MERMET, JEAN, Jesuit missionary in the Illinois country, 1698–1716; b. 23 Sept. 1664 in Grenoble; d. 15 Sept. 1716, at Kaskaskia (Illinois).
Mermet became a novice at Avignon in 1683, studied at Embrun, 1685–86, and then taught successively at Carpentras, Roanne, and Vesoul. He completed his theological studies at Dole, 1692–96, spent a final year at Salins, and came to Canada in 1698.
He was immediately sent to the west, where he assisted at the Guardian Angel mission (Chicago) and at nearby Miami-Illinois villages. Father François Pinet. head of the Guardian Angel mission, spent the summers there, but wintered farther down the Illinois River or with the Indians on their winter hunts. Mermet may have followed this practice, although Father Marc Bergier wrote in 1702 of the misery to which Mermet had been reduced in his winter quarters at Chicago. By this time Mermet was in charge of the mission, for Pinet had joined the Kaskaskias in 1700. When Mermet left Chicago in the spring of 1702, the Guardian Angel mission ended.
Mermet, in 1702, became an assistant to Father Claude Aveneau at the Miami mission on the St Joseph River (Mich.). In April of that year Mermet wrote to Cadillac [Laumet] at Detroit that the Miamis were urging the English to establish a post near the St Joseph River, implying that French reinforcements should be sent to the St Joseph post. Cadillac felt this was merely another Jesuit scheme to strengthen their position and to minimize his efforts at Detroit. “He writes through Michilimackinac,” Cadillac sarcastically noted, “and there is reason for astonishment that he is not already in Quebec, and the English with the Miamis.”
During the summer of 1702, Mermet – now with the Kaskaskia mission – was assigned as chaplain to the expedition of Charles Juchereau de Saint-Denys, who had a concession to establish a tannery near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Juchereau’s party picked up Mermet at Kaskaskia in August 1702, and arrived at its destination (near Cairo, Ill.) in late autumn. The Jesuits were directed to assist Juchereau as well as they could. Even with this help, a flourishing post never developed. Pierre-Gabriel Marest wrote in November 1702: “The Father [Mermet] who is with him is not very pleased. He is neither a missionary, for there are no Savages, nor a chaplain, for there is no stipend.”
However, a tribe of Mascoutens soon settled nearby, probably attracted by the new post. Mermet worked among them, but was unable to break the power of the medicine men. He engaged a Mascouten shaman in a celebrated theological discussion. The shaman worshipped the bison as his manitou. Mermet convinced him that he did not worship the bison, but the spirit which animated all bison, and that man, the master of all animals, must necessarily be animated by the greatest of all manitous. Mermet concluded that if this were so, why not invoke Him who is master of all others? Marest later wrote: “This reasoning disconcerted the Charlatan, and that is all the effect it produced.”
An epidemic soon swept the Mascouten village and the post. Mermet did his best to care for the sick but was rewarded only with abuse; the few Indians he managed to baptize died shortly thereafter. More than half the tribe died in the epidemic, which also caused the death of Juchereau (1703). Mermet apparently left the post in 1704, although a few French survivors remained at least through 1706.
Mermet’s movements after he left Juchereau’s post are unclear, although he may have served briefly at a Miami mission. Cadillac referred to Mermet in November 1704, as “the missionary of the village of the Aoyatanuons [Wea] Miamis.” Mermet arrived at the Kaskaskia (Ill.) mission in 1705 or 1706 and remained there until his death in 1716.
In 1706 Mermet cared for Father Jacques Gravier, who was ambushed, wounded, and kept captive by some Peorias. He operated on Gravier’s arm, nursed him, and sent him to Mobile. Gravier wrote (1707) that Mermet “can hardly work, owing to his ruined state of health after having spent all his strength by excess of zeal.” At Kaskaskia Father Marest also wrote of Mermet’s dedication: “In spite of his feeble health . . . he is the soul of this Mission.”
Mermet’s years at Kaskaskia were busy and fruitful. His duties consisted of officiating at baptisms, marriages, and funerals, ministering to nearby Indian villages, and trying to convince the hostile Peorias to become friendly. In February 1715, Mermet wrote of the death of his beloved colleague, Pierre-Gabriel Marest, “a missionary of incomparable zeal.” In the same year Mermet wrote several letters to officials in Montreal, warning them of the English scheme to move into the Mississippi-Ohio region.
Mermet died at Kaskaskia 15 Sept. 1716. His remains were reinterred in the new parish at Kaskaskia by Father Jean-Antoine Le Boullenger in December 1727. Mermet’s career involved no major scandals, controversies, successes, or failures. Yet he exemplifies the dedicated missionary who, in spite of physical limitations, performed mission work on the frontier for a long period of time. His lack of success at the Juchereau post was primarily due to causes beyond his control. The great success of the Illinois missions was mainly the result of the work of Gravier and Marest, but they both acknowledged Mermet’s usefulness and devotion. Mermet had the joy of being part of a missionary endeavour of which Gravier wrote: “They have hardly time to breathe, on account of the increasing number of neophytes and their great fervor.”
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