A cathedral mosaic of Father Sebastien Louis Meurin performing a baptism. [Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis]
Jean-Olivier Briand, Meurin’s superior as bishop of Quebec. [Musée de la Civilisation, 1991.3883]
Father Pierre Gibault, who joined Father Meurin in the Illinois Country in 1768. [Indiana Historical Society, M0098]
The site of Old Ste. Genevieve’s le Grand Champ, or common field, as it appears today. Father Meurin first served the settlement in 1759; flooding in 1785 forced its residents to move to a new site farther from the Mississippi River. [National Park Service, photo by David Newman]

Sebastien Louis Meurin served as the parish priest in Ste. Genevieve from 1764 through 1768 and conducted the first Catholic services in the settlement of St. Louis from 1766 to 1769. In 1763, when the Jesuits left their missions in the middle Mississippi River valley under orders from French colonial authorities, only one of them—Father Meurin—received permission to return. Aging and in poor health, he remained steadfast in his service to the missions on the eastern and western banks of the river.

Born in Charleville, France, in 1707, Meurin entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus at Nancy in 1726. After completing his novitiate in 1728, he studied and taught theology at various Jesuit colleges in France. In the fall of 1741 he sailed for New Orleans, arriving in November of that year. After a one-year apprenticeship, he traveled as a missionary to the French and Indigenous people in the Illinois Country on the east bank of the Mississippi River.

During the Seven Years’ War (1754–1763), the struggle between the French and the British for dominance in North America placed the Jesuit missions in peril. Despite the dangers of this situation, Jesuit missionaries, including Father Meurin, regularly crossed and recrossed the Mississippi River in canoes to serve a far-flung group of frontier settlements. Beginning in 1759, Meurin and his fellow priests visited Ste. Genevieve to conduct services and officiate at baptisms, marriages, and funerals.

In this tumultuous time, public opinion turned against the Jesuit order. For two years, beginning in 1761, the Paris Parlement investigated and denounced the Society of Jesus, finally asserting that the order had no legal right to exist in France. By 1762, French authorities had burned Jesuit books and made plans to close the Society’s schools and confiscate all its properties. The suppression of the order extended to North America, and in the fall of 1763 colonial authorities expelled the priests from the Illinois Country. The French government, which seized the assets of the Society of Jesus, confiscated and sold all the property, including land, buildings, and people enslaved by the mission at Kaskaskia, directly across the river from Ste. Genevieve.

Father Meurin left the area with the other missionaries but returned in 1764. The French officials who granted him permission to return imposed an important condition on him: he was required to live in Ste. Genevieve, which was then under Spanish rule, although the majority of his parishioners lived in east-bank settlements that had been ceded to the British. Meurin was physically weak and chronically unwell. Frequent travel across the river placed a burden on his constitution. Yet he accepted the demands of his superiors.

When he came to Ste. Genevieve, Meurin took on a huge responsibility. The British victory in the Seven Years’ War prompted many French habitants of the Illinois Country to flee to the west bank. Ste. Genevieve’s population subsequently grew from about seventy to more than five hundred between 1763 and 1767. In addition to serving this growing parish, Meurin had to make regular trips to the east-bank parishes, which suffered from lax government and continued unrest. Whenever possible, he also traveled to St. Louis, a new town on the west bank, where he occasionally conducted services in a makeshift church.

Meurin explained this complex situation in a letter to Jean-Olivier Briand, the bishop of Quebec. To serve all the parishes in the middle Mississippi valley, Meurin had to leave Ste. Genevieve every spring and travel to the east bank for Easter services. He visited the villages there again in fall or whenever he was called to minister to the sick. The people in these villages, he wrote, lacked sufficient instruction and were slipping away from the church. The residents of Ste. Genevieve also complained of neglect, but he was stretched to his limit.

While struggling to keep his commitments elsewhere, he also served as a priest in St. Louis at a crucial period in its history. Early in 1766, he made the very first entry in the St. Louis Parish register when he baptized a French infant “en une tente, faute D’eglise” (in a tent for lack of a church). The entry, signed “S.L. Meurin, pretre,” reported the baptism of Marie, the daughter of Jean Baptiste Deschamps and Marie Pion who had been born in September 1765. The next entry, dated May 9, 1766, recorded the baptism of Antoine, born on January 6 of the same year, the son of Lisette, an enslaved Pawnee woman.

In St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve, Father Meurin baptized a diverse group of people—Black, Indigenous, white, and enslaved and free. From 1764 through 1768, he baptized twenty-eight free people and twenty-nine enslaved people in Ste. Genevieve. Among those he baptized in St. Louis from 1766 to 1769 were twenty white people, nine enslaved Black people, one free Black person, six enslaved Indigenous people, and one free Indigenous person.

At this point in his life, Father Meurin confessed that he was overwhelmed by the scope of his duties in the middle Mississippi valley. Bishop Briand had offered him the position of vicar-general of New France, but Father Meurin demurred on the grounds that he was unworthy of the honor. He was weak, he said, in body and mind, lacking in both judgment and firmness. Moreover, he wrote that he had been working alone for so long that he could barely keep up with the basic duties of a priest.

In 1768 Briand sent a younger man, Father Pierre Gibault, to work with Father Meurin and relieve him of some of his burdens. Gibault became the pastor at Ste. Genevieve, and Meurin retired to the tiny village of Prairie du Rocher on the east bank of the river. The two priests shared the duties of ministering to the parishes in the area, but Father Meurin assumed the less stressful role of assistant. Gibault began keeping the parish registers in Ste. Genevieve and St. Louis.

Both priests showed steadfast devotion to their calling, although they differed in temperament. The elderly Meurin complained that his young counterpart engaged too freely in athletics, celebrations, and conversations with ladies. The forward-looking Gibault became known as “the patriot Priest” for supporting the American Revolution. When Meurin died on February 23, 1777, Gibault, now alone, accepted full responsibility for the local missions.

Further Reading

Donnelly, Joseph P. Pierre Gibault, Missionary, 1737–1802. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1971.

Ekberg, Carl J. Colonial Ste. Genevieve: An Adventure on the Mississippi Frontier. Tucson, AZ: Patrice Press, 1996.

Schmidt, Kelly L. “Slavery and the Shaping of Catholic Missouri.” Missouri Historical Review 116, no. 3 (April 2022): 173–211.

Stepenoff, Bonnie. “Banishment and Loyalty: Jesuit Priests in Early Ste. Genevieve, 1759–1785.” Missouri Historical Review 117, no. 1 (October 2022): 1–13.

Published May 12, 2023; Last updated May 13, 2023

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