Basilica-Església de la Mare de Deu de la Mercè i Sant Miquel Arcàngel
Function: Former monastic church, currently parish church; minor basilica
Address: Plaça de la Mercè, 1
This building is somewhat unique in the ecclesiastical history of Barcelona, because it is not only a Minor Basilica (raised by Pope Benedict XV in 1919), it is also the Mother Church of a medieval religious order, houses the statue of the patron Virgin of Barcelona, AND contains the remains of another parish. As such it is something of a hodge-podge of history, styles, etc. Nevertheless, it is worth exploration by the visitor interested in getting into the heart of the ancient port area of the city.
Although Our Lady of Montserrat is the title of the Blessed Virgin as patroness of Catalonia as a whole, Our Lady of Mercy is her title as patroness of the city of Barcelona. This Basilica was the headquarters of the Mercedarian Order, more formally “The Royal, Celestial and Military Order of Our Lady of Mercy and the Redemption of the Captives”. It was founded in Barcelona by St. Peter Nolasco under a rule drafted by another local luminary, St. Raymond of Penyafort, and with the approval of King Jaume I, the records of which are still kept in the royal archives next door to the Cathedral.
The story goes that on the evening of August 1, 1218, the Blessed Virgin appeared to all three men – St. Peter Nolasco, St. Raymond, and the King – and asked them to found an order to provide for the Christians who were being taken into captivity by Muslim pirates and forcibly converted. Thus the Mercedarians, in addition to vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, took vows promising to exchange themselves in ransom for another Christian who was in danger of losing his faith. The Mercederians are still around today, though engaged in less dangerous activities.
In 1637, the people of Barcelona gathered at this church to pray to the 14th-century statue of Our Lady of Mercy, a wooden sculpture of the Virgin and Child, for her intervention in stopping a plague of locusts. When this occurred, by popular decree of the city council she became an unofficial patroness of the city, alongside St. George and St. Eulalia. Her feast of September 24th, commemorating Saint Peter Nolasco’s vision, became the city’s major unofficial holiday. This grew in scope when she was formally recognized as the city’s patroness by Blessed Pius IX in 1868, and it became an official local government holiday in 1871. Today the festivals surrounding La Mercè bring concerts, parades, processions, fireworks, traditional dancing, and so on into the city for several days.
The first church on the site was built between 1249-1267. This structure was expanded at various time between 1300-1500. Between 1765-1775 the present Baroque-style church was built, although it incorporates some earlier elements: specifically, a late Gothic portal from 1519, which is all that remains of Sant Miquel, the Church of St. Michael the Archangel, which stood not far from here until its demolition in 1869 when City Hall was expanded. The original Mercedarian convent which the church was attached to was altered and expanded numerous times, most recently between 1605 and 1653.
In 1835, the convent was expropriated by the state, and eventually became the headquarters for the local military authorities, while the church became an independent parish. During the Civil War in 1936, Lefists severely damaged parts of the church, including its cupola with its large statue of the Madonna and Child blessing the city. Fortunately this and the rest of the building were eventually restored, and today the church is the site of hometown celebrations whenever F.C. Barcelona – more popularly known as Barça – win a game, as La Mercè is the patroness of their club.