Saint Peter Nolasco was born at the end of the twelfth century in either Languedoc, France, or Barcelona, Spain. At that time, the Moors still held much of Spain, and in sudden raids from the sea they carried off thousands of Christians, holding them as slaves in Granada and in their citadels along the African coast. Peter Nolasco, a merchant by profession, became aware of the plight of these Christian captives on his frequent business trips. He was obsessed with the thought of their suffering, and when, after the death of his father, he received a small inheritance, Peter proceeded to spend it freely in ransoming the Christian slaves. Because of these ventures Peter soon became penniless. He was on the point of despair when he had a vision of the Virgin and heard these words: "Find me men like yourself, an army of brave, generous, unselfish men, and send them into these lands where the children of the faith are suffering." Peter went at once to Saint Raymond of Pennafort, his spiritual director, who used his influence to get approbation and support for the new community. On August 10, 1218, Peter and two companions were received as the first members of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, dedicated to the ransom of Christian captives.
The Order spread rapidly. The founder required of himself and his followers a special vow in addition to the usual three--to devote their "whole substance and very liberty to the ransoming of slaves," even to the point of acting as hostages in order to free others. Peter and his comrades traveled throughout Christian Spain, recruiting new members and collecting funds to ransom the captives. Then they began negotiations with the slave-owners. They penetrated Andalusia, crossed the sea to Tunis and Morocco, and brought home cargo after cargo of Christians. Although Peter, as General of the Order, was occupied with its organization and administration, he made two trips to Africa where, besides liberating captives, he converted many Moors. He died after a long illness in 1256, and was canonized by Pope Urban VIII in 1628.
According to records, the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the Ransom of Captives accomplished approximately 70,000 rescues--some 2,700 during the founder's lifetime. Originally the Order was a military order; the members were knights. In 1318 Pope John XXII decreed that the leader of the order should be a priest, an action that caused lay knights to leave the Mercedarians and join a military order of Our Lady of Montesa. The Mercedarians subsequently became a mendicant order. Mercedarians accompanied Columbus to America and founded monasteries in Latin America. They also established themselves in Africa, Italy, France, and Ireland. The anti-clerical mood of the nineteenth century came close to extinguishing the Mercedarians. In 1880, however, their constitution was revised and their apostolate included educational, charitable, and social work, activities which the Mercedarians continued to pursue in the twentieth century.
Let us praise a glorious man, our Father, and strive to imitate his ardent love. He heard the cry of those held in chains and captivity; he freed them from their persecutors and redeemed them from the hold of their enemies.