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d. 22 Feb. 1927 in Victoria


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DEMERS, JÉRÔME, Roman Catholic priest, author, architect, educator, and vicar general; b. 1 Aug. 1774 in Saint-Nicolas, near Quebec, son of Jean-Baptiste Demers, farmer and notary, and Geneviève Loignon; d. 17 May 1853 at Quebec.

Jérôme Demers was a fifth-generation descendant of Jean Demers, who came to New France around 1650. Jérôme’s father had two brothers who were Recollets, Father Louis* and Brother Alexis, and apparently it was from Alexis that he received the instruction necessary to carry out his duties as a militia captain and notary. Jérôme himself is thought to have benefited from the good offices of his uncle Louis. A sturdily built man with somewhat rough manners, Jérôme probably would have made an excellent farmer. But from childhood he showed so strong a bent for study and such an earnest turn of mind that his father had no hesitation in sending him in 1785 to the Petit Séminaire de Québec.

Demers found adjustment so difficult that he had to repeat his second year. As a result, his father later decided to send him to the Recollet friary in Montreal, where he may have been in attendance by 1788. Louis and Alexis Demers were then at this institution, as was Pierre-Jacques Bossu*, dit Lyonnais, a theology student. Louis Demers and Bossu were greatly interested in science and strong in mathematics. Under these two tutors Jérôme could not help but develop his own skills. The lessons given by the Recollets did not deter him from enrolling, probably that same year, as a pupil in the College Saint-Raphaël (which in 1806 became the Petit Séminaire de Montréal). In January 1789 he was monitor of the second year (Syntax), according to the class list recording the competition results and prizes. The following year he was in the third-year class (Method). He is thought to have finished his classical studies in 1794, having probably taken the Philosophy program, which covered that subject and science, with his uncle Louis and Bossu rather than at the college, where this course had not yet been established.

When he returned to Quebec, Demers, pursuing his interest in mathematics, enrolled in the surveying course given by Jeremiah McCarthy*. But in 1795 he abandoned mathematics and entered the Grand Séminaire de Québec. After a year and a half of theology he gave up his training for the priesthood and returned to live with his father, who immediately put him to work clearing the land. One week of this régime and he was back in the Petit Séminaire de Québec. In September 1796 he began teaching third-year classes there while continuing theological studies. In accordance with Jesuit tradition Demers followed his pupils into the higher classes. He was ordained priest on 24 Aug. 1798 and made a member of the seminary the next year. In the autumn of 1800 he became a teacher in the Philosophy program, which comprised two years of study, the first devoted to philosophy, the second to physics and mathematics. The same teacher taught philosophy one year and science the other.

Demers thus discovered his double vocation as priest and teacher. Indeed he was to spend his whole life at the Séminaire de Québec, returning only once to Saint-Nicolas, on the occasion of his father’s death. During the 53 years he devoted to education he taught grammar and the humanities from 1796 to 1800, philosophy and science from 1800 to 1835, philosophy from 1835 to 1842, and theology from 1842 to 1849. Moreover, he performed all the duties related to managing the institution. He was a directing member of the community for 49 years and of the Petit Séminaire for 7; a director of the Grand Séminaire for 1 year, he served as procurator for 9 and superior for 18. His final term as superior ended in 1842.

Virtually nothing is known about how Demers conducted his grammar and humanities classes. His career can be followed, however, from the time he became a teacher of philosophy, thanks to the testimony of his former pupils and the direct evidence of the course notes he left. It was not yet common pedagogical practice to use printed textbooks. Ever since the Renaissance, teachers had written out their own courses and either dictated them or had students copy them. Thus it was not, as invariably alleged, the scarcity of books after the conquest that prompted college teachers to write out their courses, but an age-old custom brought over by the Jesuits. At Quebec, teachers drafted their courses, explained them in class, and gave them to their students, who copied them into exercise books. Rhetoric, philosophy, and science lent themselves to this type of teaching. Philosophy, like rhetoric, was given in Latin, with the course notes being written in that language. After 1830 French textbooks replaced notes in Latin, except for philosophy, a subject for which the majority of classical colleges continued to use Latin textbooks until after 1950.

Demers taught philosophy in this manner for 29 years during the period from 1800 to 1842, his duties as procurator and superior sometimes obliging him to find a replacement. At that time there were four divisions in philosophy: logic, metaphysics, ethics, and physics (the philosophy course itself dealt with the first three). Demers committed this course to paper in 1802, 1808, and 1818. He published the last version in 1835 with numerous additions, and this in fact constituted the first philosophy textbook produced in French Canada. In the prospectus Demers justified its printing on the grounds that pupils wasted too much time copying the teacher’s notes and that French texts were too costly and “gave little or no explanation on certain topics of which young Canadians would find it extremely useful to have some knowledge, in view of their moral and religious environment.” His intention was not to produce a catalogue of the errors of the human mind but to present a clear, precise, and methodical manual calculated to recall the principles and laws of sound reason, and the nature and duties of man as a thinking, moral being. He was prompted not only by a practical need, but also by the necessity to provide young people with a sure guide through the debates taking place in these years of intellectual and political ferment.

The Institutiones philosophicae ad usum studiosae juventutis presented logic, metaphysics, and ethics in Latin, and to them Demers added a treatise in French, “Preuves de la religion révélée,” taken from the Philosophie de Lyon published in 1823. What is important to note is the discussion of political philosophy in the section dealing with ethics. The country was on the verge of a rebellion which Demers could see was coming; he even endeavoured to dissuade Louis-Joseph Papineau* from becoming embroiled in it. Convinced that men do not possess political equality even if they are equal, Demers rejects the argument of the social contract and of a pact which established primitive communal living. In his view, God is the source of all power, and He confers it on those who exercise it on earth. Respect and obedience must therefore be rendered to authority. To revolt against the civil power is to revolt against God. Insurrection is never permissible; moreover, it spawns more serious ills than it can correct. The philosophy teacher was indeed anxious to be involved in the discussions of his time. He drew much of his inspiration from the authors of the counter-revolution, such as Jean-Baptiste Duvoisin, the Comte de Frayssinous, the Vicomte de Bonald, and the La Mennais of the Essai sur l’indifférence en matière de religion (Paris, 1817).

Publication of the philosophy textbook, used in all the classical colleges except Montreal’s, which was under strict French and Sulpician obedience, was to be followed by that of a physics manual, it was announced. But Abbé John Holmes, who was in Paris in August 1836, told Demers in a letter that physics treatises went out of date as fast as they appeared, because of the increasing speed of scientific advance. Demers then realized that he would have to give up his publishing activity, just as in 1834 he had left the teaching of physics, chemistry, and mathematics to three young priests, keeping for himself only “speculative philosophy.” In the teaching of science Demers had also been an innovator.

From the 16th century to the middle of the 18th, French classical colleges had expounded the old Aristotelian physics. It was only after 1750 that pupils were taught the fundamental discoveries of the age of Descartes. For their part, the Jesuits of Quebec had provided sound teaching in mathematics before 1750, but only to the students of the École royale de Mathématiques et d’Hydrographie [see Joseph Des Landes*]. Once the Jesuit Collège de Québec had closed, the seminary took over that task in 1756, and instruction in science was provided ten years later. The teachers’ notes for the courses make it clear that until 1800 they followed what was done in France. Pedagogy was still based on the scholastic method by which physics theories were presented, discussed, and defended or refuted with the aid of the Institutiones philosophicae ad usum seminarii Tullensis (5v., Toul, France, 1769) by abbés Gigot and Camier, or the Abrégé latin de philosophie, avec une introduction et des notes françoises (2v., Paris, 1784) by Abbé Hauchecorne. The seminary library owned the most widely known works on physics and mathematics, written by the best authors of the time. There were also a few pieces of physics apparatus, but they belonged to the teacher and were used only outside class.

Having been well prepared by his Recollet uncle, by Bossu, and by the lessons of McCarthy, Demers had begun teaching science during the academic year 1801–2, and his first course notes were dated 1804. The material was divided into three parts – mathematical, systematic, and experimental physics – according to a plan derived from the Dictionnaire de physique . . . (3v., Avignon, France, 1761) by Aimé-Henri Paulian. He also drew upon the works of Mathurin-Jacques Brisson, Jean Saury (Sauri), Nicolas-Louis de La Caille, and Joseph-Jérôme Lefrançois de Lalande, as well as from the Histoire du galvanisme et analyse des différens ouvrages publiés sur cette découverte, depuis son origine jusqu’à ce jour (4v., Paris, 1802–5), published by Pierre Süe. His physics course, based on mathematics and informed by the latest advances, was already good but in 1809–10 he prepared a new one, organized on the plan of Brisson’s Traité élémentaire ou principes de physique fondés sur les connaissances les plus certaines, tant anciennes que modernes, et confirmés par l’expérience (3v., Paris, 1789). With 18 chapters and 970 articles, Demers’s course goes from the general properties of bodies to galvanism. Magnetism, electricity, and galvanism are the subjects of three successive chapters that are informed by the latest discoveries and most recent publications. Starting in 1817 Demers drafted a third course, using the same outline and enlarging his notes with corrections and additions. In 1833 he undertook a final revision for publication, which was halted by the letter from his colleague Holmes.

From the beginning Demers had wanted to set up a physics laboratory by putting together a few instruments himself with the help of the seminary’s craftsmen, and at the same time bringing in other equipment from England. In 1806, he and Félix Gatien* opened a “museum,” which eventually became a physics laboratory. Thanks to Demers’s knowledge of mathematics and physics, philosophy students, not only at the Séminaire de Québec but also at the Séminaire de Nicolet, the Collège de Saint-Hyacinthe, and the Collège de Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, where his course notes were used, received first-class scientific instruction.

His knowledge was also useful to the diocese of Quebec as a whole, where parishes were increasing in number and churches were needed. Demers, who had ties with the Baillairgé family and was a great friend of Thomas, had been involved in the work of these architects and wood-carvers since 1815; for ten years before he became vicar general in 1825, he was consulted by parish priests and fabriques and was called upon to give his opinion on plans of proposed churches. As in philosophy and science, he felt an imperative need to draw on the best sources: Jacques-François Blondel, architect and professor, Augustin-Charles Daviler, and Giacomo da Vignole. He later decided to add to his science course lessons on architecture, which he began in 1828. His “Précis d’architecture pour servir de suite au Traité élémentaire de physique à l’usage du séminaire de Québec,” which was illustrated by Flavien Baillairgé, comprises 19 chapters and 414 articles whose simple, coherent text shows his mastery of the theory of classical architecture. By 1828 a copy had been sent to the Séminaire de Nicolet, and the “Précis d’architecture” was being used in six classical colleges. Through it, parish priests would acquire a better knowledge of the builder’s art. As an architect, Demers not only gave his opinion on plans of churches in the diocese but also prepared or altered several of them. He produced plans for the church in his village, Saint-Nicolas, for the cathedral of Saint-Boniface (Man.), and for the Séminaire de Nicolet, the masterpiece of Quebec monastery architecture.

Although preoccupied by teaching philosophy and science, Demers played an important role in the religious and social spheres of his day. He was appointed vicar general in 1825, and was also director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, a member of the episcopal council, vice-president of the Quebec Education Society, and counsellor and patron of the Baillairgés and the painter Antoine Plamondon*. Nor was Demers indifferent to the political struggles that took place from 1822 to 1837. When his friend John Neilson* was approached in 1822 about going to London to fight the plan to unite the Canadas, he asked Demers to help him choose the Canadian assemblyman who would accompany him. Demers suggested Louis-Joseph Papineau, to whom he hastened to write: “I entreat you not to abandon our poor country until we have emerged advantageously from the terrible struggle in which we are engaged.” Less than three weeks later he urged Papineau not to leave, on the grounds that the speaker of the house could not desert his post, and he expressed regret that he had forgotten this aspect of the question at the time of his first letter. In 1831 Louis Bourdages* introduced a bill to have prominent citizens in addition to the churchwardens admitted to the meetings of fabriques. The clergy intervened vigorously with a petition accompanied by a statement thought to have been drafted by Bishop Jean-Jacques Lartigue*. Demers wrote in December to Charles-François Painchaud*, the parish priest of Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière (La Pocatière, Que.), using a line of reasoning closely resembling that of the statement, in order to give the priest arguments for the articles he was publishing in the Quebec Gazette under the pseudonym La Raison. John Neilson took the advice Demers gave on the question and declared himself against the bill. Bourdages, having been supported by Papineau and the members from the Patriote party, succeeded in having his bill passed by the House of Assembly on 23 Dec. 1831. But the Legislative Council, which on this occasion had only one Catholic member present, deferred the bill for six months, in other words, indefinitely. In the same letters he wrote to Painchaud that month Demers also stated that several politicians had come to see him about this matter. It was quite impossible for a Canadian priest of that period to accept a democratic element in parish administration.

In August 1832 Demers wrote to Neilson urging him to enter the Legislative Council and assuring him not only that the people’s welfare required it but also that, if he accepted, his “Montreal friend will accept also” – undoubtedly an allusion to Papineau. If Neilson refused, there would be unrest and disturbance for a long time. The vicar general added that in speaking to Neilson in this way he was adding his voice to the wishes of many highly reputable people, two of whom had instructed him to see Neilson on this score. Neilson replied that though Demers was a friend in whom he had complete confidence, he did not in this instance agree with him about the conduct of public affairs. Furthermore, Neilson, then a member of the assembly, said that he was not convinced he could be of service to the country in the position Demers was discussing. He concluded by pointing out that the office he was refusing was less important than the one the vicar general had himself earlier declined, the bishopric of Quebec. The few pieces of evidence such as these that have been preserved are valuable indications of the role that Demers no doubt played for more than a quarter of a century as a discreet counsellor and as spokesman for the diocese.

A man of rare intelligence, Demers assimilated with disarming ease mathematics and physics, philosophy, and the builder’s art. He knew how to adapt all of them to his time and country, whether as teacher, superior and procurator of the seminary, or as adviser to the bishop, politicians, and parish priests, or to builders, artists, and his former pupils. He was blessed with uncommon physical strength and robust good health. He would rise at three in the morning, and stay up late preparing sermons or refining his comments on the plan of a church. Somewhat high-strung, he studied zealously and intently, according to one pupil. All those who knew or met him stressed his goodness, gentleness, uprightness, and unfailing kindness towards everyone, especially the young. He was pre-eminently the friend of youth. As someone observed, although he had the sensitivity of a child, he had to be firm as the director of his pupils. But incapable as he was of causing distress, he tempered this firmness with great tolerance. Uncompromising on principles and scrupulous to excess in regard to his own actions, he pardoned the boys their scatter-brained and irresponsible behaviour, knowing full well that they were far away from their parents and sometimes found the austere life of the seminary hard to bear. None has described better than Papineau – writing nearly half a century later – the “tenderness” that was one of the master’s qualities.

The consideration for others which Demers preached and which he displayed as often to his servants as to his colleagues was equalled only by his modesty. Unconcerned about his appearance yet most distinguished in his bearing, he never spoke of himself or of his family, and seemed to live only for others. He would not allow his portrait to be painted, even though his friend and protégé Antoine Plamondon had once surreptitiously sketched his features. He is thought to have destroyed shortly before his death all his writings of the preceding four years, and hence to have deprived posterity of an exceptional legacy. His contemporaries stated that he twice refused the episcopacy, once at the death of Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis* in 1825 and again when Bishop Bernard-Claude Panet* died in 1833. After the death of Plessis, Demers told his friend Charles-François Painchaud that he was unworthy of the office and incapable of bearing its weight. In 1825 Ignace Bourget*, who would later be bishop of Montreal, stated that it was the parish priests of the district of Quebec who “elected” him unanimously. Demers is said to have justified his refusal by explaining “that the bishops were wrong to attack the rights of the seminary and that he did not want to follow suit.” On his deathbed Plessis is believed to have suggested that Demers, not a favourite of his, would not accept the high office if it were offered to him. It certainly cannot be said that the two priests did not get on well together, but it is quite possible that the bishop had suffered from having Demers so close at hand. Plessis was very gifted intellectually and had a knowledge of classical culture that few of his priests had been able to attain. But Demers clearly surpassed him in the sciences and arts. One incident was created when Plessis, seeing the lights on in the senior students’ study room in the Petit Séminaire at a late hour, drew this to the superior’s attention. But the students in question, Papineau among them, were Demers’s pupils, and had been given his permission to continue studying after others stopped, in order to satisfy their desire to read. Plessis had once tried to keep late hours in order to improve his knowledge, but not having the stamina of Demers had been obliged quite soon to curtail these excesses. In religious matters Plessis’s tendency was to centralize everything and to make all decisions himself. The important place occupied in the diocese of Quebec by the seminary since the time of Bishop François de Laval* must have sometimes proved awkward for the bishop, especially one who came from Montreal. Bishop Pierre Denaut*, the immediate predecessor of Plessis, had remained in the parish of Longueuil, near Montreal, leaving his coadjutor, none other than Plessis, to take care of administration at Quebec. The considerable reputation that Demers had quickly acquired as superior of the seminary and as adviser to parish priests, politicians, and the bishop himself, certainly could have offended Plessis.

Demers was a distinguished and original person who disdained affectation and preferred to use simple language. However, he excelled in the pulpit, where he expressed himself with extraordinary eloquence. When he preached on hell, the Last Judgement, or eternity he even became vehement, gaining mastery of the conscience of all present by persuasion, and subjugating them by terror, as a contemporary recalled. The oration he delivered at Plessis’s funeral was long remembered. He possessed all the gifts of a great teacher: strong powers of reasoning, clarity of exposition, a liking for teaching and an affection for the young, whom it was his pleasure to introduce to mathematics, logic, and astronomy. He even inspired his pupils with his enthusiasm for genius, for example when he explained the discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton. He admired Napoleon, of whose faults he was not unaware, and advised his pupils to respect men of genius of every age and place.

He not only kept his door wide open to penitents from outside, as the saying then went, who came to seek spiritual and moral comfort, but he also had many good friends, among them Pierre-Stanislas Bédard*, Louis Moquin, Andrew Stuart*, Joseph-Rémi Vallières* de Saint-Réal, John Neilson, and Louis-Joseph Papineau himself. The latter wrote in 1860, “He has remained my friend, my counsellor, my comforter in moments of profound grief.”

A claim is sometimes made that Jérôme Demers was one of the founders of the Université Laval, an assertion also made about Abbé Holmes. It does not seem that they had a direct part in setting up the institution early in the 1850s, since both had been ill and in retirement for some years. But there is no doubt that the university could not have come into being when it did without the substantial work undertaken by Demers at the seminary. As superior and procurator he had for 27 years directed in masterly fashion the foundation of Bishop Laval. He breathed new life into it, raising the standard of teaching to the level of excellence, thanks to his intelligence and skills as an educator, and to his choice of such men as Holmes, with whom he effected important changes in the programs of study and in pedagogical practices during the period from 1830 to 1835. He was also able to keep at the seminary young priests of talent – Louis-Jacques Casault* and Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau*, to name only two – who would be in a position to take up the challenge of a university. The active part he played in building churches was an example of the quality of service the diocese received from the seminary. His role as the discreet adviser to administrators and public figures earned him the respect of those in politics. It was Demers who enabled the venerable institution to keep abreast of the times, through his innovations and unremitting toil, and through his concern to involve himself in the problems of his society. Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau* could rightly say that rarely did a man as modest exercise a more sovereign influence. Jérôme Demers was one of the most remarkable men in Lower Canada during the first half of the 19th century.

Claude Galarneau

[Jérôme Demers is the author of the first philosophy text published in Lower Canada. Institutiones philosophicae ad usum studiosae juventutis (Québec, 1835) fully reveals the philosophy professor’s interest in keeping up with the issues of the day and demonstrates his extraordinary store of knowledge.  c.g.]

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General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Claude Galarneau, “DEMERS, JÉRÔME,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 22, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/demers_jerome_8E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/demers_jerome_8E.html
Author of Article:   Claude Galarneau
Title of Article:   DEMERS, JÉRÔME
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   February 22, 2024