The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy also known as the Mercedarian Friars, the religious community that staffs the parishes of Our Lady of Mercy in Le Roy and St. Brigid's in Bergen, celebrates its 800th Anniversary this year.
The origins of the Mercedarian Friars began in 13th-century Spain.
Today, Spain conjures images of beautiful beaches, flamenco dances and sangria.
Medieval Spain was a battleground. From the year 711 until 1492, Spain was the scene of continuous warfare between Christians and Muslims. Christian men, women and children were taken as prisoners of war. These Christian slaves were subjected to dehumanizing conditions and were cut off from their countries, families, and religion. Inhumane conditions and intense social pressure to convert to Islam caused many of these captives to reject the Catholic faith.
St. Peter Nolasco, a merchant from Barcelona, aided these captives for decades as a pious layman. His inspiration to found a religious order dedicated to the freedom of Christian captives came on Aug. 1, 1218, by an apparition of the Virgin Mary. With the assistance and support of the Crown of Aragon and the bishop of Barcelona, Peter and a small group of followers founded the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy for the Redemption of Captives on Aug. 10.
The Mercedarians sought to imitate Christ the Redeemer by devoting their lives to the freedom of Christian captives. The early friars ransomed captives by raising the necessary funds to secure their release. Upon release, the friars tended to the former slaves' physical, spiritual and psychological needs.
The friars take a fourth vow of redemption in addition to those of poverty, chastity and obedience. The fourth vow requires that the friars dedicate their entire lives to the freedom of the captives, even to the point of giving up their very lives. Many early Mercedarians were martyred by Muslim slaveholders. By 1300, historians estimate that the Mercedarians freed over 11,000 Christian captives in Spain and northern Africa.
The Mercedarian Friars were initially organized as a military force composed of laymen. Within a hundred years of its founding the order came under the leadership of priests who assumed other ministries that were consistent with its original purpose. Mercedarians served as missionaries to the New World, chaplains to the king of Spain, scholars, and professors of theology. A Mercedarian priest journeyed with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas.
While physical ransom of captives ended in the early 19th century, the friars' commitment to freeing Christians in bondage to sin, ignorance, addiction and poverty continues to animate new generations of religious.
Mercedarians currently serve as professors, hospital and prison chaplains, teachers, missionaries and parish priests. The order has over 700 members in about two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
The Mercedarians seek new ways to free Christians held in bondage and who are in danger of losing their faith.
The order's origins in the United States are fairly recent. Friars from Italy came to Ohio to minister to the newly arrived Italian immigrants in the early 20th century. The friars in the United States serve in the Dioceses of Cleveland, Buffalo, Philadelphia and St. Petersburg.
The Mercedarians have maintained a continuous presence in Le Roy for the past seven decades. Three Mercedarian priests currently staff two parishes in the Diocese of Buffalo.
Father Freeman can be contacted at email@example.com