Peshtigo 1871

For the first time, the full story behind the legendary Peshtigo Fire survivor’s account. A complete edition of Peter Pernin’s 1874 French memoir with a fresh English translation by Professor Charles Mercier. A gripping disaster narrative and a must read for anyone interested in North American French literature and culture and American religious history.

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The first complete edition of Peter Pernin’s legendary survivor’s account of the Great Peshtigo, Wisconsin Fire of 1871, fundamental evidence for the deadliest wildfire in American history: original French text, fresh and readable English translation, and introduction and commentary that locate the work in its social, political, and religious context. Since its first bilingual publication in Montreal in 1874, the memoir has been known to its many readers, among them even wildfire professionals and writers on forest ecology, only in partial reprintings of an inadequate translation. Pernin’s life story (1822-1909), that of a French missionary priest in America, emerges here for the first time from archival sources. His memoir emerges as a considerable work of North American francophone literature whose style reflects both the humane Classical studies and amateur science of a mid-19th century French Collège and the grim humor of Wisconsin lumberjack culture.

Intended overall as a work of popular theology and theodicy, the work offers more than a gripping survival memoir. Pernin’s assimilation as an American went so far as a Catholic priest’s enthusiastically amplifying his Catholic understanding of natural disaster with Calvinist theology. It is therefore an important document of French missionary experience in a multi-religious America. In the French Belgian community of the Door peninsula east of Green Bay, Pernin had pastored Adèle Brice (1831-1896), the Marian visionary who had been inspired to establish there a religious community and school. Pernin risked his diocesan standing to argue that the 1871 wildfires had miraculously passed over Brice’s community to vindicate the truth of her visions. The memoir is the first published source for those events and therefore, together with other relevant materials published here in an appendix, a document essential to a critical history of the 1859 Robinsonville Mariophany, declared “worthy of belief” by the bishop of Green Bay in December 2010, the first in the United States so declared.

This edition of Pernin’s Doigt de Dieu is a must read for a critical understanding of Pernin’s evidence for the Great Peshtigo Fire as well as for those interested in French literature and culture in North America, American theological and religious history, nineteenth century American immigrant communities, missionary studies, Roman Catholic diocesan politics and ecclesiastica, and studies of visionaries and appearances of the Virgin Mary.

About the Author

Charles Mercier is professor of Classics at College of Humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut, the college seminary of the Legionaries of Christ, a Catholic religious congregation of pontifical right. He holds BA and PhD in Classics from Columbia University and has taught Classical and European Humanities and Greek and Latin language and literature at Columbia, City College of New York, Vassar College, University of Southern California, and Fairfield University. Charles has long cultivated an interest in performance of ancient Greek and Roman poetry and drama in both productions and academic publications. His journalism for Catholic news sources has communicated his interest in nineteenth century Catholic history and in the theological notion of purification of memory promoted by John Paul II and what it implies for Catholic humanities education. After a trip to Zambia in 2001 he produced a documentary short about the life of AIDS orphans in Lusaka and a CD compilation of songs by street kids with an accurate edition of their lyrics in Town Bemba and Nyanja. After a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2016 he wrote on the Chaldean Catholic archdiocese of Erbil. He has translated previously, from Latin, Terence Brothers (1997). The new edition by TBR Books of Peter Pernin’s The Finger of God is There! began as family history: Charles is the great grandson of one of Pernin’s two nieces who accompanied him from France to Illinois in 1864.

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