Misericórdia, Santa Casa da

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Misericórdia, Santa Casa da

Santa Casa da Misericórdia, the most prestigious white religious brotherhood established in the Portuguese world. Originally founded in Lisbon in 1498, it was an elite charitable organization that established hospitals and helped prisoners, widows, sailors, slaves, orphans, and the indigent. From its inception, the kings of Portugal, starting with Manuel I, granted exclusive royal privileges and endowments to the Santa Casa, giving the brothers the right to collect alms and bury the dead. The brotherhood was dedicated to Our Lady, Mother of God, Virgin Mary of Mercy. Branches were founded in Nagasaki, Macao, Goa, Luanda, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, and elsewhere. Their main social services involved providing dowries, charity, prison relief, hospital treatment, and burial services.

The original Portuguese misericórdia had a membership of 100 brothers, half of whom were gentry and the other half of plebian origin. Membership was divided into two classes: brothers of higher standing and lower standing. Because of royal patronage and prestige, the santas casas attracted a majority of their members from the upper class. In Brazil applications for membership were scrutinized for purity of blood. A person could be denied membership or expelled from the brotherhood if he or his spouse had Jewish, Moorish, or African ancestors. All branches of the Santa Casa were governed by the same compromissos (charters) with common privileges, administrative structures, and similar banners. They also preserved the same traditions of mutual assistance and celebrated the same festivals on All Saints' Day, the Visitation, and Holy Thursday. Restrictions on the admission of clergymen were another feature common to all branches.

The first and most important misericórdia in Brazil was established in Salvador da Bahia in the middle of the sixteenth century. Later, other branches were founded in Santos, Espírito Santo, Vitória, Olinda, Ilhéus, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Pôrto Seguro, Sergipe, Paraíba, Itamaracá, Belém, Igarassú, and São Luís de Maranhão. The discovery of gold and diamonds in the 1690s brought the misericórdia to the mining cities of Minas Gerais.

The building of the first hospitals in the port cities of Brazil was the most important social function of the Santa Casa. With their resident physicians, nurses, and chaplains, the hospitals were open to all classes and races serving the needs of sailors and slaves. The provision of dowries to orphans and poor white women helped to increase the number of marriages in colonial Brazil. The creation of a foundling wheel and retirement houses provided assistance to orphans, unwanted children, and single women. Prison aid was another vital service performed by the Santa Casa, since the colony of Brazil was often a dumping ground for criminals. The brothers had the right to feed prisoners, provide legal counsel, and to accompany condemned prisoners to the gallows. The tradition of clemency for prisoners who fell from the scaffold was defended in Bahia, Lisbon, Luanda, Goa, and Macao. The Santa Casa was the only brotherhood in Brazil to provide funeral services for persons who were not members. It also paid for masses for the dead and built churches for the local population, thus providing a source of income for the church.

For their impressive network of social services, the Santa Casa depended on private charity, membership dues, interest from loans, rent on property, and legacies of money, land, and slaves. So extensive were its social services that some of the santas casas in Brazil fell into bankruptcy in the late colonial period and had to curtail some of their works of charity. All branches of the misericórdia within the Portuguese world provided badly needed local social welfare and philanthropy not supported by the state authorities, because the royal government neglected public welfare programs, relying instead on private charity. Through its hospitals, the misericórdias offered some measure of public-health assistance in a colony where tropical disease often reached epidemic proportions. The social philanthropy of the santas casas da misericórdias can still be seen in modern Brazil, where its hospitals survive.

See alsoCatholic Church: The Colonial Period .


Charles R. Boxer, The Golden Age of Brazil, 1695–1750 (1962).

A. J. R. Russell-Wood, Fidalgos and Philanthropists: The Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Bahia, 1550–1755 (1968).

Additional Bibliography

Diniz, Jaime C. Mestres de Capela da Misericórdia da Bahia, 1647–1810. Salvador: Centro Editorial e Didático da UFBA, 1993.

Silva Gracias, Fatima da. Beyond the Self: Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Goa. Panjim: Surya Publications, 2000.

Venâncio, Renato Pinto. Famílias abandonadas: Assistência à criança de camadas populares no Rio de Janeiro e em Salvador: Séculos XVIII e XIX. Campinas: Papirus Editora, 1999.

Vianna, Arthur Octavio Nobre. A Santa Casa da Misericórdia Paraense: Notícia histórica 1650–1902. 2nd ed. Belém: Secretaria de Estado da Cultura, 1992.

                                        Patricia Mulvey