DEGEAY, JACQUES, Sulpician and parish priest; b. 31 March 1717 in the parish of Saint-Nizier, Lyons, France, son of Henri Degeay and Marie Bournicat; d. 6 Aug. 1774 in Montreal (Que.).
In February 1740 Jacques Degeay, who had already received the tonsure, entered the Séminaire de Saint-Irénée in Lyons, which was directed by the Sulpicians. His teachers considered him both innocent and somewhat stubborn. These traits, which were demonstrated throughout his life, probably explain why in January 1742 the council of the Society of Saint-Sulpice in Paris asked for more information before they accepted him as a member. He was apparently ordained priest in the spring of that year.
Degeay arrived in Montreal on 21 July and served in Notre-Dame parish until October. In November he succeeded Pierre Le Sueur* as parish priest of Saint-Pierre-du-Portage (L’Assomption, Que.). For 32 years he laboured there not just as a missionary but also as a builder, businessman, and Christian shepherd to the humblest of his flock. Degeay found Le Sueur’s unpretentious parish buildings in a state of decay. He reorganized parish finances, bought land with his own funds, and, after discussion with his parishioners, a few of whom remained stubbornly opposed, began the construction of a stone church and presbytery in 1750. The same year he opened a new cemetery. These projects had all been approved by Bishop Pontbriand [Dubreil*] during his pastoral visit in June 1749, and Louis Normant* Du Faradon blessed the corner-stone on 23 June 1750. Degeay embellished the church by adding a bell-tower with three bells (one of them his personal property) and by acquiring suitable decoration. Until his death he employed at different times three wood-carvers: Gilles Bolvin*, Philippe Liébert*, and François Guernon*, dit Belleville. In years of rapid expansion – the parish grew from about 500 persons in 1742 to more than 3,000 in 1774 –he exercised his ministry faithfully and showed outstanding organizational ability. He fostered the village’s development, encouraged school education, assisted parishioners from his own funds, and transferred land he owned to them.
Degeay became the guardian angel of the Acadians who came to settle in the Saint-Sulpice seigneury. After consultation with the government, the Sulpicians had offered land to these exiles who had spent ten years wandering in New England. In September 1766 some 80 of them arrived at Saint-Pierre-du-Portage and 37 families followed a year later. They settled about 12 miles north of Saint-Pierre, thus establishing the nucleus of the future parish of Saint-Jacques-de-l’Achigan. Degeay provided them with the necessities of life and also undertook to validate marriages and hold baptismal services.
Degeay’s stubbornness led to difficulties with the civil authorities in Quebec. He incurred the wrath of Lieutenant Governor Guy Carleton* after having performed a marriage unaware that the man involved was a deserter from the British army. After an exchange of acrimonious letters between the two, the priest finally had to ask Carleton’s pardon in 1766 for the tone of his remarks. On this occasion Étienne Montgolfier noted in a letter to Bishop Briand that he distrusted the “rather impetuous nature of this priest.”
In 1771, Degeay, feeling the symptoms of the illness that would prove fatal, was hospitalized for the first time in the Hôtel-Dieu in Montreal. He returned there at the beginning of July 1774 and at that time made his will. Its provisions included leaving his bell to the church of Saint-Jacques-de-l’Achigan, a bequest that led to a quarrel between the parishioners of this parish and those of Saint-Pierre-du-Portage. Degeay died on 6 August and was buried on 8 August under Notre-Dame. As the historian Christian Roy notes, his legacy was “personal accomplishments of great fruitfulness, a seigneury almost fully settled, and a parish which was probably the only one of its kind.”
ACAM, 355.114. Archives du séminaire Saint-Irénée (Lyon, France), Registre des ordinations, 1740–41. Archives municipales, Lyon (dép. du Rhône, France), État civil, Saint-Nizier, 31 mars 1717. Archives paroissiales, L’Assomption-de-la-Sainte-Vierge (L’Assomption, Qué.), Registre des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures, 1742–74. ASSM, 15, testament de Jacques Degeay; 24, Dossier 6. “Sur deux retables de l’église de L’Assomption,” Raymond Douville, édit., RHAF, XII (1958–59), 30–34. Guy Courteau et François Lanoue, Une nouvelle Acadie, Saint-Jacques de L’Achigan, 1772–1947 ([Montréal, 1947]). Christian Roy, Histoire de l’Assomption ([L’Assomption, 1967]).