Born in Marseilles, October 30, 1805
Taking of the habit, Aix, March 8, 1825
Oblation at Marseilles, July 13, 1826 (no. 22)
Ordination to the priesthood at Marseilles, May 31, 1828
Flight to la Trappe in February of 1830
Expulsion from the Congregation, March 12, 1830
Second novitiate in 1833-1834
Dies at Notre-Dame de Bon Secours, March 11, 1884.
Jean Toussaint François Hermitte was born in Marseilles in the parish of the Carmelites, October 30, 1805, son of Anne Françoise Bouy and Jacques Hermitte, a rich merchant. Jean François attended the minor seminary of the Sacred Heart in Marseilles and subsequently began the study of law in Aix. At the time, he was lodging with the Missionaries of Provence. At 20 years of age, on March 8, 1825, he began his novitiate and made his oblation July 13, 1826 at the closing of the General Chapter celebrated in Marseilles. He then made his theological studies with the other Oblates at the major seminary in Aix 1826-1827 and then at the major seminary in Marseilles in 1827-1828. He took part in the mission of Roquevaire in March 1827 while still a deacon. He was given the task of timekeeper. He was the one who rose before six o’clock in the morning for the service and morning prayer in church and taught catechism during the course of the day. He was ordained to the priesthood in Marseilles May 31, 1828, at the hands of Bishop Fortuné de Mazenod.
He was sent to Nîmes where he worked in 1828 and 1829. Among other things, he took part in the missions of Portes and Saint-Michel. It was at that time that he wrote to Father de Mazenod, requesting permission to withdraw to la Trappe since he “saw himself as incapable of ever working in the missions.” The Founder had him come to Le Calvaire to examine him more closely and to lead him to a better frame of mind. In February of 1830, without warning, he left the house. He simply left a note on his desk saying that he had left to go to la Trappe of Roquefort near Avignon. In the council meeting of March 4, 1830, the decision was taken to expel him from the Congregation as a “fugitivus.” Dispensation from his vows is dated March 12.
Father Hermitte’s stay at la Trappe was brief. He returned to his family home, but maintained contact with Father Albini and asked to be readmitted to the Congregation. He began his second novitiate at Notre-Dame du Laus under the direction of Father Guibert., May 26, 1833 and finished his novitiate in 1834. Subsequently, he remained in that house until 1841. He worked at the shrine and preached missions.
In 1836, the Founder found him to be incompetent as a treasurer. He spent too much money at Laus. In 1837, he learned that Gignoux and Hermitte were very much at odds with each other. Consequently, he sent Father Hermitte to Notre-Dame de Lumières at the beginning of the summer. The superior, Father Honorat, immediately adopted a negative view of his new co-worker. “Father Hermitte’s state of mind which is still tainted by his past folly [escape to la Trappe?], calls for a great deal of cautious handling. It would jeopardize his equilibrium to contradict him.” In August of 1837, Father Gignoux was sent to Notre-Dame de l’Osier and Father Hermitte received an obedience for Laus, where, it seems, he continued to nurse some dissatisfaction. Father Fabre wrote that at Notre-Dame du Laus, Father Hermitte who often stayed at home when other priests went to preach missions was suffering from inactivity. “What his fiery and talkative character called for was the allurement of the battlefield. In the long run, solitude was becoming harmful to him. It is in those circumstances that his aspirations turned briefly to the missions of China or of Tonkin. God stopped his slide down that dangerous slope. But it was high time that a well-regulated channel was provided for these volcanic eruptions. From that time on, Father Hermitte was sent to preach missions and for fifty years he was seen to expend the untiring zeal of a true apostle. He evangelized parishes without number, either as assistant or as the one in charge of the mission.”
When the Oblates left Notre-Dame du Laus in 1841, Father Hermitte received his obedience for Notre-Dame de l’Osier where he remained until the beginning of 1846. In February of 1846, Father Toussaint Dassy was named superior and founder of the Oblate house of Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours in the diocese of Viviers. Father Hermitte accompanied him and would remain a part of this community until his death in 1884. He preached non-stop in les Cévennes and would also lend his aid to other Oblate houses. In 1864-1865, especially, he preached the retreat to the Oblates of Notre-Dame de l’Osier, to Le Calvaire in Marseilles, and at the scholasticate of Autun (Missions OMI, 1864, p. 602-605; 1865, p. 629-637).
Short in stature, his rather frail appearance dissembling a vigorous constitution, Father Hermitte usually traveled on foot. “The real power of his apostolate,” wrote Father Fabre, “was unquestionably his austerity of life, always regular and punctual amidst the labour of preaching.” In the pulpit, Father’s speech was clear, engaging, magisterial, bearing the stamp of the holiest theology. He had, it seems, written a good number of sermons, but he burned them one day in order to “preach more effectively in the manner of an apostle.” (Notices nécrologiques V, pp. 379-380) This seems to be confirmed in an August 14, 1847 letter from the Founder to Father Dassy: “Do not allow them to entertain the pernicious principle that we must preach spontaneously; that is allowable to a man of talent and experience like our good Father Hermitte…” (Letters to the Oblates of France, 1843-1849, Oblate Writings I, vol. 10, no. 937, p. 171)
Father Martin wrote about him: “If Father Hermitte shone outside the community with an apostolic brilliance, the light of his good example shone no less equally within his community. He has schooled himself to submit to the gentle severity of the rule an inventive quick silver character. As for his tastes and his judgments, he knew how to submit them to the judgment of his superiors. This accomplished docility was far from native to him. He had acquired it by virtue of the most vigorous and unremitting efforts and struggles.
During the fifteen years that I counted him as one of my subjects, I can say that his submission to my orders and my smallest wish was never disappointed. For me, he was constantly a source of joy and consolation, an immense comfort among the trials and worries that the role of superiorship brings with it. He was so detached from the things of this world that to the poverty of his external appearance he added a complete lack of interest in his own wealth, which was, however, considerable. I do not know whether he ever really knew the true state of his income […] Apart from some idiosyncrasies, Father Hermitte was always, in my view, a good priest, a holy religious, a kind and exemplary confrere, a perfect Oblate, an accomplished missionary.” (Notices nécrologiques, V, p. 384-385)
Father Hermitte, it could be said, fell fighting in the breach. During the first week of the month of March, 1884, he preached a triduum at Chassagnes and was to begin an Easter retreat at Prunet in mid-March. Sunday, March 9, he complained of a rather sharp pain in his chest. He received the Sacrament of the Sick and, Tuesday, March 11, he died at eight o’clock in the morning from angina pectoris. Thirty-two priests and a large crowd of pilgrims took part in his funeral rites the following Thursday. He was buried in the Oblate cemetery of Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.