CRISIS AND SURVIVAL
Throughout the eighteenth century, Europe was invaded by a movement of ideas which became known as the Enlightenment whose teaching expressed the need to illuminate, to enlighten the realities of this earth with the lights of pure reason. Hence, this fight was against the mentality connected with the values of tradition, especially Christian tradition. became known as the Enlightenment whose teaching expressed the need to illuminate, to enlighten the realities of this earth with the lights of pure reason. Hence, this fight was against the mentality connected with the values of tradition, especially Christian tradition.
Another current of thought with practical repercussion on the relations between State and Church was what was called Regalism. In France, it was called Gallicanism and it was founded on the authority of the State over the Church. This was especially manifested in the exercise of royal patronage by way of the so-called ecclesiastical police and the introduction of the right to appeal to civil authority against the abuses of ecclesiastical authority. In some place, the State also claimed the right to intervene in religious affairs and it even went as far as imposing inspections of religious houses and dictating norms about worship.
This state of affairs had to have a negative influence on the inner life of religious institutes and consequently on the Order of Mercy which, in Europe, extended to France, Spain and Italy.
The Commission of Regulars and the Mercedarians
During the eighteenth century, religious institutes which had a glorious past in France were in a general state of identity crisis. Large communities with a great vitality before it had become reduced to small insignificant communities were devoid of the evangelizing and spiritual thrust which characterized them. On the other hand, the new ideas, spread by philosophers who despised religious values and every form of monastic life, contributed to weaken the vocational field and to strengthen the idea of taking away the goods of religious for the benefit of the nation and of the poor. This offensive unleashed discredit of the regular clergy. A campaign against all religious ensued.
In this context, King Louis XV was slyly informed that in monasteries of different religious orders, there had been abuses prejudicial to the orders themselves, to the edification of the people and to the good of the state religion. On May 23, 1776, the king appointed a commission, made up of state councilors and people named by bishops, to verify the situation and to resolve it. A Commission of Regulars was formed. It was presided by the Archbishop of Rheims, Monsignor La Roche-Aymone, whose secretary was the Archbishop of Toulouse, Monsignor Loménie de Brienne.
This commission took up its duties immediately. It sent a questionnaire to bishops in order to know the situation of the religious in each diocese. Without underestimating the positive aspect of communities, the bishops did describe certain abuses which had entered religious life.
Without waiting for the results of the work undertaken by the commission, in March 1768, the king published a decree by which he forbade admission to religious vows before 21 years of age for men and 18 for women and decided to suppress communities with fewer than 15 religious for autonomous houses. Where it was not possible to have 8 members of the same institute, religious had to join other institutes with a similar goal. These measures simply accelerated the effective decrease of religious, especially among men.
The commission had to take action in a difficult and complex situation with problems in many houses and institutes even though religious, as a whole, formed a solid group. These negative circumstances were resolved by taking into account the opinion of those involved and the views of diocesan bishops. One of the commission’s first measure was to close the houses whose income was insufficient to support its religious and those with few members. The application of this measure was entrusted to the bishops of each diocese. The bishops were aware that small communities were engaged in an irreplaceable pastoral service, especially in rural areas.
At the time of the commission, Mercedarians in France had 16 houses with 81 religious and an income of 145,317 pounds in the old Southern Province while the Paris community had 3 houses with 23 religious and an income of 8,400 pounds. Thus, in France, Mercedarians had 19 houses with more or less 105 religious with a yearly income of 153,717 pounds.
The documents of the commission contain a report by de Brienne which deals with the Mercedarians’ situation. Three aspects are especially emphasized. In the first place, the large number of small houses with few members. Secondly, their poverty which force religious to beg for alms for themselves, not for captives according to their charism, leading to deceiving the faithful, forcing religious to seek food and clothing and thus favoring their having their private peculium. This situation was worsened by an outstanding debt incurred by the province because of a loan for a redemption of captives and for the privileges of the graduates. Finally, the report points to the rather elderly religious, some of whom had called on the pope requesting to join the secular clergy because the convents were so poor.
After having examined the situation, De Brienne was convinced that the Order of Mercy was heading toward its unavoidable extinction. There were three possible solutions before him: preserving it after the application of the 1768 decree, suppressing it with the dispensation from the same decree and uniting it with another similar Order like the Order of the Most Holy Trinity. De Brienne was leaning toward this third solution.
Negotiations to Resolve the Situation
The commission convinced the capitulars of the old province, gathered in Toulouse in April 1769, to accept this third solution. In compliance with the orders of the royal commissioners, the chapter named some religious to negotiate the matter with the Trinitarians. The provincial, Father Remigio Estève, was opposed to this solution and he informed the Master General of the Order, Gil de Bernabé, by sending him a memorandum in which he requested him to prevent the union of French Mercedarians with Trinitarians.
The intervention of the Master General who had resorted to the king of Spain asking him to support the cause in favor of preserving the Mercedarians of France had as its immediate result a change for the time in the fate of the Order. The state council ordered the religious named in the chapter who had been meeting since November 1771, at the Montpellier convent with the Trinitarians to establish the unification. to stop discussing the matter. The bishop of Mirepoix, a royal commissioner, declared the assembly dissolved.
The following year, there was to be an ordinary provincial chapter but it was suspended because the commission deemed it more opportune to inform the Master General of the situation of the Mercedarian religious and to request adequate remedies from him despite the fact that De Brienne had asked Rome to appoint an apostolic commissioner to visit the houses and to divide the religious into two groups: those who wanted to join the Trinitarians and those who wished to remain in their Mercedarian houses after their proper reorganization.
The situation brought to the Master General’s attention did not bring good news. In its session of April 22, 1773, the state council had ordered the suppression of small convents, the reduction of the number of religious according to the income of the province, the affiliation of religious to the remaining houses and the election of the superior of the house by the religious residing there. As a result, the provincial chapter of that year had decided that six houses were to remain: Toulouse, Bordeaux, Cahors, Perpignan, Montpellier and Marseilles. Faced with this situation, the Master General responded that the houses could be reduced in proportion to the income of the former province, that the superiors of the Order were indifferent about the individualization of the houses which the commission had deemed opportune to close, that he could ban the acceptance of religious from other institutes in Mercedarian houses thus making it clear that the union with other religious should be avoided.
Since the closing of some convents was unavoidable, the commission did not follow the instructions of De Brienne who wanted to put the matter in the hands of the royal commissioners and it chose to follow the measures established by the Master General. In fact, the Master General delegated Father Agustín Puel, a religious of the former province, as procurator general for the reform after the death of the provincial, Father Estève, and he made Puel his vicar general and visitator of the Province of France under the authority of the commission. He was in charge of coming to terms with the state council and with the bishops concerning the closing of some houses, the sale of their assets and the living condition of the other religious.
In May 1774, Father Puel had already concluded the visitation and he had proposed the immediate suppression of seven houses and the suppression of four more upon the deaths of the religious living there at the time. Father Puel also made other agreements with the state council. For example, religious could continue to collect alms for the redemption of captives and the provincial chapter, whose objective would be naming new superiors and organizing the communities, was to open on January 22, 1775, in the presence of the royal commissioner, the bishop of Mirepoix.
Suppression of Houses
The process of dissolution of the Mercedarian Order in France was very quick. By a decree of the state council of July 29, 1774, the assets of the suppressed houses were attributed to the remaining houses unless the bishops had planned to establish a pension for the religious. A subsequent decree of May 1, 1775, established the assignment of nine religious from the suppressed houses to a convent where they could stay. These were the six houses indicated in the 1773 chapter, one more than the ones proposed by Father Puel: Marseilles with 12 religious, Bordeaux with 17, Montpellier with 9, Perpignan with 12, Toulouse with 18 and Cahors with 14. The other convents could only remain open until the deaths of their religious who, in the meantime, were authorized to sell their assets. In this way, the following convents were preserved: Auterive with 6 religious, Aurignac with 6, Carcassonne with 6, Aix with 3, Riscle with 3 and Maleville with 2 religious. At its May 1778 meeting, the provincial chapter authorized the houses to negotiate their own suppression with the ordinaries. This authorization suggests a sense of distrust of the future.
The first Mercedarian convents to close were: Salies-du-Salat, Castellane and Toulon. These were followed by the suppression of the convent of Saint Peter Nolasco’s hometown, Mas-Saintes-Puelles (1775), where two religious had been serving as vicars in the local parish since 1703. The Maleville convent was abandoned in 1777, when the religious informed the bishop of Rodez that they could no longer meet the demands imposed on their possessions. The Carcassonne convent was suppressed by a decree of October 21, 1780, issued by the bishop who transferred the convents’ assets to the seminary and the diocese. The convents of Cahors, Montpellier and Aix were suppressed in 1787. In 1785, the archbishop of Toulouse had been authorized to suppress the houses of the religious of his diocese and to use the assets of the suppressed houses for educational institutes. With such an authorization, the archbishop suppressed the Toulouse convent by a decree of August 4, 1789, and its assets were assigned to the seminary of the city.
Concerning the Paris community, a March 1774 report from the Commission of Regulars revealed that after abandoning the Chenoise house, the congregation was reduced to the house on Chaume Street in Paris, where the college was also about to be suppressed by the bishop. There were 12 religious in the Paris house and the Commission deemed it superfluous to have a chapter which was suspended sine die.
In a letter of February 14, 1788, Master General José González reminded the King of France, Louis XV, that he had granted the continuation of the Mercedarian houses and that, at that time, there were still seven of them in existence: six in the provinces and one in the Paris community. Perhaps the Master General was hoping that the king would help Mercedarian religious to recover. However, the religious were unfortunately not in a position to undertake their own resurgence. With the passing of time, the religious had not only decreased in number but they had also aged. A letter of June 15, 1788, from the Toulouse superior, Father Decamps, reported that the religious of the province were between 48 and 50, with most of them in their eighties.
Definitive Disappearance of the Mercedarians in France
The definitive collapse of the Mercedarians in France was to occur during the Revolution. However, the causes were already present in the situation created by the Commission of Regulars.
When the Revolution started, the revolutionaries did not intend to suppress religious institutes which were not generally suffering from particular problems. On the contrary, after the reform realized by the Commission of Regulars, a certain awakening and renewal was starting to take place in some institutes. However, events took a different turn and with various laws, religious institutes were suppressed and their members were invited to be secularized. Government inspectors went to convents and, after reading the provisions of the law, they asked each one to manifest his own will: if they wanted to enjoy the benefits that the new régime was offering by returning to the world or if they wanted to remain religious along with other religious in determined monasteries.
According to reports about the Mercedarian Paris community, most of the religious preferred to abandon religious life and become secularized. As for the remaining religious of the former province, from the effects which followed, it seems that they preferred to give up religious life. After they had been scattered in different monasteries, the few religious who decided to remain faithful to their commitment were thrown out in 1792, and they had to hide or move. Consequently, there was no other possibility of restoration for the Mercedarians in France.
The Carlist Reform
In 1769, with a population of 9,308,804, Spain had 55,453 men religious and 27,665 women religious —mostly cloistered— in 3,034 convents. The Catholic king often thought he was authorized to intervene in religious life by personally naming visitators of monasteries or frequently imposing religious superiors. Under the Bourbon rule, state bodies assumed the right to correct abuses in convents in matters of observance. The provisions imposed by kings during the final quarter of the eighteenth century should be placed in this perspective.
Early in 1770, King Charles III determined to have visits to religious convents. A hidden intention of these visits was to reduce the number of religious in Spain. When the monarch, Charles III, by a royal cedula of 1774, openly ordered the reduction of religious, according to statistics contained in that very cedula, the Mercedarian Provinces appeared the following way: Province of Aragon: 27 convents, 390 priests, 25 choristers, 122 brothers, total 537; Province of Castile: 20 convents, 420 priests, 30 choristers, 90 brothers, total 540; Province of Valencia: 15 convents, 272 priests, 18 choristers, 102 brothers, total 392; Province of Andalusia: 20 convents, 470 priests, 33 choristers, 149 brothers, total 643.
According to this order of reduction, the Province of Aragon was to have only 260 religious, the Province of Castile, 301, the Province of Valencia, 182 and the Province of Andalusia, 289. The reduction was in relation with the costs to support each religious since their number could not exceed the income which each convent had. This would be the dominant criterion everywhere when deciding the suppression of a religious house. As a result, there was an alarming decrease of religious during the following years.
The Spanish religious institutes were in need of reform. To carry it out, on September 10, 1802, Pope Pius VII named Cardinal Luis de Borbón y Villabriga as the apostolic visitator of all religious of any type present in Spain. Among the visitation’s goals, the cardinal had to verify if the troubles which were lamented came from the fact that bishops had little authority over religious. In addition, the king wanted a greater reduction of the number of religious to alleviate the miserable financial conditions of convents. To comply with the king’s desires, the pope gave the visitator power to verify and to make decisions to reduce the number of mendicant religious. Quite a few convents were suppressed then. But the visitator’s action was not always in keeping with the internal norms of the institutes. The visitator’s way of proceeding was contested by Nuncio Pedro Gravina. Because of this tension and of other political events, Cardinal Luis de Borbón was removed from office and replaced by Cardinal Gravina as the supreme moderator of religious life in Spain.
Napoleonic Suppression and Constitutionalist Reform
The really difficult times started with the French invasion of Spain. In a decree of December 4, 1808, Napoleon ordered the reduction of convents by a third and he forbade admitting novices until this third had been further reduced. His brother, Joseph Bonaparte, was set up as King of Spain. In a decree of August 18, 1809, he established the suppression of all religious orders in Spain, ordering religious to return to their place of origin and priests to be employed in serving parishes. In this situation, the assets of the religious were confiscated by the State. The convents were generally assigned as soldiers’ quarters.
During this period, most Mercedarians opposed the French invasion and they joined those who were fighting for the independence of their homeland. Father Antonio Temprano became a pro-independence political leader and, from the pulpit, Father Ximénez de Azofra preached against the French and their ally, King Ferdinand VII. Mercedarians suffered serious losses, both in material assets and in human lives. Among those who died during this period, Father Pedro Pascual Rubert, the Provincial of Valencia, was the most outstanding. He had been named by the people to form part of the Junta to defend the city against the French invaders. Because of that, he was taken prisoner and shot on January 18, 1812. The Guadalajara and Salamanca convents were destroyed by Wellington’s troops at the service of Spain so that the French would not use them as barracks. The Alcalá de Henares convent, used by French troops, was badly damaged.
In the meantime, an effort was underway to reestablish religious life in Spain. When religious returned to their convents (1814), they found them in ruins and superiors had to appeal to people’s charity to be able to feed the friars. Quite a few of them ended up by becoming secularized.
Father Manuel Martínez from the Province of Castile stands out in this adverse situation. He was a professor at the University of Valencia. With his talent and his influence at the ecclesiastical and civil levels, especially with King Ferdinand VII, Father Martínez was able to resolve many difficulties in the Order. Among other things, he was able to obtain the liberation of the superior of Madrid.
However, new ordeals were awaiting religious in Spain during the so-called constitutional triennium (1820-1823). The suppression of the remaining convents occurred during this period. According to authorities, all convents with fewer than 12 religious had to be closed and there could not be more than 24 religious in one city when a particular institute had several convents there. Therefore, Mercedarians were reformed according to these provisions and they lost the convents with fewer than 12 religious. At the same time, admitting novices was forbidden and exclaustration was made easy for those who asked for it.
The period of history which Spain experienced after 1833, was one of the most disastrous ever recorded for religious life. With the reign of Isabella II and the return of liberals to power during the government of Toreno and Mendizábal, a legislation intentionally designed to destroy religious in Spain was systematically applied. At the time, there were 30,906 religious.
As a first measure, on March 26, 1834, there was a decree to suppress all monasteries and convents which had supported the Carlists during the war. Then the Society of Jesus was expelled from Spain on July 4, 1835. On July 25, all convents with fewer than 12 professed religious were suppressed. The final blow was dealt by the Mendizábal decree of March 18, 1836. According to it, all men’s convents that were not involved in teaching or hospital assistance were suppressed and the sale of the assets belonging to suppressed religious orders was publicly authorized. A year later, the suppression became even more general: with the decree of July 17, 1837, all monasteries, convents and houses of men and women religious of the Peninsula were suppressed, except a few colleges of the Pious Schools [Piarists] or of hospital assistance of the Brothers of Saint John of God.
The immediate consequence of these suppressions was that many religious were exclaustrated and in most cases, they devoted themselves to pastoral work in the diocese. Since the State committed itself to give a pension to exclaustrated religious, we know the exact situation created by suppressions by the number of concessions granted: in 1837 alone, 23,935 religious were exclaustrated and 16,031 of them were priests.
From statistics presented to the ecclesiastical Junta by the vicar general, Father Tomás Miquel, we know that in the summer of 1834, there were 1,070 Mercedarian religious in Spain: 592 were priests, 54 ordained in sacris, 200 choristers, 213 lay brothers and 11 novices. These religious were spread in 80 houses of the four provinces. In 36 houses, there were fewer than 12 religious.
The first criminal action against the Order took place during the night of July 17, 1834, when savage hordes of people attacked the Madrid convent, murdering 8 religious, including the provincial, Father Manuel Esparza. They stripped the convent of all it had and also stole 100,000 reales which belonged to the work of redemption. The summer of 1835 was a truly tragic season for the Order. On July 5, the Saragossa convent was burned down and 4 religious were murdered. There were other attacks on the following days and religious had to flee from the convents to save their lives.
Situation of the Exclaustrated
By several decrees issued in those years until 1836, all convents were closed and religious had to leave them, more or less by force. They were not even allowed to take their most essential and personal things along.
Some religious opted for exile taking refuge in France, like the vicar general, Father Tomás Miquel, or in Italy. Several religious were accepted in Rome, at Saint Adriano convent where, in 1835, there were 5 priests and 10 students from the Province of Aragon. Pursued by liberals in Málaga, the former Master General, José García Palomo, had also taken refuge in Rome in 1834. In November 1837, he went to Cagliari with 7 other Spanish religious. Their unexpected presence made the Bonaria financial situation worse. On August 10, 1840, the vicar general of the Sardinia Congregation informed the vicar general of the Order in Rome of Father José García Palomo’s death which occurred in Cagliari on July 31, 1840.
Life for exclaustrated religious was certainly not easy. They had to look for work and suffered anguish before finding a tolerable position. The government had decided to pay them from 3 to 5 reales per day but this payment arrived after many difficulties. Many religious worked in parishes as coadjutors or chaplains for nuns or in teaching.
Despite this situation of dispersion, religious continued to see themselves as assigned to a specific house and under a superior with special faculties named by Rome. Conscious of their vow of poverty, a few priests who had accumulated some money, would send it to the vicar general in Rome or they distributed it to their relatives and to their benefactors after having asked special permission from the Holy See by way of the procurator of the Order. Such behavior spoke favorably of exclaustrated religious and gave hope that they could resume religious life in common after the circumstances, which had led them to live out of convents, were overcome. A law on associations approved by Parliament in 1878, was going to bring some hope to religious life.
Situation of the Mercedarians in Italy
At the start of the nineteenth century, Mercedarians in Italy were distributed into two religious entities: the Province of Italy and the Community of Sardinia.
After the separation of the convents of discalced Mercedarians, the Province of Italy had eight convents at that time: five in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and three located in the Pontifical State, one of them was Saint Adriano convent in Rome. By a brief of Pius VI on August 2, 1785, this major house was separated from the Province of Italy and it remained as the see of the Procurator General of the Order and as an international college.
On the basis of concrete financial means for the support of religious, these convents were subdivided into major and minor houses. The major convents were Saint Adriano in Rome, Santa Ursula in Naples and Santa Anna in Palermo. According to the Constitutions, the major convents of Naples and Palermo were entrusted to Spanish religious while Spanish and Italian religious could reside in Saint Adriano. All other convents were called minor because they were poor in resources and therefore they could not have many religious.
In the three years from 1774 to 1777, three convents were closed because they were poor: Traetto (Minturno), Messina and Santa Agata in Palermo. It seems from these records that around 1780, there were about 65 religious in the Italian Peninsula. By adding the 10 from Saint Adriano, the total number of religious was 75. The 65 religious of the Province of Italy were reduced to 49 in 1804, with 28 priests, 4 clerics and 17 lay brothers distributed among the remaining convents: Naples (Santa Ursula) with 13 priests and 6 lay brothers; Naples (San Arcangelo in Baiano) with 9 priests and 3 lay brothers; Palermo (Santa Anna) with 3 priests, 4 clerics and 6 lay brothers and Castelforte with 3 priests and 2 lay brothers.
As for the Mercedarian community of Sardinia, it had four convents and approximately 50 religious, including priests, students and brothers at the start of the nineteenth century.
Suppression Resulting from the Napoleonic Wars
Historical events had a pernicious effect, especially in the Kingdom of Naples where Mercedarian convents were located. The arrival of the French with Napoleon during the days of the Neapolitan Republic and the reorganization of the Bourbon régime created tensions and this caused great harm to religious. Mercedarians who had not suffered special losses with the suppression of the late eighteenth century in Naples, were affected during the so-called French decade (1806-1815), a period during which the two Naples convents were suppressed in 1808 and the Castelforte convent in 1809. Religious had to leave and to look for pastoral service or some other work in order to live.
The last chapter of the province was held in Naples in 1808. Father Lorenzo de Laurentis was elected. On June 27, 1815, he informed the procurator in writing that religious had not been paid for seven months by the government and he was hoping matters would soon be resolved in order to recover Santa Ursula convent. However, the provincial’s hope would not be realized soon, not until 1833, after Infante don Carlos Luis de Borbón, Duke of Lucca, had endowed Santa Ursula with an income of 2,500 escudos. Of the 3 suppressed convents, only this one recovered.
Since French troops did not succeed in occupying Sicily, the Palermo convent was isolated and could neither communicate with Naples, where the provincial resided, nor with Rome. That Mercedarian community elected its superior with the authorization of the king and of the archdiocesan curia. In 1818, the community had 8 priests and 4 lay brothers. In this state of isolation, there were two attempts to unite the Palermo and the Cagliari convents but the plan failed both times.
At that time, it was customary for the novitiate to take place in all convents. But, on July 23, 1805, the vicar general of Sardinia received a note from the Secretariat of State and War whereby the king ordered to stop having novices wear habits in all convents existing in his kingdom without having obtained his consent. This measure practically restricted the faculty of admitting candidates to the Order, a faculty which was at the king’s mercy. In fact, there were very few admissions from that time on and the same was true of professions, the last one to be recorded was in 1847.
Meanwhile, in the Sardinia community, the Sassari convent was closed because of its poverty by a decree of Pope Gregory XVI on January 27, 1836. Its assets were destined for the upkeep of the cemetery.
In this situation and with so many limitations, it was hard for religious life to keep going and the number of religious kept decreasing. A report to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars of April 21, 1842, provides data on convents and the Mercedarians’ situation in Italy: Saint Adriano in Rome had 15 religious, Santa Ursula in Naples had 15 religious, Santa Anna in Palermo had 8 religious, Cagliari had 35 religious, Alghero had 12 religious and Villacidro had 7 religious.
The political events of the Italian Risorgimento, the iniquitous laws of suppression of religious institutes and of the confiscation of their assets (laws of May 25, 1875 and of July 7, 1866), dealt the final blow to the presence of Mercedarians in Italy with the suppression of the convents which were still open. The only exception was Saint Adriano convent in Rome. It stayed as the only hope of reorganization after the storm had passed. Part of the Cagliari convent also remained open to house three priests and two lay brothers who were in charge of the Bonaria sanctuary.
A painful period of some twenty years started. During that time, Italian Mercedarian religious generally took refuge in the homes of their families or friends. Only a few stayed to take care of some convents and to maintain worship in respective churches. A report to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars of April 17, 1872, enables us to know the situation of exclaustrated religious in Italy. Religious from Naples and Sardinia were devoted to priestly ministry in various churches and towns and lived lives in keeping with their state as persons consecrated to God.
The enlightenment movement strongly manifested itself in America. It had a specific ideological content which expressed itself in a tendency toward a lay and secularized culture, in a rationalist attitude and in censuring traditional institutions, especially the Church. Its influence penetrated into convents and it affected religious life.
Among the most dynamic and influential initiatives which promoted these new currents and where ideas were expressed with the greatest freedom were literary, academic and artistic societies. Illustrious members of the secular and religious clergy formed part of them.
This enlightenment movement also marked an important stage on the road of American people toward their own autonomy. Mercedarians were present in promoting those cultural institutions. Let us mention among others: Jerónimo Calatayud in Lima in the society “Lovers of the Country” and collaborator in the Mercurio Peruano; in Mexico, Melchor Talamantes actively participated in literary gatherings and came to the post of censor of the Diario de México; in Santiago (Chile), Ignacio Aguirre was a university professor and Pedro Albán was the librarian of the Quito’s public library.
Situation of the American Provinces
At the end of the eighteenth century, the Order of Mercy had eight provinces and numerous religious in America. They were engaged in a fruitful and very diversified apostolate aimed especially at evangelizing, educating and promoting culture.
We know the statistics of the Mercedarians and the convents they had in 1775 from a July 27, 1769 decree of King Charles III by which he imposed religious reform in America. One of the decree’s goals was to reduce the number of religious in each convent. In order to comply with that decree, the Mercedarian quota in America would be the following: the Province of Mexico had 20 convents and 295 religious, 254 were to remain; the Province of Guatemala, 12 convents and 161 religious, 140 to remain; the Province of Santo Domingo, 7 convents and 136 religious, 93 to remain; the Province of Quito, 10 convents and 145 religious, 123 to remain and the Province of Lima had 15 convents and 271 religious, 154 were to remain. In 1772, this province had received the Chiloé convent which had previously belonged to the Province of Chile. The Province of Cuzco had 12 convents and 299 religious, 144 were to remain; the Province of Chile, 16 convents and 174 religious, 98 to remain and the Province of Tucumán had 12 convents and 181 religious, 44 were to remain.
In addition, there was the vice-province of Marañon in Brazil. It had about 100 religious in 5 convents. Fortunately, these religious and their convents were not affected since they were on territories under Portugal.
The Mercedarians and Pro-Independence Movements
All Mercedarian religious did not behave the same way vis-à-vis the pro-independence movements which emerged in the first quarter of the nineteenth century in America. Some were opposed to them, either because they were Spaniards or they thought they should not participate because these movements were not in keeping with their state. On the contrary, others—constituting a majority—were in favor and they did not hesitate as individuals or as communities to offer a generous contribution of ideas, assets, persons and even their lives for the independence of those nations. Here is a brief description of their participation in various places.
From the start, the revolution for independence promoted in New Spain (Mexico) was guided by members of the secular and regular clergy, some even at the head of the troops. In this movement in which so many members of the clergy took part, Mercedarians also offered their contributions in various ways from the beginning. Father Melchor Talamantes, who was born in Lima in 1765, was one of the first to be involved. He wrote works defending the ideas of independence of the American viceroyalties: one was the Congreso Nacional de Nueva España where he maintained “the need of independence for the American people” and that “the sovereignty of a nation is rooted in the people.” In his other work, Representación nacional o discurso filosófico, he held that the freedom of nations “was authorized by God who made them into nations free and independent of one another.” On September 16, 1808, Father Talamantes was imprisoned for spreading these ideas and he was condemned to capital punishment. He died in the jail of the San Juan de Ulúa castle on May 9, 1809. Several other Mexican Mercedarians participated in the movement for their homeland’s full autonomy like Fathers José A. Panes, José María González, José Bustamante, José María Lozano and José Lima. Others who took part in literary movements in various ways were arrested and judged or exiled.
Guatemala declared its independence on September 15, 1821. Father Benito Michelena from Nicaragua worked to obtain it by organizing and participating in the 1813 historical conspiracy.
Mercedarians took part in the independence of Venezuela: on April 9, 1810, when the Supreme Council was established, Father Bernardo Lanfranco was present with the bishop and other religious. Fathers Antonio Montero and Tomás Llorente were arrested because they were chaplains of Simón Bolívar’s troops. There were many and regular financial contributions to the new state. In 1814, on two occasions, a large amount of silver jewels and the Virgin’s gold crown were given to be used for the cause of the homeland.
Mercedarians from Ecuador showed their support of the struggles for independence in various ways: as representative of the regular clergy, Father Alvaro Guerrero was one of the signers of the Constitution of the Republic; in 1810, Father Antonio Albán gave a large sum of money for the already declared war of independence; Father Alvaro Guerrero gave the redemption money in spite of Father José Arízaga’s protest and in Cuenca, Fathers Antonio Samaniego and Francisco Cisneros were accused of sedition. On the other hand, there were also some royalist friars who tried to oppose independence like Fathers José Arízaga. Andrés Nieto Polo, Cecilio Cifuentes, Manuel Rodríguez and Mateo Ayala.
The most important contribution which the Mercedarians of Peru offered to independence was ideological. The most learned friars were trained at the Saint Peter Nolasco College of Lima and they were always in contact with the Lima intelligentsia. From their lecture halls came Fathers Jerónimo Calatayud, Higinio Durán Martel who became bishop of Panama and who signed that nation’s act of independence in 1821; Melchor Talamantes, Melchor Aponte, Manuel Cavero, Anselmo Tejero, Domingo de Oyeregui and others who played outstanding roles in the years before and after independence. On July 28, 1821, the provincial, Father Anselmo Tejero, signed the act of proclamation of independence and on July 29, all religious of the three convents of the capital pledged allegiance to independence. Two friars of Cuzco, Guillermo Lezama and José Espinoza, took part in the 1814 uprising. The convents of both provinces offered substantial financial contributions.
In Chile, Mercedarians were divided about the pro-independence movement: the visitator, Ignazio Aguirre, declared himself in favor of the monarchy and the provincial, Joaquín Larraín, in favor of the new régime. He had to leave the Order because of his political ideas. Mercedarians contributed to the establishment of the first Board of Government on September 18, 1810. They included Fathers Joaquín Larraín, Joaquín de la Jaraquemada, Bartolomé Rivas, Miguel Ovalle and Vicente Cantos. The National Congress named Father Joaquín de la Jaraquemada provincial of the Mercedarians. Some three days after his appointment, he sent a patriotic circular in favor of independence to religious. Mercedarians also contributed to emancipation by their material collaboration. For example, in 1818, when the Santiago community did not have any other funds available, it agreed to give the money of the redemption of captives. During this period, Chilean Mercedarians were conditioned by political events since many of them were involved in the process of change.
In Argentina, Mercedarians gave their convents to house soldiers and religious helped them in their military operations. In 1810, the following Mercedarians showed their great patriotism publicly: Provincial Hilario Torres who requested public voting on May 24; Father Manuel Aparicio, the superior of the Buenos Aires convent, who spread the ideas of independence and the 17 friars who signed the act of the independence of Argentina on May 25. After the military operations of the new government were initiated, Mercedarians were the first military chaplains to attend to the spiritual needs of the country’s soldiers. Fathers Miguel Medina, Pablo José Conget, Isidoro Mentasti, Antonio de la Cuesta and Manuel Antonio Ascorra were outstanding in this ministry.
Effects of the New Political Régime
In general, the liberal ideas which had encouraged independence put the republican governments in the situation of having to confront the Church which they wanted to submit to their political plans. This also affected religious life which had remarkably developed in America.
In 1822, the Spanish government issued decrees about the so-called Reform of Regulars in America. These decrees were based on the following principles: no candidate under 25 could be given the religious habit; generals and provincials of religious orders were suppressed and religious were subject to the authority of ordinaries and local superiors. These provisions had tragic consequences for religious life, enclosure, the observance of the Rule and the Constitutions and for the administration of goods. Thus the doors to secularization were also opened and it was almost always requested without sufficient motives.
Although viceroyal authorities did not generally apply these decrees, they were applied in Cuzco causing serious harm to religious. Since almost all the nations were already independent, the new republican governments considered themselves heirs of the freedom of association and, based on that idea, they promulgated their first laws on the religious state. They took over the assets of the religious to whom they assigned a pension not always sufficient for their support. Religious had to take care of their own food and clothing which gave rise to their own peculium to the detriment of poverty and community life. The climate of independence had also pervaded religious lifestyle to the detriment of obedience. Yet, the worst effect came from the suppression of generals and provincials. Thus, the line of communication with the Order’s central authorities were cut off. Religious were practically left at the mercy of civil power which unscrupulously invaded a domain which did not pertain to it.
The consequences of political happenings were not the same everywhere due to the different attitudes of civil governments but they always seriously impaired the religious state.
In Mexico, the consequences of the change in the political régime on the religious state were minor at first but they worsened with time and produced great laxity in communal life. At the beginning of the second half of the century, the governments’ anti-religious politics were disastrous for the Church, religious life and therefore, for Mexican Mercedarians. Political events, the promulgation of the 1857 Constitution and markedly anticlerical liberal laws destined to annihilate the Church caused an authentic religious persecution. In fact, the so-called law of reform of July 12, 1859, not only decreed the suppression of all religious orders but also that of the confraternities and associations attached to them. At the same time, all church assets were nationalized. To comply with these laws, compulsory secularization of religious, closing of novitiates and of churches entrusted to them were decreed. Foreign clerics were expelled, priests were deprived of juridical rights and they were considered as foreigners in their own country. The Mexican church was not to obey the pope. In October 1861, the Mexico governor had ordered the closing of 25 churches which included the Mercy church and convent which were sold and destroyed. The library was sacked, the archives burned and the cloister transformed into barracks. The Mercedarian convents of Potosí, Zacatecas, Veracruz and Colima were destroyed and the others were confiscated. To make matters worse, Father Juan Narváez was murdered in Paradilla where he was ministering. Times could not have been worse in Mexico and this situation was going to last for a long time.
In Guatemala, the change of political régime did not improve the situation of religious institutions which were constantly threatened by suppression by the State. In fact, a decree of September 1, 1826, forbade regular prelates to communicate with their respective generals and, as had been done in other nations, the age for taking religious vows was raised to 25. On July 29, 1829, all religious orders existing in the territory of Guatemala were suppressed and their assets were declared state properties. Religious were allowed to stay but they were secularized. As a result, the illustrious Mercedarian Province of Our Lady of the Presentation of Guatemala was practically destroyed. The government reestablished the suppressed orders in 1839. Mercedarians attempted their restoration: the vicar general of the Order, Tomás Miquel, had Father Tomás Suazo appointed as provincial of Guatemala. However, he was not able to respond to the trust placed in him since he did not allow religious to return to conventual life nor did he restore community life. Instead, he proposed giving the church and the Order’s assets to the Jesuits in 1852.
Political and international events had a decisive and negative influence on the very structure of the Province of Santo Domingo. As a first result of the war, Spain had to yield part of Santo Domingo to the French and the four convents which were established there disappeared. The province was reduced to only three convents, two in Cuba, in Puerto Príncipe where the provincial see was transferred and in Havana and the Caracas convent. This new situation was prejudicial to the government and to the administration of the province because the convents were far apart from one another and communication was difficult. Circumstances were such that the Province of Santo Domingo was inexorably heading for extinction due to a lack of new people and to the decrees of secularization of the religious. In 1848, the province was reduced to the Puerto Príncipe convent with only 7 religious and it disappeared when they died.
Peru declared its independence on July 18, 1821. During 1821-1824, two political régimes coexisted, one in the territory under the viceroy’s government with the Province of Cuzco and the other, in independent territory, with the Province of Lima. Consequently, the influence was also varied in the religious sphere.
The reform laws, dictated by the king of Spain, were applied in the Province of Cuzco. On July 13, 1822, the most important convent, Cuzco, held its first chapter in accordance with the reform laws and elected Father Apolinar Guillén as superior. The Arequipa and La Paz convents also held their respective chapters. Already affected by republican laws, the other convents would disappear.
From 1825 to 1850, Peru passed many laws which would completely disrupt the structure of religious life in its essence. The so-called Decree of Reform of Regulars was promulgated on September 26, 1826, and the following year, regulations concerning the election of prelates and the inner government of convents. As a result, religious were to be totally under the diocesan ordinary; provincials and generals were suppressed; candidates under 25 were prohibited from entering the novitiate; every convent which did not have eight conventual priests in actual residence was suppressed and its assets and income passed to the State and everything pertaining to religious life was absolutely regulated: prayer, communal life, formation and, of course, the administration of goods.
The enforcement of these laws had fateful consequences for the province. The Lima convent which, at the time, had 74 religious, 51 of them priests, was placed under the ordinary’s jurisdiction. A superior was elected and he was to be called President Superior in compliance with a recent government decree. In addition, 30 religious had been secularized not long before. The Lima convent held a chapter and elected Father Fabián Rivas as superior on November 19, 1828. Other convents affected by the suppression decree would gradually disappear.
The apostolic delegate, Monsignor Giovanni Muzi, who was already in Chile and Ramón Freire’s government decreed the confiscation of all the regulars’ assets. When this decree was implemented, it caused real confusion in the communities of regulars. The government officials in charge appeared at the Santiago Mercedarian convent at 11 p.m. They gathered the community, read the confiscation decrees, made an inventory of the goods, leases and chaplaincies and took the money of the redemption of captives. Convents which did not have eight religious were suppressed, such as the convents of La Serena, Copiapó and Concepción. Not even the convents in which schools had been established at the government’s request were saved. Political events had a negative influence on religious life which had become very lax because many friars had been secularized. The province was reduced to 66 religious and its five novitiates were eliminated. In addition to the loss of convents, secularizations were the most serious consequence of the change of political régime which the Province of Lima had to face.
The Tucumán Province of Argentina was negatively affected by the ecclesiastical reform promoted by Minister Bernardino Rivadavia. On May 13, 1821, he promulgated a decree specifically directed against Mercedarians ordering their houses to be under the direction of their presidents, namely, the local superiors, not subject to the provincial’s authority but rather under government protection and under the ecclesiastical ordinary for spiritual matters. The law of December 21, 1822, was truly disastrous for religious life and for secular clergy. It did not recognize the provincial’s authority; no novice could take vows without the ordinary’s authorization or be under 25; a religious house could not have more than 30 religious or fewer than 16. Houses with fewer religious were suppressed and their goods went to the State. The worst consequence was the dispersion of friars and abandoning the religious state. When the Buenos Aires convent was suppressed on February 15, 1824, it had 30 religious. 21 of them became secularized and 9 joined the convents of Santa Fe and Corrientes. As of 1823, the Mendoza and San Juan convents were subject to the ordinaries and the remaining convents slowly disappeared. The only one remaining until 1857 was the Mendoza convent from which the restoration of the province would start.
Reform of the Provinces of America
After the deplorable measures which had disrupted the situation of the religious state in America in its foundations, it needed new strength aimed at restoring regular discipline, reestablishing community life and it needed the infusion of a more intense interior life. In order to attain this, religious needed to be aware of a lifestyle which had to conform to the demands of the Rule and the Constitutions. This was not at all an easy task due to the ways and customs which had penetrated the convents. On the other hand, one should not forget that religious life in Southern Europe had also been relaxed. This is why Pope Pius IX and all superiors general endeavored to reform the religious state in the Church as of the middle of the nineteenth century.
Although the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars had met in 1846 in the Province of Mexico, on May 30, 1852, the archbishop of the city — who was the apostolic visitator of the regulars — gave a positive report on the province in which, thanks to his zeal, regular discipline was restored, the provincial chapter was held and many abuses were eliminated. On September 20, by approving the chapter which elected Father Eduardo Ruiz Esparza, the Holy See asked the provincial and all other superiors to do their utmost to watch over regular discipline, particularly in terms of restoring the vow of poverty, to eliminate abuses and diligently to promote the formation of novices and professed. In 1855, the visitator named Father Manuel Burguichani as provincial, “taking into account the special circumstances which affected the Province of Mexico” as the Holy See would do in January 1861, by assigning Father Maximiliano Michel to the same position. In addition, “His Holiness exhorts the new provincial to strive to promote regular discipline, the proper formation of novices and professed and the instruction of neo-religious.” The special circumstances which motivated the previous act were undoubtedly compulsory secularizations which the government was enforcing by suppressing and destroying convents. Times could not have been more adverse for religious in Mexico and yet, many of them remained faithful to their state even though they were out of their convents. Illustrious Father Burguichani met with them periodically. Religious continued to be dispersed until 1884, when there were 12 religious in Mexico City and 18 outside of the city.
While Ecuador was going through a period of political disturbance and anarchy, the provincial chapter was held in 1834. It elected Father Manuel Pérez but the government denied him the approval required by law. Then the ordinary named Father Juan Páez as provincial to complete the triennium. In the meantime, the pope has sent Monsignor Gaetano Baluffi as Apostolic Internuncio. He arrived in Bogotá in March 1837. Having being informed of the situation of the religious in Ecuador, he wisely named as apostolic visitator of the Mercedarians, Father Mariano Bravo de Borja of the same Order. In March 1839, he started the convents’ visitation which he conducted with prudence and a religious spirit. The Holy See approved the visitation and, upon Father Bravo’s recommendation, it granted Bishop Nicolás Joaquín Arteta the faculty to name the provincial and other posts of the province outside of a chapter. In 1850, Father Bravo was elected provincial and confirmed by the Holy See. By his own example, he guided religious to the observance of common life which would later be definitively rooted in the Province of Quito during the government of Father Benjamín Rencoret who ruled the province from 1870 to 1877.
After independence, in Peru more than in other nations, there arose situations, even in cloisters which led religious life to a grave state of laxity. In this context, on November 28, 1832, Pope Gregory XVI appointed José Sebastián de Goyeneche as bishop of Arequipa, apostolic delegate and visitator of regulars. After moving to Lima, he published a decree on the Reform of Regulars. Despite the archbishop’s zeal, the results were mediocre because political upheavals and the interference of civil power prevented the reform. The vicar general of the Order, José María Rodríguez, named Father Magín Bertrán as visitator of the convents of Peru and Bolivia with the goal of restoring regular life. The visitation lasted from 1873 until June 1877, without fully succeeding in restoring common life and observance. In order to restore a life of religious observance in Peru, in April 1878, the Congregation of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs intervened requesting the collaboration of superiors general and of the Order of Mercy. The superiors responded in May, offering their views on the causes of relaxation and solutions to eliminate it. This is when a young religious, the superior of Arequipa, Father Bernardo Arispe, firmly undertook the reform by implementing it in his community. Then he sent eight religious he had trained to Cuzco to be ordained as priests and later six more to La Paz. These three convents, united by the “reform which brought about the restoration of the Mercedarian Province of Peru,” embraced common life and the observance of the Order’s Constitutions.
The first sign of reestablishing the communication, interrupted for a long time between the Province of Chile and the central government of the Order, came in letters which the vicar general, Father Tomás Miquel, received concerning the Mercedarian situation. Moved by these letters, on December 23, 1846, Father Miquel asked the pope to delegate the Santiago ordinary to examine the chapter at which Father Joaquín Ravest was elected. He was a partisan of Father Miguel Ovalle who governed the province despotically from 1833 to 1846. At that time, religious life in Chile was at a low point and on June 20, 1850, the Holy See appointed the archbishop of Santiago, Rafael Valentín Valdivieso, as visitator and apostolic delegate of all regulars and granted him ample faculties. His work of reform prevailed in the Order thanks to the collaboration of the provincial and subdelegate of the visitator, Father Francisco de Paula Solar. The vicar general repeatedly appealed to the Holy See to ask for the suspension of chapters and to designate the provincial directly. The Holy See granted this by naming Father José Donoso as provincial in 1857, and as of 1860, Father Benjamín Rencoret on four occasions. Father Rencoret was zealous for observance and in those circumstances, he was the only person who could carry out the reform. The provincial met strong resistance on the part of the religious since many of them were opposed to a life of observance. This is why the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars designated the archbishop of Santiago as apostolic visitator of the Mercedarians, a position which was confirmed in 1871. At the same time, he was given the authority to name a provincial for five years. Valdivieso appointed Father Ramón Blaitt.
In spite of the long years of the visitation, the desired reform could not be established. Therefore, due to the situation of the province, on July 28, 1876, the vicar general, who by then was Father José María Rodríguez, obtained from the Holy See the appointment of a general commissioner for the Province of Chile. He was Father Lorenzo Morales, a religious with solid faith and experience in government. He was to carry out his function according to the instructions of the Sacred Congregation and under the jurisdiction of the archbishop of Santiago who was still serving as apostolic visitator of the Mercedarians. With these guidelines, Father Lorenzo Morales was the one who actually implemented the definitive reform in Chile as he reestablished common life and regular discipline to the complete satisfaction of Church authorities and of the religious.
A model religious, Father Saturnino Villalón, was living at the Mendoza convent in Argentina. The then visitator general of Argentina, Father Ignacio Alvarez, appointed Father Villalón superior of that convent with the faculties of vicar provincial in 1853. In 1857, he was called to Córdoba where he went accompanied by Fathers Fermín Latorre and Manuel Apolinar Vázquez, three choristers and one brother who were joined by Fathers Juan de la Rosa Fierro and Alejo Ruiz, the only friars living in that house. On May 6, 1857, José Gregorio Baigorri, the vicar general for the bishopric, designated Father Villalón as vicar provincial and superior of Córdoba. All welcomed the new superior with delight and submission. After the Córdoba community was reestablished and religious observance restored, the superior devoted himself to reorganizing the province and he had the three students he had brought from Mendoza ordained to the priesthood. Father Villalón’s health was failing and on July 19, 1859, the apostolic delegate, Marino Marini, named Father Alejo Ruiz vicar provincial, a post which Pope Pius IX confirmed at the request of the vicar general, Tomás Miquel. On a visit to Córdoba, the new vicar provincial found that the community had 9 priests, 17 choristers, a few of whom were ordained de sacris and 3 brothers. The reform was beginning to bear fruit. In January 1872, the vicar general, José María Rodríguez, asked the pope to appoint Father Lorenzo Morales as provincial of the Province of Tucumán. He began his term by issuing a ruling to implement the reform; he promoted the flourishing of community life in Argentina’s convents and he reorganized studies. Father José León Torres, appointed vicar provincial when he was only 27, definitively implanted the reform in Argentina as he himself was teaching religious life. He was interested in the preparation of formators; he established a second house of formation in Mendoza because vocations were increasing; he helped fraternal life thrive among religious and he was concerned about the expansion of the province. He himself was a mature fruit of the reform which he successfully promoted by his intense and profound spirituality.
The Masters General until 1834
A General Chapter was held in El Puig in June 1794, during the French Revolution. On June 7, Diego López Domínguez (1794-1801) was elected Master General and Father Juan Matabosch was elected procurator general in Rome.
It was during Father López Domínguez’ term that the first confiscation of goods belonging to the Church and to religious institutes started in order to meet the financial needs of the State which had gone into debt to face the war against the French. For that purpose, on September 25, 1798, the king ordered the confiscation of the Jesuits’ assets and the alienation of hospitals, hospices and pious works. The effects of this decree also strongly affected the Order of Mercy.
The term of Father López Domínguez was concluding in 1800 but, because of the political situation, the chapter was postponed until 1801. The General Chapter was held from October 17 to 21 of that year in Toledo under the presidency of Father López Domínguez. Domingo Fabregat (1801-1812), named by the king of Spain, was elected Master General and Manuel Antonio Dávila was named procurator general in Rome. Because of the war of independence from the French invasion, Father Fabregat’s term had to be prolonged and it lasted until his death which occurred in Palma (Majorca) on October 20, 1812.
At Father Fabregat’s death, the government of the Order was assumed by the Barcelona prior, Gabriel Miró. Father Miró who had taken refuge in Villanueva and Geltrú gathered a few religious of his community and he was acknowledged as constitutional vicar general. Although there were two attempts to hold a general chapter in 1815 and 1816, nothing specific was accomplished due to the special circumstances and the government of vicar Miró had to be prolonged for a few years.
Finally, Father Miró called a general chapter to El Puig for May 24, 1817. In that chapter, presided by Father Miró himself, José García Palomo (1817-1823) was elected Master General and Tomás Remón, procurator general in Rome. Several years had gone by since the last general chapter and it was deemed necessary to make important decisions about the religious’ lives and the poverty of the convents. Thus provisions, based on fulfilling the Constitutions, were made to resume regular observance which had declined because of the war; the admission of novices to the Order was decreed; a new plan of studies, prepared by Father Manuel Martínez, was set up and the number of participants in provincial chapters was reduced. These chapter provisions were presented to the Holy See, they were approved on February 28, 1819, and published that same year.
Because of his prestige, Father Manuel Martínez was appointed secretary and member of the Royal Commission of the Plan of Studies in Spain in 1824. The following year, he was named bishop of Málaga. As he had fervently wished, he died in a house of the Order, in the Ecija convent on June 3, 1827.
The General Chapter was held in Málaga on October 16, 1823. Gabriel Miró (1823-1826) was elected Master General and Buenaventura Cano y Torrente, procurator general in Rome. When Father Miró died prematurely on September 5, 1826, the position of vicar general was assumed on September 15 by the Barcelona prior, Raimundo Massaliés who convoked the religious to a new General Chapter in El Puig on June 2, 1827. The superior of Madrid, Juan José Tejada Sáenz (1826-1832), was elected Master General and Buenaventura Cano continued as procurator.
Father Tejada’s government coincided with a decade of relative calm due to the restoration policy of Ferdinand VII. The Master General was concerned about formation as a remedy for the previous evils. However, his term did not last for the constitutional six years because he was named bishop of Solsona on July 2, 1832. He was consecrated on September 16 and on November 10 of that year, he took over the diocese where he found that the church and the see had been burned down by the French. As bishop, he had to witness the havoc of the persecution which started in 1834 and received the sad news of the assassination of his former secretary, Father Manuel Esparza, who was stabbed to death in the choir of the Madrid Mercedarian church on July 17, 1834. On June 13, 1835, Bishop Tejada ordained the future founder of the Claretians, Anthony Mary Claret, as a priest and Jaime Balmes, who would be a famous philosopher, as a deacon. Bishop Tejada died on June 15, 1838.
When Father Tejada was named bishop, the Barcelona prior, Augustín Serres, assumed the government of the Order as vicar general on September 12, 1832. On October 18, he signed the convocation notice for the General Chapter to be held in Huete on May 25, 1833. At that chapter, Juan Bautista Granell was elected Master General. He died unexpectedly in Madrid on April 24, 1834. A very difficult period for religious life started during that unfortunate year. The impossibility to hold other general chapters led to putting the government of the Order in the hands of vicars general appointed by the Holy See. Vicars thus resided in Rome.
The Vicars General from 1834 to 1880
According to the Constitutions of the Order, at the death of Father Granell, the Barcelona prior, Tomás Miquel, assumed the position of vicar general. On May 6, 1834, he called the elective general chapter to be held in Játiva on the Saturday before the third Sunday of October.
Meanwhile in Rome, Father Buenaventura Cano continued in the office of procurator and vicar general of Italy. He was one of the Chapter’s members and had been appointed titular bishop of Megida and consecrated in Saint Adriano on February 16, 1834. With the date of the general chapter approaching and foreseeing it would be impossible to hold it because of the deplorable situation in Spain, Father Cano, who was still procurator, did not want the vicar general of the Order to be without constitutional faculties or the Order to be without a superior. Without Father Miquel’s knowledge, Father Cano asked Pope Gregory XVI for the postponement of the general chapter and for the continuation in their functions of the Barcelona prior as vicar general and of the other major and local superiors. The pope agreed and granted everything which was requested and he let the procurator set up the date for the chapter. The latter sent the decree of the rescript on September 18, 1834, calling for the chapter on the Saturday before the third Sunday of October 1835, and he wrote to that effect to the vicar general. But, Father Miquel refused to accept that proposal and he ordered Bishop Cano not to request anything from the pope without his consent until the next general chapter was held and, appealing to the Nuncio in Spain, he assumed the responsibility to set it up. An extension for the chapter was granted three times because religious institutes were having a very difficult time in Spain since all convents had been suppressed and their residents had been dispersed.
Tomás Miquel and Buenaventura Cano (1834-1868). The religious from Spain had been exclaustrated and the vicar general, Tomás Miquel, had taken refuge in Perpignan. As vice-procurator general of the Order in Rome and Saint Adriano pastor, Father Juan Mosón addressed a report to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars. In it, he disclosed the situation of the Order and—since no chapter had been planned—he begged the Supreme Pontiff to name Titular Bishop Buenaventura Cano as Master General of the Order.
Pope Gregory XVI did not think it was opportune to name Bishop Cano as Master General and he only appointed him as vicar general of the entire Order on December 11, 1835, until the Holy See decided otherwise. When Father Miquel found out about the appointment, in a letter of January 4, 1838, written from France and addressed to the pope, he deplored that Bishop Cano had clandestinely obtained the position in question and requested to be named vicar general, a responsibility which should be his, according to the Constitutions when the Master General post was vacant. Pope Gregory XVI thought that the reasons alleged by Father Miquel were valid and, by a decree of April 22, 1838, he appointed him vicar general of the Order ad nutum et beneplacitum Sanctae Sedis. Father Miquel left Perpignan and arrived in Rome to settle at the Saint Adriano convent on June 2, 1838. Bishop Buenaventura Cano died in Rome on August 4, 1839. He was 61 years old. He was buried in the crypt of Saint Adriano Church.
Father Miquel’s government lasted until his death in Rome on January 29, 1868. Throughout this long period, he always resided in Rome except one year, 1848, when he went to Spain and had Father Juan Mosón serve as interim vicar of the Order. In the 30 years of his government, Father Miquel was assisted by four procurators general who also acted usually as associates, that is to say, as the vicar’s adviser, general secretary and as rector of Saint Adriano College in Rome. On March 14, 1856, the Rome vicariate named Father Miquel as examiner of Spanish candidates who were in the Eternal City and sought Holy Orders.
One of the first actions of Father Miquel’s government was to withdraw an edition of the Constitutions which had many omissions and printing errors. Father Miquel governed under extremely difficult historical circumstances in Europe, because of the suppressions and in America, because of the wars for independence. For all these reasons, he frequently had to appeal to the Holy See to resolve the extraordinary problems which were emerging. Thus, on several occasions he obtained these faculties: naming provincials and superiors without holding chapters; conferring degrees in the Order or rectifying those conferred without filling due formalities; naming visitators, especially to the Provinces of America in order to restore regular discipline and community life; disposing of the redemption funds to support religious; resolving conflicts of individual religious, and also in aspects of poverty and of regular discipline which religious could not observe because they were not living in convents. In the area of liturgy, Father Miquel obtained indulgences for Mercedarian churches and permission for the faithful to gain them without having to visit the churches of the Order; he had the mysteries of the Lord’s Passion and the feasts of Mary’s Motherhood and Virginity included in the Order’s calendar. He also sought to admit postulants in Saint Adriano, the only house which had not been suppressed in Europe.
José Reig Estivil (1868-1869). Father Miquel was succeeded as vicar general by José Reig Estivil who was also appointed ad nutum et beneplacitum Sanctae Sedis by Pope Pius IX in a decree of February 7, 1868. Because of his cultural preparation, Father Reig was named Adviser of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide.
From Father Reig’s government, one should retain his concern to admit postulants in Saint Adriano. He had Father Antonio Garí y Siumell from Spain come to Rome in December 1868, to attend to their formation. Named secretary general and procurator, Father Garí y Siumell expressed his concern about the discalced Mercedarians of Sicily to the Holy See. Father Reig tried to reestablish common life wherever it was possible; he was allowed to confer degrees in the Order; he obtained indulgences for some Mercedarian churches, particularly a special papal blessing for the centennial feasts of the Virgin of Bonaria in Cagliari. He also had to work hard to avoid the suppression of the Order by the civil government of the time in Ecuador.
Father Reig only served a year and a half as vicar general. He died on September 20, 1869, and was spiritually assisted by Monsignor Anthony Mary Claret, a guest at Saint Adriano at the time.
José María Rodríguez y Bori (1869-1879). When Father Reig died, Procurator Garí y Siumell was in Spain. When he learned of the vicar general’s death, he presented to the Holy See a list of three names from which to select the new leader of the Order since it was impossible to convoke a general chapter. He especially recommended Father José María Rodríguez y Bori. In fact, Father Rodríguez was also appointed ad nutum et beneplacitum Sanctae Sedis vicar general of the Order by a decree of October 2, 1869. He always resided in Rome where he participated in the First Vatican Council.
During the first years of his government, Father Rodríguez was assisted by Procurator Garí y Siumell until January 20, 1876, when the latter resigned to move to Barcelona. It took a year and a half to appoint a new procurator general, Father Benjamín Rencoret. Until that time, vicars generals as well as procurators general had always been from the Province of Aragon with the exception of Procurator Vicente Virgala who was from Castile. In the meantime, the political and social situation of religious institutes in Spain had improved considerably and it was possible to think about reorganizing communal life in convents. When Father Rodríguez died in Rome on January 11, 1879, the attempt to restore the Order had already been started in 1878, with the constitution of a community at El Olivar convent.
Among the acts of Father Rodríguez’ government, one should note his concern to admit Spanish or Italian postulants to religious life in Saint Adriano. He was also interested in having the necessary faculties to appoint superiors in provinces or houses, with his assistants, as if it were a general definitorium. During his government, the reform entrusted to the archbishop of Lima was accomplished in Peru and also the apostolic visitation in Chile by the archbishop of Santiago who decided to appoint Father Lorenzo Morales as general commissioner. In the area of liturgy, Father Rodríguez obtained particular calendars for Saint Adriano Church and for the Province of Lima, the Mercedarian martyrology and the extension of the Office of the Virgin of Bonaria to all Sardinia.
On the other hand, there had been efforts to have Cardinal Eduardo Enrique Howard named Protector of the Order since after Cardinal Plácido Zurla’s death in 1835, the Order lacked a protector. However, Father Rodríguez did not personally see the realization of this hope since the appointment of the Cardinal Protector took place on April 22, 1879, and the Cardinal took possession of the title of Saint Adriano two days later, that is on April 24, 1879.
Election of Master General Peter Armengol Valenzuela
For 45 years, the Order had been governed by vicars general directly appointed by the Holy See. The motivations repeated for each appointment were always the same: the circumstances which prevented holding a chapter were the calamitous consequences of the French Revolution and of the exclaustration of 1835 in Spain and of the one of 1855-1866 in Italy.
When Father Rodríguez died, the Spanish fathers who were in Rome wrote to Father Benito Rubio, the provincial of Aragon, so that in accordance with other provincials or commissioners of Spain, they would provide a successor. Procurator General Benjamín Rencoret was opposed with the argument that the provincials or commissioners of America should also participate in the election of the Master General of the Order. To that effect, on January 15, 1879, he wrote a memorandum to the Holy Father on the situation of the Order. He particularly emphasized that, at that time, the American Provinces were in a better position in terms of discipline, finances and the number of religious. He also stated that in America, there were excellent candidates quite capable of serving as Master General. He mentioned, in particular, Father Peter Armengol Valenzuela and if a chapter could not be held, electors could express their votes by letter.
The Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars was in favor of the procurator’s proposal and on February 18, 1878, it appointed a vicar general ad interim: Father Magín Bertrán, until the new Master General’s election which would take place, according to forthcoming provisions. At first, Father Bertrán did not accept but his refusal was not accepted and he assumed his responsibility as vicar on March 9, 1879.
A first deed consisted in identifying the general electors, 11 for this chapter. Only 2 of them were present in Rome: Fathers Magín Bertrán, the interim vicar general and Benjamín Rencoret, the procurator general. The other nine were the following fathers: Benito Rubio Alcaine, provincial commissary of Aragon, Antonio Noya, provincial commissary of Castile, Antonio Juan Franco y Cuenca, provincial commissary of Andalusia, Vicente Belver, provincial commissary of Valencia, Manuel Burguichani, provincial of Mexico, Lorenzo Morales, provincial commissary of Chile, Aparicio del Castillo, vicar provincial of Quito, José León Torres, vicar provincial of Tucumán and Efisio Ferrara, commissary of Sardinia.
The Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars immediately sent a letter on September 6, 1879, to the vicar general and to the procurator general giving instructions on how to elect the Master General. After having warned that, for this election and when possible, it was necessary to follow the Constitutions, the Sacred Congregation, and to take the situation of the Order into account, the letter gave the following provisions: electors were dispensed from going to Rome; the four electors from Spain, the four from America and Sardinia were to be contacted by letter and ordered to send, in a sealed envelope and within four months, the name of a candidate worthy to be Master General to Rome; after the envelopes arrived and under the presidency of the Cardinal Protector of the Order, a chapter was to be held with the participation of the two electors present in Rome and the secretary; there the envelopes were to be opened and the votes counted. Then the document added, if someone had obtained a majority of votes, he would be elected, pending confirmation by the Holy See. If, on the contrary, no one obtained a majority of votes, the Holy See reserved the right to appoint a vicar general from the three men with the most votes.
According to these instructions, Fathers Bertrán and Rencoret, in agreement with the Cardinal Protector, sent the ballots to the electors who returned them within the established term of four months with the name of the candidate indicated by each one.
On January 30, 1880, in Saint Adriano convent and under the presidency of the Cardinal Protector of the Order, the following fathers met in general chapter: Magín Bertrán, Benjamín Rencoret and, as secretary general, Liborio Senmartí y Salvans to proceed with the vote count. The result was the following: Father Peter Armengol Valenzuela, 8 votes; Father Francisco Sullis, 2 votes and Father Magín Bertrán, one vote. Having obtained an absolute majority of votes, Father Valenzuela became the new Master General of the Order. After notifying the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars of the result, on February 1, 1880, the Cardinal Protector informed Pope Leo XIII who confirmed the election. In a February 19, 1880 decree to that effect, the elect was ordered to come to Rome as soon as possible and to reside there. On the same day, the decree was communicated to Cardinal Howard who wrote to Father Valenzuela on February 29, 1880, recommending “not to delay his trip.” This election of the Master General marked the end of the period of apostolic vicars general.
The Redemption of Captives
Since the redemption of captives was the institutional mission of the Mercedarians, their principal concern was naturally directed to this activity. This was why in the chapters of each province, they always appointed redeemers designated to carry out redemptions. Then all worked to collect the money needed to realize the redemption and preached about it in different places within their own jurisdiction.
According to a study on Mercedarian redemptions conducted by Father Antonio Garí y Siumell, we know that in the last 25 years of the eighteenth century, Mercedarians realized two redemptions: one in 1776 by religious from Sardinia and the other one in 1779 by religious from France.
In the redemption by religious from France, it should be noted that although their very existence was in crisis, French Mercedarians continued to be concerned about their main obligation as religious dedicated to redemption. In the 1779 redemption by French religious, the redeemers were Father Domingo Pablo de Villa, provincial of the old Southern Province and Father Claude de Chevillard, vicar general of the Paris congregation. These two religious went to Tunis where they redeemed 54 captives and then to Algiers where they redeemed 24 more. There were 43 women and 7 children among the redeemed. The redemption was achieved with the help of the regular canons of the Trinity.
We have ample and precise documentation concerning the redemption realized by religious of the Sardinia congregation. This redemption occurred when Father Juan Bautista Sciacca was the congregation’s vicar general and it was done in Tunis where 28 captives, including 8 women and several youths, were rescued. This redemption cost 5,500 escudos. The former vicar general of the congregation, Father José María Odella and Father Antonio Losta were the redeemers. From the catalogue of this redemption, which was printed by the Sardinia religious, we know that to the number mentioned above, King Amadeus III of Savoy added many Turkish slaves who were freed and handed over in exchange for Christians, that after the redemption, there were still 45 captives who could not be redeemed and for whose liberation religious “exercised the most anxious diligence; with the most touching expressions imploring the never denied help of the Almighty; the usual generosity of our unconquered monarch and the charity, always recommended by the Lord, of all the other faithful.”
The Mercedarians of Sardinia continued to take interest in the liberation of captives during the following years.
On September 3, 1798, at dawn, 500 Tunisian pirates carried out a surprise attack on Carloforte island. After landing and overcoming the few soldiers of the garrison, the pirates invaded the streets of the citadel and the houses of people who were still asleep and for two days, they sacked the whole island amid scenes of brutality, pain and despair from the people. Many inhabitants managed to escape capture by hiding in the fields or even simulating death. But 933 islanders, about half the people, of all ages, especially women and children, were taken prisoners, piled up like animals on the pirates’ boats and sent to Tunis which they reached after two days at sea. In Tunis, they were forced to march before the local people and then sold in auction like merchandise. A very painful odyssey began for them on September 10, 1798. The situation of these unfortunate people moved Sardinia’s civil authorities and especially Mercedarians who took the initiative to obtain their liberation.
The sum of 300 sequins, asked for each captive, was considered enormous and absolutely beyond the possibilities of the few people of Carloforte who escaped capture and of the Sardinian-Piedmontese State which the Napoleonic wars had reduced to a very bad financial situation. Obtaining the needed funds to rescue these unfortunate people was a difficult and lengthy undertaking. Many Christians organized themselves in Italy and also in Europe. Mercedarians were particularly involved in traveling to all the towns of the island to collect funds for the redemption. They were helped by the so-called syndic, workers or brothers of redemption, appointed in each town by the superior of the Mercedarian vice-province of Sardinia.
In the meantime, years were passing by and some captives had died. By 1803, they were reduced to 783. Around 1800, there was a captive named Nicolás Morerro who was granted some degree of freedom by his master. On the seashore, he saw an abandoned statue of the Immaculate Virgin which he recovered and which became the support of the faith and the refuge and hope of the prisoners. Later on, the statue was called The Virgin of Slaves and it is still venerated today in the Carloforte church. Still 655,000 Sardinian lire, corresponding to several billions today, had to be paid to liberate the surviving captives. The Mercedarian quota in order to reach that amount came to 76,000 lire, more or less 12% of the total.
The liberation was achieved in June 1804. On the 24th, all rescued captives were welcomed at the Bonaria sanctuary of Cagliari from where they went to the cathedral to give thanks to the Lord. Around the end of July, after the necessary steps of the quarantine, the liberated people of Carloforte returned to their island.
Times were changing and the activity in which Mercedarians had been involved in previous centuries was no longer conceivable. On the contrary, in 1816, the condition of slavery as understood in the past was abolished, at least on paper. However, there were still captives to whom Mercedarians could direct their attention. In fact, they continued to collect alms for the redemption of captives.
In Spain, by a decree of May 7, 1815, King Ferdinand VII limited the faculty to collect alms for the redemption of captives to the towns or places where Mercedarians had convents with the obligation of having the amount gathered not just at the disposal of the collector of the redemption fund but also of the public treasury. Vicar General Gabriel Miró tried in vain to have this measure revoked.
On the other hand, the religious of Sardinia did not stop appointing redemption assistants. In the year 1814 alone, they sent 33 licenses of redemption workers and 14, in 1815. In the following years, there were not more than two per year until 1820, when the last appointments were made. The last collection gathered by Vicente Lay de Perdas de Fogu, recorded in 1822, in the Book of Redemption, amounts to 4.80 lire.
There are records of the convent expenses for the support of the redeemed and the aid provided for their repatriation. In the Redemption Register of Cagliari, which goes from May 1813 to August 1840, various expenses are recorded for captives. Some of them were certainly redeemed by other organizations and once they were liberated, they needed to be attended to during the quarantine in the lazaretto, or for the thanksgiving procession or for their repatriation journey. Some entries or bequests for redemption are indicated in this same Redemption Register for the period from May 1814 to March 1822.
In the following years, in all the provinces, the chapters continued to appoint the two redeemers who were dedicated to preaching redemption and to collecting alms. However, the redemption of captives took on another nature even in the way it was carried out. In addition, due to the scarcity of resources for the survival of religious, it was often necessary to request the authorization of the Holy See to be able to use redemption funds to support religious. In that regard, it is symptomatic that the vicar general and the superior of Bonaria requested permission to use the redemption bequests to cover the expenses of the sacristy of the sanctuary which the convent could not do because of the additional burden caused by the presence of 8 religious who had fled from Spain. On April 10, 1840, the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars granted this request for three years.
At that time, religious of the Order were mostly dedicated to penance, preaching, instructing young people and other practices useful to the faithful with the zeal which priestly ministry required. The specific redemptive activity of the Mercedarians, in the diverse political and social conditions of the times, was assuming a different aspect to benefit the needy and to foster faith. These new ways became concretized in charitable works and in teaching youth. On the other hand, when redemption of captives was at its peak, in the traditional sense, very few Mercedarians were directly engaged in it. Most religious took part indirectly by collecting alms and prayer or they were engaged in activities allowed by the circumstances of the time. The early legislation of the Order has no particular norms on other ministries. This void was filled in by the chapters’ decisions and the superiors’ rulings.
Concerning works of charity for the period we are dealing with, there is evidence that the Mercedarians were in charge of taking bids to build the Cagliari Hospital. On that occasion, on February 18, 1845, the viceroy and captain general of the kingdom of Sardinia, don Gabriel de Launay, published a Regulation for alms to be collected by Mercedarian Fathers for the construction of the new civil hospital of Cagliari. To justify this initiative and before giving the respective norms, the viceroy refers to the Mercedarians’ mission of charity with captives and this was precisely why he had given that mission to them. In the spirit of their fourth vow, religious fulfilled this often difficult mission.
Another type of ministry began to appear toward the end of the nineteenth century: attending to people in jail. In fact, there are several instances: such as that of Father Alelí of Barcelona who used to visit prisoners, speak with them to bring them some consolation and to hear their confessions and that of Father Chávez who wanted to redeem those who suffer the worst type of slavery, namely, destitution. In America, Father Manuel Burguichani, provincial of Mexico from 1853 to 1886, was named Jail Superintendent. Members of the community assisted him in that ministry. He used to visit penal establishments and, in some circumstances, he would stay there day and night. He also spent a lot of time with prisoners condemned to death. By 1874, he had accompanied 1,010 condemned to the gallows. When it was time to carry out capital punishment, he would preach to those in attendance. With these facts in mind, the 1895 Constitutions included prison ministry among the ministries of charity of the Mercedarian Order.
These manifestations obviously proved that the Order’s charism of charity was assuming different connotations for the sake of the suffering members of the Church by works of charity which had always been an essential part of the redemption of captives.
The charitable aspect, shared by all Mercedarian religious, was also concretized in supporting schools for the poor.
By a decree of November 24, 1815, the king of Spain had entrusted elementary school education of poor children to religious. The Order of Mercy accepted this mission and so, in the Statutes on religious formation, established by the 1817 General Chapter, there was a section dealing with Elementary Schools. The first norm on the subject states: “The reverend fathers provincial will promote the building of schools for poor children, especially near convents located in places not frequented by inhabitants.” The paragraph goes on to indicate norms according to which only trained religious could dedicate themselves to this teaching. Religious teaching in said schools could then also graduate with the degrees which were conferred to those who taught in schools of philosophy and theology. Thus, schools for the poor emerged in Europe and especially in America. They involved religious in works which were particularly beneficial to the poor.
Not only because of the provisions of the 1817 General Chapter but especially at the time of independence and after it, the interest of Mercedarians for youth education in America developed in all the countries where they were present through the establishment of public schools, requested by the new governments, which could not function without the contribution of the Church in that domain. Thus, in 1814, Chilean Mercedarian Father Diego de Larraín founded the first public school in Jachal (Mendoza). Thanks to Father Rafael Cifuentes’ work, in 1817, the teaching activity of the Mercedarians of Ecuador started again with the foundation of the first free school in Quito. In the following years, education became one of the characteristic activities of Mercedarian presence and the one in which most religious were engaged.
Bartolomeo Poggio. Of Italian origin, he was born on September 21, 1768, in San Martino Stella (Savona). With his parents, Tomás and Catalina Visca, he moved to Argentina when he was still a child. He joined the Order of Mercy and was ordained a priest in Córdoba on May 26, 1799. The next year, he was destined as military chaplain to Patagonia, to the border establishment Carmen de Patagones which had been under Mercedarian care ever since its foundation. For ten years, Father Bartolomeo evangelized settlers there and in the nearby port of San José. Everyone admired and respected him and he was an example of apostolic life and of poverty. In that region, Tehuelche natives periodically attacked the towns taking food, cattle and, at times, even prisoners whom they later traded for food. On one of those raids on August 7, 1810, they assaulted the garrison and burned the chapel while Father Bartolomeo was celebrating Mass. Fifteen people died and others who did not succeed in fleeing were detained and made captives. Father Bartolomeo was one of the dead. Still wearing the sacred vestments, he surrendered to martyrdom. In the documents narrating this event, we can read the following: “on his knees in front of the altar, with his arms extended to form a cross to be more like the Golgotha Martyr, his eyes fixed on the crucifix before him, a prayer on his lips and the love of the saints in his heart, he died in sacrifice…” Bartolomeo Poggio is considered as Patagonia’s protomartyr. A monolith recalls his martyrdom and he is represented on one of the stained-glass windows of the San Carlos de Bariloche Cathedral.
Manuel de la Peña del Rosario. We have no reliable information on the place and date of his birth. He was definitely from Portugal and moved to Brazil. As a layman, he studied with the discalced Carmelites of Gran Pará and after his ordination to the priesthood, he was put in charge of a parish. He received the Mercedarian habit and pursued his studies before dedicating himself to preaching. In a letter to the Master General, Father Juan Feliz Cano, had this to say about Father Peña: “Father Manuel de la Peña del Rosario had just arrived at this convent (San Luis del Marañon). A very spiritual religious, renowned for his virtue, he came from rural areas of Brazil where he worked as a missionary for three years, with such great spiritual results and credit to the faith that during the time of his missions, God worked many wonders, healing many sick and introducing devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and her Holy Rosary.” The chapter, held on June 8, 1767, at the Gran Pará convent, confirmed this information. In a letter of June 20, 1780, addressed to the Master General, Martín de Torres, Father Peña stated that he had resigned from the parish and renounced a substantial patrimony out of love of the faith, that he wrote an apology with 104 theological questions which was not published because he did not seek to be remembered but rather forgotten by the world; that he had rebuilt the Vigía residence where he was a conventual and a teacher of elementary education and Latin grammar at the age of 70, having been a teacher for 35 years. He was appointed adviser of the Marañon convents at the 1786 chapter. He died shortly after that.
Pedro Pascual Rubert. He was born on October 21, 1764, in Valencia where he spent his whole life. He received the Mercedarian habit when he was 14. When he was ordained a priest, he was assigned to teaching which he alternated with preaching. He was exemplary in his observance of the Rule and very humble. The whole city knew and admired his virtuous life. Many of the faithful listened to his sermons which produced many conversions. He was appointed superior of Valencia in 1805. But since the provincial chapter could not be held, he had to continue at the head of the community until 1811. When the revolt against the French broke out on May 23, 1808, and many wanted to assassinate the authorities accused of treason, Father Rubert had to use all his prestige to calm people down and to preserve many from certain death. This difficult test increased his popularity and he did not hesitate to send his religious to provide spiritual help to the wounded. At the chapter held in Sollana in 1811, he was elected provincial. At that time, all of Spain was fighting against the French who also occupied Valencia. Father Rubert kept the citizens’ optimism alive by affirming that French domination would be short-lived. On January 15, 1812, all the religious communities were gathered in the preachers’ convent where Father Rubert was arrested and condemned to death along with a Capuchin and three Dominicans. They were executed on the morning of January 18, 1812. In 1813, his secretary, Father Jorge Común, published a booklet on the exemplary and edifying life of this holy friar. The process for the recognition of his virtues was opened in 1814.
Tomás Gascó. He was born in Foyos in 1711. He entered the Order in Valencia where he received a novice habit as a brother on December 9, 1730, and he made his profession on December 10, 1732. He requested and obtained to go as a redeemer for Valencia with Father Ramón José Rebullida to a redemption in Algiers in 1752. The two of them left Barcelona on June 9. Although a plague was decimating the city of Algiers, they carried out the redemption liberating 240 captives. Upon their return to Barcelona, they were forced to be quarantined in Marseilles where redeemer Tomás showed much patience and charity. To this brother’s zeal, we owe the renovation of the Valencia church and convent where he restored the Confraternity of Mercy and founded the novenas of Mercy and of Saint Raymond. He looked after the chapel of mercy where he had established the association of slaves.
A religious immersed in constant prayer, he showed great modesty, profound silence and burning charity. He added fasting and corporal penances to these virtues. Five years before his death, he suffered a stroke which kept him bedridden. He died in odor of sanctity on March 10, 1795.
Luis García Guillén. He was born in Chiapas, Southern Mexico, on September 3, 1763. He entered the Order in 1783. After being ordained a priest, in 1790, he was put in charge of the treasury of redemption. In 1791, he was appointed secretary provincial, novice master, member of financial society of Guatemala in 1798, and adviser of the University in November 1808. He was the superior of Chiapas and provincial of Guatemala twice (1800 and 1802). He built the Church of the Assumption in New Guatemala and he had to suffer through the difficult political situation which led to the suppression of the province. Father Guillén was a prudent superior and an excellent preacher. His exemplary life earned him everyone’s esteem.
On February 28, 1831, he was named bishop of Chiapas, his hometown, and he was consecrated on January 19, 1832. He took possession of his see in April of that year but he set up residence in the Mercy convent where he led a life of religious observance in a setting of extreme poverty.
On September 17, 1833, he was exiled because he refused to submit to laws contrary to the Church. He died in exile in Campeche on August 19, 1834. He was buried in the Church of Santa Ana of that city. Two years later, his mortal remains were transferred to the Chiapas Cathedral.
The 1834 Martyrs. The criminal way in which the 1834 revolutionaries acted against the Church and institutes of consecrated life demonstrates that religious were sacrificed out of hatred for religion. In some sectors, such an anti-religious climate developed that any pretext was sufficient to unleash violence against convents and their residents. After having attacked other convents, on July 17, 1834, the Mercedarian convent was also attacked and the following eight religious were assassinated: Manuel Esparza who was stabbed to death in the choir and whose head was thrown in the church, Francisco Somorrostro, José Melgar, Eugenio Castiñeiras, Baltasar Blanco, Lorenzo Temprano, Vicente Castaño and Victoriano Magariños.
Melchora de Jesús. She was born in Lima on January 6, 1705. She received a Christian education in her family and as a child her feelings were oriented to God. She loved silence and retreat to devote herself to prayer. She mortified her body and made a vow never to eat meat in her life. When she reached adulthood, she ardently wished to join a cloistered monastery but she lacked the necessary dowry. One of her uncles, Mercedarian Juan de la Peña, a professor at the University of Lima, promised he would help her. Unfortunately, he died before she entered. In her tribulation, the young woman went to the Lord and with courage, she asked to be dispensed from the dowry. The discalced Mercedarian nuns who were solemnly inaugurating the monastery on August 10, 1734, were so enchanted by her virtues that they admitted Melchora to religious life. As soon as she was in the sanctuary of the cloister and consecrated to Jesus by vows, she started rigorous penances and gave herself to contemplative life. She spent many hours praying and also seeking union with God. Despite her humility, in 1748, she was elected superior of the monastery where she reestablished discipline and spiritual fervor. She was loving and affectionate with religious, especially with the sick, and she was adorned by every virtue. She accepted her long and distressing illness with resignation and patience. She died in May 1781. On May 14, her funeral was solemnly held and many people attended. Father Miguel de Azero y Lamadrid delivered the eulogy which was later published. He emphasized the saintly life of this Mercedarian religious who wrote spiritual and liturgical works, as well as biographies of exemplary nuns.
María Josefa del Rosario. She was born in Ermúa (Biscay) in 1766. From her mother, who was very devoted to the Blessed Sacrament, she learned adoration of the Eucharistic mystery. She grew in age and in virtue: pious, obedient, modest and hardworking, she was an example to all who saw her. At 22, she entered the monastery of the discalced Mercedarians of Santiago where she made her profession on November 8, 1789. There are extraordinary accounts of her religious life, especially in reference to her devotion to the Eucharist. The Lord favored her with the impression of his crown of thorns which caused her terrible pains and, in the course of an ecstasy, the Virgin of Mercy imposed on her the black veil of choir nuns instead of the lay sisters’ white veil: she was a mystical soul. Knowing that her end was near, filled with merits, she died on July 9, 1805. The entire town, starting with the archbishop, came to pay respect to her mortal remains which are now in the monastery where the nuns continue to show their veneration to the nun called the Mothers’ Saint by everyone. In 1812, Father Marcos Pecero published a biography—reprinted various times—of this extraordinary religious.
The political and anti-religious events of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had delivered a devastating blow to religious life in the Church giving the impression that it would not have the strength to reappear. Yet, in some aspects, the losses were counterbalanced. In fact, although they were expelled from their convents, many religious remained privately faithful to their ideal of religious life. They were secretly and effectively working for the spiritual restoration of the Church and its institutes. Others were promoting different forms of religious life in accord with the demands of a new historical time.
The Mercedarian charism also inspired new forms of expression especially in the works of God-loving people who were at the origin of Mercedarian religious institutes for women. At a practical level, these institutes were devoted to Christian instruction, taking care of the sick, missions, helping poor and lost youth, etc. Under the protection of the Virgin of Mercy, there were also lay people who became organized in associations to reflect on their own salvation and to do good for others.
In the nineteenth century, religious institutes for women emerged. They became full members of the Mercedarian Family as they realized some aspect of the Mercedarian charism. A brief and quick description of these institutes follows.
Missionary Mercedarians of Barcelona
This religious institute was founded in Barcelona on November 21, 1860.
Young Lutgarda Mas y Mateu (1828-1862) and exclaustrated Mercedarian Father, Peter Nolasco Tenas y Casanova (1803-1874), were the souls of this foundation. Lutgarda had contacted Father Tenas to carry out her fervent desire to reestablish Mercedarian sisters in Barcelona. After his initial perplexity about this endeavor, Father Tenas received encouragement from the vicar general of the Order, Father Tomás Miquel, and he became the enthusiastic promoter of this work. After having taken all the necessary steps, on November 21, 1860, Father José María Rodríguez y Bori, who was the interim president of the Barcelona convent, conferred the habit on five young girls of Barcelona and he established young Mercedes Bartra Demetre as superior of the incipient community.
In the same year, 1860, the institute was recognized as a diocesan institute and on September 19, 1864, it was incorporated in the Order of Mercy by the vicar general, Father Tomás Miquel. The religious, incorporated in the Order as regular tertiaries, took the name of Mercedarian Religious.
The Institute received the Decretum laudis from the Congregation of Religious on March 25, 1911. Initially, this Institute was aimed at the formation of young people but soon it also became oriented to missions and other social works. The revised 1983 Constitutions state the following: “The purpose of the Institute is to announce the kingdom and the redemption of others by promoting Christian education through teaching, missions and social work.”
At present, the Institute has 430 religious in 66 houses spread throughout Spain, America and Africa.
Mercedarian Sisters of Charity
The Mercedarian Sisters of Charity were founded in Málaga (Spain) on March 16, 1878, by the canon and visitator of the religious of that diocese, Monsignor Juan Nepomuceno Zegrí y Moreno (1813-1905). The Institute was incorporated in the Mercedarian Order by a June 9, 1878 decree of the vicar general, Father José María Rodríguez. Leo XIII granted the Decretum laudis on September 25, 1900, and the final approval of the Institute and of the Constitutions was granted on April 24, 1901.
The specific goal of the Institute is the practice of charity through the practice of works of mercy. The 1977 Constitutions, revised after the Second Vatican Council, express the charism and the mission of the Institute in these words: “The mission to which this Congregation is consecrated is the practice of charity by practicing all the works of spiritual and corporal mercy for the poor, serving them in hospitals, hospices, schools and in all the works which may overflow into benefits for all suffering, needy and forsaken humankind. Healing every wound, remedying all evil, soothing every sorrow, banishing every need, wiping away every tear and, if possible, not allowing a single being to be abandoned, afflicted, helpless, without religious education or without resources.”
The Congregation is now present in Spain, France, Italy, Latin America and Africa with 180 houses and 1,536 sisters.
Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy
They were founded in Nancy (France) on January 2, 1864, by Mother Teresa of Jesús (Elizabeth) Bacq (1825-1896), with the support of the local bishop, then Cardinal Charles Martial A. Lavigerie.
Initially, the diocesan Institute took the name of Religious of Our Lady’s Assumption. The first Constitutions, written by Mother Teresa, were approved on December 8, 1865. But Mother Teresa really wanted to be incorporated in an Order where the Blessed Virgin was especially venerated and she worked insistently for that. On April 4, 1887, the Institute was incorporated in the Order of Mercy by a decree of the Master General, Pedro de Armengol Valenzuela, and from that day on, the religious took the name of Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. On March 25, 1912, his Holiness Pius X granted the Decretum laudis. On June 13, 1931, Pius XI gave the first approval as a Pontifical Institute and on May 6, 1941, Pius XII granted the definitive approval of the Constitutions.
The charism of the Institute is essentially characterized by its apostolic and Marian spirit through works of charity and of mercy. “This religious family —as we read in the first Constitutions written by Mother Teresa— has been founded to honor the life of Jesus in and through Mary in a special way.” The revised 1975 Constitutions specify the charism and the spirituality of the Institute in these terms: “Such spirituality, founded on redemptive charity and on humility of which Mother Teresa gave an unmistakable example, is formed by burning faith, intense charity, dedication without limits, a zeal which rejects nothing that can be pleasing to God and strives for the salvation of souls.”
There are now 529 sisters in 57 houses in France, Italy, Belgium, Africa, Palestine, India, Chile, Ecuador and the United States. They focus on education of children and youth in homes, in elementary and secondary schools, on assistance to orphans in places of prevention and colonies, on taking care of the sick in hospitals and clinics, and of the elderly in homes.
Sisters of Mercy
Other religious institutes also emerged during the nineteenth century. Even though they were not officially incorporated in the Order of Mercy, they are still related to it. Among them, is the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy.
The Sisters of Mercy originated in Dublin on September 24, 1827, thanks to the work of a pious and noble Catholic lady, Catherine McAuley (1787-1841) who opened a house which served, at the same time, as school, home, lodging for abandoned girls, etc. From this was born the idea of founding a congregation of religious whose goal would be to perform works of charity or mercy in all their various forms. After the necessary preparations, Catherine and two companions made their religious profession on December 12, 1831.
The Congregation had no relation with the Mercedarian Order in terms of its origin and development, nevertheless, its Constitutions recommend having a special devotion to the Virgin of Mercy who is the Patroness of the Congregation and to Saint Peter Nolasco, a model of charity toward others. In addition, the shield of the Order is used in the Congregation.
These religious have increased in every continent and especially where English is spoken.
The indulgences which Supreme Pontiffs granted Mercedarian associations differed from one another. In 1833, indulgences, characteristic of the Third Order’s, were granted to the Confraternity of Mercy established in a church dedicated to the Virgin of the Poor in Rio de Janeiro. Also in Brazil, the existing confraternity of Ouro Prêto was transformed into the Third Order of Mercy in 1845.
A particular type of confraternity developed in the nineteenth century especially in America. People who belonged to it wanted to honor Mary of Mercy as their Queen by their charity and purity, virtues which were to adorn this Lady’s throne. This confraternity was somewhat like the Marian Slaves. They were all governed by their own Statutes and enriched with special indulgences.
There was also another type of confraternity reserved only to young girls before marriage. They were called Daughters of Mary of Mercy. They had their own Statutes and indulgences.
During the nineteenth century, illustrious people were devoted to the Virgin of Mercy, whether or not they belonged to confraternities. Some of these saintly men deserve to be remembered:
Saint Gaspare del Bufalo (1786-1837). His parents belonged to the Archconfraternity of Mercy established in Saint Adriano’s Church in Rome. Gaspare, who attended that church with his parents, was taught to love the Virgin of Mercy. Following his parents’ example, he wore the Mercedarian scapular and made his novitiate as a tertiary under Father Juan Matabosch’s direction. Ordained a priest later on, Gaspare founded the Congregation of the Most Precious Blood.
Vincent Pallotti (1795-1850), the holy founder of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate, always wore the Mercedarian scapular which he had received and he recommended that his children do the same.
Saint Anthony Mary Claret (1807-1870) had a close relationship with the Order of Mercy. He was ordained to the priesthood by Mercedarian Juan José Tejada. Founder of the Congregation of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, he was consecrated archbishop of Santiago (Cuba). When he came to Rome to participate in the First Vatican Council, as a sign of his love for the Order, he stayed with the Mercedarians at Saint Adriano where he was as a simple religious. He wrote a beautiful opuscule on the life of the Mercedarians’ Founder, with the significant title: L’egoismo vinto. In it, Peter Nolasco is described as an eminent example of charity who overcame the self-centeredness which separates people from one another.
To these devotees of Mercy, we also add another man in love with the Virgin: Saint Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787). On July 28, 1723, he placed the sword he had as a lay knight at the feet of the image ofOur Lady of Mercy in the Church of Mercy of Porta Alba, Naples. He was, thus, getting rid of his ties with worldly life and he decided to become a priest and was later the founder of the Redemptorists.
This pious desire of lay people to wear the scapular of Mary of Mercy out of devotion became for some faithful a more serious commitment to Mary when they asked to wear the Mercedarian habit, something which occurred especially with women. They formed part of the Third Order as non-cloistered beatas after completing the novitiate and profession. This way of expressing their devotion to Our Lady of Mercy manifested itself especially in Argentina where it had been impossible to establish a monastery of Mercedarian nuns.
For Catholic doctrine, the nineteenth century represented the advent of a great religious event: the proclamation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
Bringing to an end the countless discussions and controversies of previous centuries, on December 8, 1854, Pius IX pronounced the formula of the dogmatic definition of this truth of faith.
We should mention Father Juan Agustín Cabrera as the defender of the Immaculate Conception of Mary during this period. Immediately before the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX had asked the bishops’ opinions on whether this doctrine could be defined. The result was an almost unanimous consensus in favor of the dogmatic definition (546 of 603 bishops). Among the bishops in favor of the definition was the archbishop of Santiago who had formed a commission of theologians to examine the question in 1850. Father Cabrera was one of the five members of that commission and he wrote Theological Report on the Dogmatic Declaration on the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Mary and the Oportuneness to Affirm it. In this writing, Father Cabrera openly stated that he was in favor of the declaration of the dogma. At the same time, another Chilean Mercedarian, Manuel Troncoso, erected a chapel in honor of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. It is now the renowned Sanctuary of the Purísima de Lo Vázquez (Valparaiso).
Another event of Marianism prompted by Mercedarians was the grand festivity in honor of the Virgin of Bonaria in Cagliari on the occasion of the fifth centennial of the arrival of the venerated image to the island of Sardinia. From April 23 to April 30, 1870, there were ongoing religious and civil manifestations to honor the Blessed Virgin of Bonaria, memorable events in the history of the sanctuary. On that occasion, on April 24, by decree of the Vatican Chapter, the image was solemnly crowned with a gold crown and special liturgical faculties were granted for the festive days which coincided with the Paschal time. In addition, Pope Pius IX granted a special apostolic blessing to the commission which had organized the celebrations. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the event, in 1895, the newly restored church was exultantly consecrated. Later, on September 13, 1907, in a pontifical brief, the Virgin of Bonaria was proclaimed the main Patroness of Sardinia. These feasts were celebrated in April 1908.
Concerning what specifically refers to the devotion to the Virgin under the title of Mercy, in this century of prevailing laicism, there were significant manifestations among the faithful in several parts of the world. Some much venerated images of the Virgin also had the honor of being canonically crowned with gold crowns or the Virgin was proclaimed Patroness of nations, cities, towns and corporations. The most venerable are:
The image of Mercy which is venerated in the Mercy Basilica of Barcelona where devotion to the Virgin under that title started. In 1871, she was proclaimed Patroness of the diocese. In June of the same year, the people of Barcelona offered a gold candle to their Patroness. On October 21, 1888, the image was canonically crowned.
In the nineteenth century, in the Americas, there were some particular manifestations of devotion to the Virgin of Mercy. In a decree of April 4, 1851, the Constituent Assembly of Ecuador declared the Virgin of Mercy as Patroness and special Protectress of the city of Quito against earthquakes. In Pasto, Colombia, there is a famous image of Mary of Mercy. Since that period, she has been fervently invoked by the people against war, hunger, epidemics and earthquakes.
In the movements of liberation and independence from the Spanish rule, the American faithful invoked Mary as the liberator from foreign power and as the Protectress of the nation’s armed forces was called the General, the guarantor of the destiny of the homeland.
The first manifestation of this devotion came from the Argentine General, Manuel Belgrano. On September 24, 1812, he won an important victory in Tucumán after he had placed his army under the protection of the Virgin of Mercy and asked that she be invoked for victory. In gratitude for this sound victory, on October 5, General Belgrano sent two flags and two banners to the national government to have them placed in the Mercy Church of Buenos Aires and on October 13, he arranged a novena and thanksgiving festivities for his victory. Finally, on October 27, a solemn act of thanksgiving for the Tucumán victory was held and the Virgin of Mercy was named General of the Argentine Army and given the staff of command.
On September 22, 1823, the first Constituent Assembly of Peru declared the Virgin of Mercy as Patroness of the Armies of the Republic in appreciation for the special divine protection in the happy events which led Peru to obtain its independence.
The winds of independence also came to Bolivia or Upper Peru. There, the Virgin of Mercy was acknowledged as the Protectress of the homeland’s cause. In 1815, Governor Francisco Rivero decreed special celebrations for September 24 in the city of Cochabamba. At the same time, he proclaimed the Virgin of Mercy as the sworn Patroness of the country’s armies.
In Ecuador, the Virgin of Mercy was also upheld as the Protectress of freedom. After the battle of Pichincha, May 22, 1822, the victory was attributed to the Virgin of Mercy’s protection. Marshall José Antonio de Sucre had a solemn Mass of thanksgiving celebrated in the cathedral on May 29, 1822, with Mercedarian José Bravo as homilist. On that day, considered as the day of emancipation, the People’s Junta of Quito ruled that this anniversary be celebrated each year with the transfer of the image of Mercy to the cathedral and the celebration of a solemn Mass. In 1861, the Virgin was declared Patroness and Protectress of the Republic and of the Armed Forces and September 24 was set up as a national feast.
Thanks to all these manifestations, both at the ecclesiastical and civil levels, devotion to the Virgin of Mercy has richly blossomed.