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Feature News | Friday, September 15, 2023

Ransoming the captives

Art at Our Lady of Mercy Church, Deerfield Beach

DEERFIELD BEACH | Mercy can mean several things. It can be about forgiveness or benevolence. But for Our Lady of Mercy, whose day is Sept. 24, it means release from slavery.

Her cause began in the Middle Ages, when Muslim forces were attacking the Iberian Peninsula, kidnaping Christians and holding them for ransom. Many of the believers faltered in their faith, and their plight touched a wealthy merchant named Peter Nolasco.

In 1203, Nolasco began using his personal fortune to buy 300 captives. He then gathered a group of like-minded merchants to use their skills to travel and negotiate for more slaves to be freed.

Statue of David as a young shepherd carries a lamb in a gazebo outside Our Lady of Mercy Church in Deerfield Beach.

Photographer: Jim Davis | FC

Statue of David as a young shepherd carries a lamb in a gazebo outside Our Lady of Mercy Church in Deerfield Beach.

After several years, their funds were exhausted, and Nolasco was fighting despair. In response, Mary appeared in 1218 to him, as well as to his confessor St. Raymundo of Penafort and King James I of Aragon, whom he tutored as a young man.

According to the story, Mary asked them to continue the work, this time establishing a formal religious order. Pope Gregory IX approved the organization, which became known as the Mercedarians, or the Order of Mercy.

They began with a hospital in Barcelona, serving the poor, homeless and refugees from Muslim lands. They also took a fourth vow – beyond the usual religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – to dedicate their lives, money and even their own freedom if necessary, taking the place of slaves.

Nolasco became the order's first superior; he also was titled “Ransomer,” one who went to Muslim lands to secure the release of prisoners. During one mission to Granada and Valencia, he reportedly won freedom for about 400 Christians.

The Mercedarians also brought attention to the plight of slaves by establishing a feast day. Called at first the feast of Our Lady of Ransom, the observance spread throughout Nolasco's order, then throughout Spain and France.

Nolasco retired in 1246 and died 10 years later. He was declared a saint by Pope Urban VIII in 1628.

In 1696, Pope Innocent XII extended the feast to the whole Church. Since 1961, however, Sept. 24 is no longer a formal feast churchwide, but it's still regarded as a day of commemoration.

Vatican II changed the name of the day to Our Lady of Mercy. She is the patron saint of prisoners and prisons in general. Our Lady of Mercy is the patroness of Cadiz, Barcelona and about 60 other towns and villages in Spain.

Irish-style cross stands on a wall at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Deerfield Beach.

Photographer: Jim Davis | FC

Irish-style cross stands on a wall at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Deerfield Beach.

Nowadays, Mercedarians teach, counsel and serve parishes, fostering mental and spiritual as well as physical freedom. The Order of Mercy exists in 17 countries, including communities in the dioceses of St. Petersburg and St. Augustine.

At Our Lady of Divine Providence Church, Sweetwater, a painting has her crowned and wearing embroidered white robes. In her right hand, she holds the Mercedarian scapular. In her left, she holds the Christ Child as the Redeemer of the world.

In Deerfield Beach, Our Lady of Mercy Church was formed in 1974 from sections of neighboring parishes, St. Ambrose in Deerfield Beach and St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Pompano Beach.

The new parish met at various sites until 1982. That Christmas, they celebrated at their own house of worship at their present site on Military Trail.

During the 1990s, Our Lady of Mercy launched a variety of ministries, including aid to missions in Peru and donations to build a hospital in India.

The 400 active parishioners host a Bible study, prayer groups and religious education for adults and children. Organizations include a Legion of Mary and the Mercy Club.

This year, the Mercy Club organized a back-to-school benevolent drive, filling 30 backpacks and boxes of school supplies for needy students. The goods were distributed to schools through Women in Distress.

The parish also holds a Thanksgiving food drive, supports Respect Life and hosts a weekly meeting of Alcohol Anonymous.

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