Mercedarians (Order of Our Lady of Mercy for the Ransom of Captives), a Roman Catholic religious order founded in Barcelona by Saint Peter Nolasco in 1218. As indicated in the official title of the order, one of its principal missions was the ransom of captives, specifically Christians taken by Muslims. The order enjoyed rapid growth and sustained support in Spain and Portugal, although it was also successful in France, England, and Germany. The order was instrumental in the Spanish Conquest and settlement of the Americas.
Although the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians constituted the first important missionary orders in Latin America, in many instances their activities were predated by the Mercedarians. The first Mercedarian in the New World was reputedly Friar Jorge de Sevilla, who sailed on Columbus's second voyage in 1493. The first Mercedarian house in the Americas was not founded, however, until 1514 in Santo Domingo.
Several Mercedarians accompanied the early expeditions. For example, Friar Bartolomé de Olmedo was Hernán Cortés's personal chaplain. Friar Francisco de Bobadilla was active early in Panama and Nicaragua. While Friar Vicente de Valverde, a Dominican, accompanied Francisco Pizarro to Cajamarca in Peru, the first organized missionary effort was that of the Mercedarians. Under the leadership of Friar Miguel de Orones, five Mercedarians arrived in 1532, prior to the taking of Atahualpa in Cajamarca, and established a house at San Miguel Piura. In 1535 the order founded its first monasteries in Lima and Cuzco.
While the Mercedarians enjoyed early successes in Peru, the order did not become established in Mexico immediately following the Conquest, in spite of Olmedo's participation. They did, however, establish a monastery in León, Nicaragua, in 1527, which was the first step in building what would later become an important Central American base.
The first Mercedarian expedition to Guatemala was organized in 1538 under the leadership of Friar Juan de Zambrana, who, at the invitation of the local bishop, Francisco de Marroquín, arrived with three others to found their house. Although the Franciscans and Dominicans had sent earlier expeditions to the region, it was the Mercedarians who would enjoy the greatest success, especially in the remote parts of the kingdom, which had largely been ignored by earlier missionary efforts.
At the end of the sixteenth century, the Mercedarians finally had established themselves in Mexico, the heart of New Spain, with their foundation in 1594. It was not until 1616 that Mexico became a province independent of Guatemala.
While the order quickly spread out over the American continents, their efforts were still generally controlled from Spain. It was not until 1564–1566 that independent provinces were established in the Americas, when Guatemala, Lima, Cuzco, and Chile were formally recognized as separate provinces, apart from the order in Spain. Other Latin American provinces included Tucumán, Santo Domingo, Mexico, Quito, Colombia, and the vice province of Marañón. Oversight of the provinces was handled by a vicar who served under the master general of the order. Normally the vicar for the Spanish Indies was the provincial of Castile, in keeping with the development of the provinces. From 1587 until 1790, there were two vicars general, one for New Spain, the other for the viceroyalty of Peru. The vice province of Marañón was controlled by the Portuguese province. There were only three Brazilian convents, and in 1787 one of these was suppressed.
Unlike other missionary orders, the Mercedarians initially had cool relationships with the crown. On several occasions the Spanish authorities even threatened to expel the order from the New World. During the colonial period, they were often referred to as "mercenaries" (mercedarios versus mercenarios in Spanish), an allusion to their acquisition of lands and other rewards for service. A late-seventeenth-century reform ended this tradition, and in 1690 the order was proclaimed a mendicant order by the pope.
By the beginning of the seventeenth century, there were about 250 Mercedarians in Latin America. That number would grow to about 1,200 by 1750. The greatest concentration of the order occurred in Central America, where the order had twenty-nine convents, followed by Peru, with twenty-six, and Mexico, with twenty-two. By 1900, there were fewer than ten convents in all of Latin America.
In spite of the modest size of the order, it made some significant contributions, especially in the colonial period. Friar Diego de Porres was one of the leading Mercedarians in the province of Cuzco. About 1551 Porres arrived in Peru in the company of the newly appointed viceroy, don Antonio de Mendoza, and for the next thirty years he engaged himself in missionary work. Near the end of his life he claimed to have baptized 80,000 Indians, married some 30,000, and built no less than 200 churches.
Not all Mercedarians were seen as saintly. Felipe Guamán Poma De Ayala describes the misadventures of Friar Morúa, a Mercedarian assigned to the village of Yanaca. According to the Indian chronicler, Morúa forced the natives to weave clothing which he would in turn sell. The natives could seek no assistance from the local magistrate since Morúa served as a judge for him. Moreover Morúa imposed on the Indians his own choice of chief, a man who continued in idolatrous ways, without reprimand from the priest.
The Mercedarians played an important role in the educational life of Latin America. In many cities they established schools for the training of the local elite. The Mercedarian schools had as their principal goal the training of novices for the order. Several Mercedarians came to occupy important positions in the universities of Latin America.
Mariano Cuevas, Historia de la iglesia en México, 5 vols. (1928).
Rubén Vargas Ugarte, Historia de la iglesia en el Perú, 3 vols. (1953–1954).
Pedro Nolasco Pérez, Historia de las misiones mercedarias en América (1966).
Alfonso Morales Ramírez, La Orden de la Merced en la evangelización de América (siglos XVI-XVII) (1986).
Aparicio Quispe, Severo. La Orden de la Merced en el Perú: Estudios históricos. Cuzco: Provincia Mercedaria del Perú, 2001.
Black, Nancy Johnson. The Frontier Mission and Social Transformation in Western Honduras: The Order of Our Lady of Mercy, 1525–1773. New York: E. J. Brill, 1995.
Proaño, Luis Octavio. Nuestra Señora de la Merced en la colonia y en la República del Ecuador. Quito: L. O. Proaño, 1993.
Rangel, Magdalena E. de and José Miguel Romero de Solís. Los mercedarios en Colima: Haciendas y trapiches. Colima: Archivo Histórico del Municipio de Colima, Ayuntamiento de Colima: Gobierno del Estado de Colima, Secretaría de Cultura: Universidad de Colima, 1999.
Taylor, Bruce. Structures of Reform: The Mercedarian Order in the Spanish Golden Age. Boston: Brill, 2000.
Zaporta Pallarés, José. Religiosos mercedarios en Panamá (1519–1992): Con testimonios históricos de Tirso de Molina. Madrid: Revista "Estudios," 1996.
John F. Schwaller