MERCIER, JEAN-PAUL, priest, missionary; b. and baptized 1 Aug. 1694 at Quebec, son of Louis Mercier, a locksmith, and Anne Jacquereau; d. 30 March 1753 at the Tamaroa mission (at Cahokia, now East St Louis, Ill.).
Jean-Paul Mercier entered the Petit Séminaire of Quebec on 23 June 1710. He was ordained a priest by Bishop Saint-Vallier [La Croix*] on 8 May 1718, after only two years at the seminary. Two days later the young priest left with two confrères, Goulven Calvarin* and Dominique-Antoine-René Thaumur* de La Source, to go to the Sainte-Famille mission which the seminary of Quebec maintained among the Indians of the Tamaroa tribe. These Illinois Indians lived on the banks of a small, eastern tributary of the Mississippi, some five leagues below its juncture with the Missouri. At that time the missionaries from the seminary of Quebec also ministered to the garrison of Fort de Chartres, 15 leagues farther south, as well as to the nearby French parish of Sainte-Anne. The apostolate in these out-of-the-way places was most arduous. The superior of the mission, Calvarin, quickly wore himself out at the task and died in 1719. Charlevoix, who visited the Tamaroa mission in 1721, has rendered in the account of his journey an emotional tribute to the zeal of the other two missionaries, who had remained at their post, “formerly my disciples,” he wrote, “and who today would be my masters.” In speaking of Mercier in particular he noted: “I found him as he had been described to me, hard on himself, full of charity for others, and through his own person making virtue attractive. But his health is so poor that I do not think he can long endure the kind of life one must lead in these missions.”
On 1 Sept. 1728 Thaumur de La Source left for Quebec, where he died on 4 April 1731. Two young priests from the seminary of Quebec, Joseph Courier and Joseph Gagnon, left on 8 May 1730 to take his place alongside Mercier. In 1739 Courier was in turn replaced by Nicolas Laurent, who was sent from Paris by the Séminaire des Missions Étrangères.
By 1735 the material situation of the mission at Cahokia had improved greatly, as a map and report sent to Quebec by Mercier and Courier indicate. The missionaries were by then no longer alone, since seven French settlers had come to join them. The two priests lived in a house 84 feet long. Close by were a barn, stable, and some cabins for the slaves. There was also a garden, an orchard, and six acres under cultivation. But evangelization was progressing only slowly: the Tamaroas still resisted the missionaries’ preaching, and conversions were rare. Faced with these Indians’ obduracy, it is not surprising that Mercier sometimes felt discouraged. “I must admit to you,” he wrote to his superiors in 1732, “that I have been on the point of giving them up and returning to Canada with our two gentlemen.” Only the fond hope of being able “to baptize some children and even of winning over a few adults” kept this courageous apostle from leaving. Jean-Bernard Bossu, who visited the Illinois country in 1752, drew attention to his admirable intelligence and his fluency in the Indians’ language. Mercier died at his post in 1753, after 35 years of labour.
One of Mercier’s brothers, Jean-Francois, went to settle at Cahokia sometime between 1732 and 1735. Two other brothers also entered the orders: Louis, the eldest, who was born of his father’s first marriage and who died as parish priest of Beaumont in 1715, and the youngest, Jean-Auguste, who was born of a third marriage and died in 1752 as parish priest of Ange-Gardien.
[Allaire, Dictionnaire, and Tanguay, Répertoire, list the names of the two Merciers who were parish priests, but they unfortunately omit that of the apostle to the Tamaroas. Information on him can be found in: AAQ, 12A, Registres d’insinuations C, 16–18. ANDQ, Registres des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures, 1 août 1694. ASQ, Lettres, M, 82, p.8; 95, p.2; P, 123; mss, 2, 38; 12, 22–26; Missions, 30, 43, 43a-c; Polygraphie, IX, 15, 18, 19, 26, 42. Charlevoix, “Journal d’un voyage fait par ordre du roi dans l’Amérique septentrionnale ...” in Histoire de la N.-F. (1744), III. Noël Baillargeon, “La vocation et les réalisations missionnaires du séminaire des Missions-étrangères de Québec aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles,” SCHÉC Rapport, 1963, 35–52. n.b.]