Historic, Catholic charitable institution, formally, Holy Houses of Mercy, which ministered welfare, medical, and other types of assistance to the poor and to prisoners beginning in the Middle Ages in Portugal. Although its origins lay in Christian charitable brotherhoods in medieval Portugal, the Hospitals of Mercy (Misericórdia) began in the late 15th century under royal patronage of Queen Leonor (1458-1525), wife of King João II, who founded the first Misericórdia in Lisbon. From the capital, this institution spread into other towns and regions of Portugal. She also founded the Misericórdia at Caldas da Rainha, a town north of Lisbon, where reputedly it became the world's first thermal (waters) treatment hospital, with more than 100 beds for patients. The Holy Houses of Mercy were responsible also for assisting orphans, invalids, and foundlings, as well as for feeding prisoners in jails and burying the executed. The administration of clerical brotherhood staff of these institutions increasingly was composed of persons of high social and professional standing in their communities.
   After 1500, the Misericórdias spread beyond continental Portugal to the Atlantic islands of Portugal, as well as to the overseas empire in Brazil, Cape Verdes, Angola, Mozambique, Portuguese India, Macau, and Japan. In Brazil alone, for example, there were more than 300 such places. Their activities went beyond hospital and other charity work and extended into education, learning, the founding of convents and presses, and patronage of the arts. More secular than religious today, the Houses of Mercy still function in Portugal by means of dispensing private welfare and mutual aid.

Historical dictionary of Portugal 3rd ed.. . 2014.

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