemption as a glorious triumph despite the enormous cost which came close to forty thousand gold escudos. Among the redeemed, there were four Franciscan women religious who had been taken captives when they were going to Cagliari to reform the monastery of their Order. This redemption arrived in Valencia on November 27, 1562.
Concerning the redemptions, it should be noted that, in the quoted bull overflowing with praises of the Order, Pope Leo X allowed convents to use the third part of the alms collected for their own support and to deposit the rest safely under lock and key. This would be included in the Constitutions. In 1530, Clement VII required Mercedarian friars themselves to collect alms and he forbade the use of collectors. This decision was also incorporated in the Order’s legislation at a later date.
In addition to redemptive and evangelizing activity, during this period, there was also an emphasis on education. Friars continued to attend universities to obtain academic degrees and titles. In this regard, the concern of the Master General, Miguel Puig, Licentiate in canon law (the way he signed during his whole life), a very cultured man and a friend of culture, could not have been more beneficial in steering the bark of Peter Nolasco. To the Veracruz College of Salamanca, the first in the Province of Castile and perhaps in the Order at the end of the fifteenth century, were added that of Paris (1515) and of Alcalá de Henares (1518).
Countless religious distinguished themselves in the halls of universities during that period. Chronologically, the first Mercedarian professors of Salamanca were Francisco Merino and Alonso de Medina. The following stand out among many: Domingo de San Juan del Pie del Puerto, a professor at the University of Paris who was brought to Spain by the University of Salamanca in 1518 to teach philosophy and who became its vice-chancellor.
Miguel Jerónimo Calmell (+1558), a doctor in theology, in law and an apostolic lawyer, wrote Super Cantica canticorum and other works of a spiritual nature.
Jerónimo Pérez was a doctor in theology and a professor at the University of Valencia. This famous Mercedarian theologian, born in Valencia at the end of the fifteenth century, was considered one of the most brilliant and enlightened professors of the time. In his teaching, he replaced Peter Lombard’s book of Sententiae by Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Other universities followed his example. He wrote the first commentaries on the Summa, published in Spain. The University of Gandía founded by Francisco de Borja contracted Jerónimo Pérez as professor of young Jesuits whom he taught almost until his death (1549). Another Mercedarian, Pedro Juan Tárrega, an art professor, taught with him in Gandía.
Gregorio Arcisio was a renowned master in theology and a doctor in medicine in Paris. From 1551, he was a great figure in Salamanca. He practiced medicine brilliantly and, at the 1554 chapter, he contributed a hundred escudos for redemption from his honorariums as a physician. His philosophy books were in demand with students and there were editions of them in Salamanca, Alcalá and Valencia.
Father Gaspar de Torres (1510-1584) was a Salamanca professor. As vice-chancellor, he played an outstanding role in organizing one of the first teaching centers in the world at the time. He is the author of the University of Salamanca’s Statutes which were approved in 1561, and many of them have lasted through the centuries. He also wrote the Reglamento of the Faculty of theology of the University.
In France, among others, Fathers Jerónimo de San Román, Agustín Noblet, Martín Peronato, Domingo de Clavería and Pedro Aymerich became renowned for their vast culture and teaching in Paris.
Theologically, in terms of doctrine, Mercedarians did not form a special school. The existing schools sufficed. In general, Mercedarians were faithful to Saint Thomas except for the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin which they interpreted freely without submitting to any school.
The rich Mercedarian history is filled with a numerous gallery of humble friars who lived their lives of consecration to the fullest and who are examples of virtue for all Christians. Some of these forgotten religious are deservedly remembered here.
Bartolomé de Laurencio lived in Italy—concretely in Sicily—in the fifteenth century. He was a renowned preacher, the superior of the Santa Ana de Palermo convent and vicar general for Italy. He enjoyed deserved prestige with the viceroy and the princes of the kingdom of Sicily. He would spend most of his day totally absorbed in contemplation: he abhorred worldly honors and to be able to live only in prayer and in God’s service, he renounced all posts in the Order. Thus, he spent the last years of his life in total surrender to the Lord.
Agustín de Revenga was one of the sixteenth-century religious who had the greatest influence on the new evangelization which prevailed in the Order at that time. He served as rector of the Alcalá College from 1545 to 1569, the year of his death. Emphasizing austerity and holiness of his life, Francisco Zumel, who was his companion at the Toledo chapter (1565), said: “He came from a distinguished family but he was even more distinguished for his works and his lifestyle. He fasted almost every day of his life (I am a witness to that), except on Sundays and feastdays, abstaining from meat. He always slept on the ground which explained the pallor of his face which everybody noticed. His clothes stood out because of their simplicity. He would do a lot of corporal penance. He was admirable in prayer and contemplation to which he devoted long hours during the day and at night. His conversation and his manners were also kind.” He is buried in the Mercedarian College in Alcalá. People always considered him as a saint.
Luis de la Peña received his religious formation in Santiago (Chile) where he took his first vows in 1578. On January 16, 1581, as a student, he signed the minutes of a conventual meeting at the time when Pedro de Moncalvillo was provincial. After being ordained a priest, he performed various functions in the province and he devoted himself especially to the Araucanians’ evangelization using the Valdivia convent where he was superior as the basis of apostolic activity. In one of the malones (surprise attacks) by Araucanian warriors who entered the convent to sack it and to burn it, after having warned the other religious of the attack, Father Luis rushed to the church to consume the Eucharist to prevent its profanation. He was still holding the ciborium in his hands when the bellicose natives who killed him with their spears, burst into the church and looking for the Blessed Sacrament, they cut Father Luis’ chest open and tore his heart out. His body was consumed by flames. It was November 24, 1599. Father Luis de Peña, a protomartyr of Chile who died for his faith, is considered a martyr of the Eucharist because—as Tirso de Molina observed—”while he could have saved his life by fleeing, rather than his life, he preferred to save within his chest his consecrated God whom he deserved to take to heaven as Viaticum.” This event was remembered with special veneration at the Order’s General Chapter held in Toledo in 1627 and in Father Francisco Saavedra’s report, which was sent to the Governor of Chile, don Francisco de Meneses, in 1664. At the present time, as a testimony of this episode, a small chalice is kept in the Santiago Mercedarian convent and it is used on Holy Thursday. On the same occasion, the Araucanians took another religious, José de las Heras, with them and hanging him from a tree, they shot him to death with arrows.
Juan de Santa María was born in Andalusia. From his days as a novice until his death, he was a perfect example of observance. As a priest well-versed in Sacred Scriptures, he was fervent and zealous in the religious instruction of his parishioners and those under his spiritual direction through his homilies and exhortations filled with the spirit of Saint Paul. Aware of his apostolic gifts, his superiors sent him to America where he proclaimed the Gospel for many years. Chronicler Bernardo de Vargas related many extraordinary deeds attributed to this religious among which were the conversion of Chief Tamaracunga and his constant struggles against the enemies of evangelization. He lived as a poor, penitent religious and was always fervent in prayer. He died in 1549.
Cristóbal de Albarrán was one of the first priests venturing to go proclaim the Gospel to the natives of Southern Peru and to a large area of what is now in Argentina and Paraguay. From an account sent to the procurator general, Esteban Muniera, and mentioned by Chronicler Bernardo de Vargas, we know that he had preached zealously in Santiago del Estero, Córdoba, Jujuy, Asunción, etc. From another report sent to Philip II in 1566, we also know that during that year, Father Albarrán was martyred by Chiriguayanos.
Alonso of Arequipa, known only by the name of Alonso, lived and died at the Arequipa convent. He was just a lay brother but a very cultured and humble man who did not want to accede to priestly dignity. He took care of domestic chores but, in addition, he devoted himself fervently to prayer and to contemplation before the crucifix and the Blessed Virgin. He did corporal penances and made tremendous sacrifices in a small chapel that he had built in the convent’s garden. It is said that he performed several miraculous deeds only by making the sign of the cross and these deeds were confirmed in the inquiry gathered after his death in 1569, a death which he had predicted. The process for his beatification was initiated immediately but it was not continued.
Vidal Dubusc. This servant of God was born in Cominges, France, around 1571. His parents raised him in the fear of God. Endowed with excellent qualities, he was sent to Bordeaux where he studied not only to be wise but also to become virtuous. He received the habit with great joy and entered the novitiate where he lived according to the Rule and “it can be truly said that from his profession until his death, the life he led in the Order was just the continuation of the exercises of the novitiate… dedicated to prayer, humble, obedient, charitable, self-sacrificing and so oblivious of himself and of everything which was not according to God that he can be proposed to others as the perfect model of virtue.” He studied philosophy and theology and brilliantly obtained his doctoral degree. He was an outstanding professor as a young man. Elected superior and later, provincial, he governed the Province of France with wisdom, charity and zeal for observance. He was the first superior of the newly founded Paris convent which Queen Marie de Médicis had donated in 1614. In Paris, his piety and his erudition quickly earned him the admiration of the nobility and the faithful who made him their spiritual director. The queen herself held him in high esteem for his outstanding virtues. Father Dubusc used his prestige to solicit plenty of alms for the redemption of captives.
Father Dubusc, perfectly versed in the paths of mystical life, wrote and published the book Les saints devoirs de l’âme, “a monument to his unusual teaching and great piety.” He died in Paris in 1618, leaving behind such a trail of sanctity that people who knew him requested pieces of his habit to keep as a precious relic.
Since the start of the Order, there had been confraternities made of pious men and women who, moved by the spirit of charity and penance, cooperated enthusiastically in the redemptive endeavor of Saint Peter Nolasco and his Mercedarians. They were helping the friars in their personal work of attending to captives and with their financial resources. Near convents, a nucleus of people was being formed. These people were trying to imitate religious life insofar as they could. They would take part in Mercedarian charitable works and aspired to participate in their fruits and merits. Thus, confraternities, brotherhoods and the Third Order of Mercy were born. In their desire to foster the piety of the laity and to help the Order in its work of redeeming captives, the Supreme Pontiffs blessed and encouraged their members and associates with special graces. Women formed the major part of confraternities, brotherhoods and the Third Order. With time and as their number kept increasing, legislation applying to them also developed.
At the beginning of the fourteenth century, Tertiaries came together in houses to live in community and they formed what is known as beaterios. They would live there observing the enclosure, without excluding active life, after taking their vows recorded in the book of professions of the religious. From the sixteenth century on and especially after the Council of Trent, these beaterios became autonomous convents of papal enclosure and they formed the Second Mercedarian Order. They had great vitality and produced many fruits of sanctity. This does not mean that when the beaterios or convents became organized the Third Order disappeared. It did continue its apostolate in the world and later became a strong nucleus in the Mercedarian family.
From the first convents of Mercedarian nuns, historically, the oldest one is the Guadalajara convent. It was approved by Pope Julius II in 1509. Chronologically, then came the convent of the Madre de Dios del Consuelo of Lorca (Murcia). It started in 1514, and it was canonically approved in 1515. The Bilbo (Bilbao) convent started around 1514 at the center of the old city and later moved to Lañomendi. Religious from this monastery started the Deusto convent in 1538. The following year, the Lete (Guipúzcoa) convent started and later moved to Escoriaza, less than a mile away from the previous one. The Marquina convent appeared in 1548.
In Seville in the South, with the approval of Pius V and adjacent to the large magnificent Mercedarian convent, the Assumption monastery of Mercedarian nuns was founded in 1567.
The renowned monastery of Berriz started as a beaterio of religious women incorporated in the Order of Mercy in 1542.
Every new convent was, along with its church, a new place of cult to the Redeeming Virgin, Mary of Mercy and of Marian illumination in the region. In this sense, the 1515 foundation of the Paris convent with its university college and church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin of Mercy was the occasion to start promoting devotion to ‘Notre Dame de la Merci.’
It is interesting to note that at the beginning of each canonical hour of the Office of Saint Mary, the Ave Maria was recited with the second part: Santa Maria, Virgo Mater Dei, ora pro nobis marking the end of the prayer. In the edition of the Order’s breviary which Master Jaime Llorenz de la Mata had published in Paris in 1514, the words: Nunc et in hora mortis. Amen, appeared for the first time in Mercedarian liturgical books. Later, these terms became used by the Church.
During the evangelization of America, the Mercedarians spread the devotion and cult to the Blessed Virgin under the title of Mercy throughout this immense continent. From the foundation of the first sanctuary dedicated to Mary in Santo Cerro on the island of Santo Domingo, Saint Peter Nolasco’s friars rapidly spread the devotion to Blessed Mary of Mercy throughout the Americas. The Mercedarian friars went from Mexico to remote Patagonia proclaiming the Gospel and enthroning their Mother in churches, chapels, altars and above all, in people’s hearts.
The American people have kept this Marian devotion alive and deep-rooted. It can be said that the Order of Mercy contributed efficaciously to the Marian physiognomy which characterizes Latin American Christianity. During the evangelization and when America reached its Christian status, the Virgin of Mercy bound together lay institutions like the Third Order and the Confraternity of the Scapular. Inspired by the Order’s charism and redemptive spirituality, members of these groups lived and worked, along with religious.