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Chapels and masses in perpetuity

In the 16th century, following the construction of the Church of the Misericórdia, several chapels – that is, assets linked to the celebration of masses in perpetuity – will be established in it, with more or less regular intervals, a movement which lasted until the following century. The chapel founders, from the local civil and ecclesiastical nobility, in order to keep these legacies, bounded their properties, incomes and money to it. This reflected the importance that the Misericórdia had ​​in the context of Vila Real’s society, and the recognition that the King himself expressed about such institutions, leading the elite of the village to strengthen its devotional vocation, as a way to demonstrate its social prestige. It was therefore at the service of God and for the salvation of their own souls that the nobility and the bourgeoisie dedicated significant assets or incomes to their chapels or masses in perpetuity.

In April 26, 1538, D. Pedro de Castro established a chapel in the church of the Misericórdia, a perpetual endowment with an income of 200 measures of wheat, rye and olive oil, with the Misericórdia being obliged to ensure a daily requiem mass for the soul of Fernando, Marquis of Vila Real, listing the priests who would celebrate the mentioned mass.

Other chapels followed, during the 16th century, instituted in the Misericórdia of Vila Real. Sometimes, these chapels resulted in lawsuits or disputes that have helped weaken the financial situation of the Institution, or to reduce its influence in the local society.

If we consider the legacies left to the Misericórdia of Vila Real by the founders of chapels for compliance with the masses in perpetuity and other obligations, we can identify three types of donations: real estate, consisting of rural and urban properties; rents, which were paid in goods, usually wheat and rye, but also olive oil and wine; and cash pensions, to pay directly the administrators of the chapels and the chaplains who celebrated the Masses, or to put that money at interest. Exceptionally, there were obligations with an assistance nature – clothing for the poor – in strict compliance with the works of mercy ("clothe the naked").

Moreover, when analysing the chronology of the chapels established in the Church of the Misericórdia of Vila Real, from its founding until the mid-18th century, we find that the number of established masses in perpetuity did not stop growing until the early 17th century. However, from 1620-1630 onwards, the bonds to masses in perpetuity will fall abruptly, denouncing a new reality. Indeed, in 1639, the powerful and "opulent" brotherhood of St. Peter, established in the Misericórdia of Vila Real, moved to the "magnificent" temple of Saint Paul, in the heart of Vila Real, which had been built by several priests and religious men – in 1720, it registered 200 priests and 500 laymen – leading the church of Saint Paul to quickly replace the Church of the Misericórdia regarding masses and donations.

In the end, were the chapels established in the Misericórdia of Vila Real a benefit or a burden for this Institution? The decrease in their number from the 17th century onwards penalized the Misericórdia?

From a symbolic perspective, reducing the number of masses in perpetuity was not prestigious for the Brotherhood, but from a financial standpoint, we doubt that it was negative. The chapels established in the Misericórdia of Vila Real with their masses in perpetuity, proved to be, as in other Misericórdias, an expense to the Institution, since the income from the assets allocated to that end was spent in payments to chaplains or priests in charge of celebrating the masses, and the absence of other funding sources ended up leading to the accumulation of masses to celebrate, resulting in the failure to comply with the pious bequests.

This situation forced the Board of the Misericórdia to ask from the religious authorities a document forgiving the uncelebrated masses and requesting the reduction in the number of imposed masses, under penalty of failing its obligations – a measure already adopted by other Misericórdias of the Kingdom, such as Bragança.

Following the agreement by the religious authorities, the number of masses observed a drastic reduction in the 18th century. For example, with respect to the six chapels directly administered by the provedor (including the Chapel of Pedro de Castro), it went from hundreds of masses per year, in the previous centuries, to only 21 by 1797. In 1822, the overall number of masses that the Misericórdia was bound to by both its chapels and its bylaws, was of 31.