LE MERCIER, FRANÇOIS-JOSEPH, priest, Jesuit, missionary in the Huron country and superior-general of the missions in New France; b. 3 Oct. 1604 in Paris, son of Paul Le Mercier, goldsmith and valet to the king, and of Marie Du Jardin; d. 12 June 1690 in Martinique.
He was admitted into the noviciate of the Society of Jesus on 22 Oct. 1622 in Paris. All the early part of his religious career was spent in Paris, where after his noviciate he followed the philosophy and theology courses at the Collège de Clermont; he also taught for four years in the same college. He was ordained priest in 1633, sailed to New France as soon as his training as a Jesuit was completed, and reached Quebec 20 July 1635. Three days later he set off by canoe for the Huron country, which he reached on 13 August.
At that period the missionaries usually lived at Ihonatiria (Saint-Joseph I), under the authority of Jean de Brébeuf. Under this pioneer missionary Father Le Mercier obtained a working knowledge of the language and had his first experience of the apostolate. He was named “Chaüosé” by the Hurons, and was immediately and conspicuously successful in the study of their language. The missionaries lived in bark lodges built after the manner of the country. The chapel itself was in a similar style. Eating, reading, or conferring together squatting on the ground, without furniture, without blankets, sleeping fully dressed on mats, the Jesuits lived in every respect after the Indian fashion. From Ihonatiria they spread out into the neighbouring villages; frequently they were unwelcome guests of the natives, lodging in their tents, distressed by the promiscuity, filth, and smoke, and annoyed by the dogs. Their food was that of the Indians, sagamité, a liquid paste made of water and crushed maize, and sometimes flavoured with overripe or dried fish. Pumpkins, declared excellent by the Jesuits, were an important part of the menu. Maize and pumpkins were the principal foods grown by the Hurons, in fields which they maintained adjoining their villages and abandoned every ten years or so when they shifted their dwellings. Meat and fresh fish were rare, hunting and fishing being only spasmodic and very seldom productive. On the missionary journeys the Hurons themselves provided the priests with food, not without receiving in payment small objects, knives, awls, and so on, which the fathers always had with them. At the central residence the servants tilled the soil in Indian fashion and went hunting or fishing for the Jesuits.
The French missionaries adapted themselves well to the Indian style of habitation and food, but they also were liable to be struck down by the epidemics which afflicted the Hurons at that time. Father Le Mercier was designated as a male nurse, which gave him a good deal of work in 1636. The following year, because of these same illnesses, the hostility of the Hurons became so intense that in their councils they decided upon a general massacre of the missionaries. At the same time Brébeuf was attending to the establishment of a new post, Ossossanë, which in 1637 became the second main base of operations for the apostles. Le Mercier was put in charge of it. It was at Ossossanë that Brébeuf presided at the farewell banquet that was to precede the Jesuits’ death. He drafted the admirable letter of 28 Oct. 1637, which all the fathers signed and in which he proclaimed the firmness and resignation of all in face of death. The threat was not put into effect at that time, but the maltreatment continued until 1640, and Father Le Mercier himself was personally attacked and narrowly escaped being burned. His courage and eloquence saved him on that occasion.
With the arrival of Father Jérôme Lalemant as superior of the mission, on 28 Aug. 1638, the missionary technique was to change. Until then the missionaries had lived among the Hurons, at Ossossanë, where Father Lalemant resided for a while, and at Teanaostaiaë (Saint-Joseph II), which Brébeuf had chosen in the spring of 1638 instead of Ihonatiria. Father Lalemant had a census made of the Huron villages, whose population amounted to about 12,000 souls. Then he decided to concentrate the missionaries in an isolated residence, Fort Sainte-Marie, which was built in 1639 on the land where Midland, Ontario, now stands. The Jesuits were to radiate from this centre in their journeys through the Huron villages. As minister and procurator, Father Le Mercier certainly had a great part in the building of this post, but he did not neglect the apostolate on that account. His great facility in the Huron language frequently took him away from Saint-Marie in the early years, the domestic tasks being left to Fathers Isaac Jogues and Pierre Pijart. However, as the missionaries’ residence became a regular rallying point for the Christian Hurons, Father Le Mercier was able to exercise his ministry among them without moving from the spot. It was he who not only watched over the administration of the house but also was responsible for the neophytes who were passing through. As early as 1642 Father Lalemant realized that he would have to divide up the apostles further, and disperse them among the villages in small, firmly knit groups. Sainte-Marie-des-Hurons remained a centre for retreats and rest, where the fathers came for meditation and the recovery of their strength, and where the Indians came to complete their instruction and receive baptism in more solemn ceremonies than elsewhere. Father Le Mercier presided over all this. He also supervised the donnés and the servants, who were busy with household tasks, with tilling the fields, hunting, and fishing, as well as being concerned with the defence of the establishment if necessary. Under his general direction “the soil was cleared and planted, livestock and poultry were brought up from Quebec, by dint of unbelievable efforts. The new establishment became an important farm. Harvests, hunting, fishing and trading were sufficient after a few years to support the community, the donnés and the servants” (Rochemonteix, I, 396). Father Le Mercier thus lived at the central residence under the two superiorships of Fathers Jérôme Lalemant and Paul Ragueneau.
It is known that the Iroquois, in 1648–49, embarked upon the systematic destruction of the Huron nation. After the martyrdom of Fathers Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant in the spring of 1649, the surviving Hurons begged the priests to emigrate with them to the Île Saint-Joseph (Christian Island). Fathers Ragueneau and Le Mercier agreed, and burned their residence at Sainte-Marie on 14 June 1649. They built a similar one on the island, with the same name. Despite Father Le Mercier’s administrative foresight, the following winter ended in a deprivation beyond belief; this, combined with the latest Iroquois forays on the mainland, forced the missionaries and a fair proportion of the Hurons to go down and take refuge near Quebec in 1650.
Father Le Mercier, back from the Huron country, resided during the subsequent years in Quebec. In 1652 he was engaged in obtaining help for the Trois-Rivières settlement, which was threatened by the Iroquois. Despite the opinions of the settlers themselves, he had fortifications put up which made it possible, in 1653, to hold off 500 Iroquois who had sworn to destroy the post. On 6 Aug. 1653 news came of his appointment as rector of the Collège at Quebec and superior-general of the missions in New France. It was in this capacity that he was to take part in the peace negotiations with the Iroquois. He did not hesitate to share himself the dangers to which he exposed his subordinates by sending them among the Indians. On 11 May 1656 he designated Father Jérôme Lalemant vice-superior of the mission, until such time as the general of the Jesuits named his successor; Father Jean de Quen was to replace him during the summer. As for Le Mercier himself, in May he joined the missionary expedition to the Iroquois country, organized following the embassies of Father Simon Le Moyne to the Onondaga country. The Iroquois named Father Le Mercier “Teharonhiagannra.” His absence lasted a year. On 1 June 1657 he was back in Quebec, which he left again on the 27th of the same month, possibly intending to return once more among the Iroquois. However, Father Ragueneau, who had left Quebec a few days before him and whom it was desired at that time to keep at a distance from the place of government, was the only one to accompany the expedition beyond Montreal; Father Le Mercier returned to Quebec and concerned himself with various missionary labours.
On 6 Aug. 1665 Father Le Mercier was once again appointed rector and superior-general of the missions. This second mandate was to be attended by the revival of the Jesuit missions both among the Iroquois and among the Ottawas of the region around the Sainte-Marie falls (Sault Ste. Marie). At the same period Father Marquette was preparing the expedition that was destined to make him famous. The Laprairie area near Montreal was opened up for colonization by the superior. After six years Father Le Mercier was relieved of his burden and became primarius, that is to say prefect of the College at Quebec. But he held this post for only a year, being recalled to France by the provincial of Paris in the summer of 1672.
Father Paul Oliva, the general of the Society of Jesus, had in fact been considering the already veteran missionary, with a view to entrusting to him the reorganization of the French Jesuit missions in the West Indies, which were at the height of an internal crisis. In 1673 the superior of these missions was recalled to France and Father Le Mercier was sent to replace him, with the responsibility of visiting all the missionaries in the general’s name. The visitor assumed his duties on 17 Dec. 1673, had a look at all the missions, smoothed out the difficulties, and was finally appointed superior-general on 12 Oct. 1674. This new superiorship ended only on 26 March 1681, the date on which Father Le Mercier was replaced by Father Martin Poincet. The former superior was spiritual director and confessor in Martinique for a year, and was also given the responsibility for directing the Jesuits of that island; he held this from 1682 until his death in his eighty-sixth year.
Father Le Mercier has left a good deal of written material, mostly incorporated into the Relations des Jésuites series. They consist of letters or extracts of letters, but also of several relations or parts of relations drawn up in his hand. In 1637 and 1638 Jean de Brébeuf was already entrusting to him the task of writing the relation of the Huron mission. He likewise drafted the annual reports sent to France during his years as superior. His style is clear, precise, lively, reflecting the man of action and the zealous missionary that he was.
Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Codex Franc. 22, 23, Catlogues annuels des maisons et des personnes de la province de France; Codex Gal. 109, I, 134–35, 144, 159–60, 164, 204–5, 237–38, 261–62, 264–65, 266–67, 280–1, 286–87, 315, Lettres originales. JR (Thwaites). François Elesban de Guilhermy, Ménologe de la Compagnie de Jésus . . . Assistance de France, comprenant les missions de l’Archipel, de l’Arménie, de la Syrie, . . . du Canada, de la Louisiane . . . , éd. Jacques Terrien (2 pts., Paris, 1892), I, 727–28. Rochemonteix, Les Jésuites et la Nouvelle-France au XVIIe siècle, I, II, passim.