None of the 11 saints associated with the United States are of African descent despite the presence of Black Catholics in the U.S. since the 18th Century. But here is one individual who could very well become one of the first Black Saints in our country, Pierre Toussaint (1776-1853).
Toussaint’s story is a fascinating one. Born into slavery in what is now Haiti, he was the property of a very wealthy French family headed by Jean Berard. Toussaint was spared the horrific conditions of harvesting the sugar crop on the huge Berard plantation. Instead he was chosen to be a “house slave.” This meant he received not only a good education, he was also taught a lucrative skill: hairstyling.
But when a slave rebellion seemed eminent on the island, Mr. Berard took his wife, family, and five slaves (including Toussaint and his sister Rosalie) to New York City for safety. Berard apprenticed Toussaint to one of the finest hairdressers in the city, under whose direction Toussaint became one of most popular stylists in the area. Then Berard returned to Haiti where he died of pleurisy. His sugar plantation was destroyed during the rebellion, leaving his wife and family in New York virtually penniless.
It was Toussaint who used his skill as a hairstylist to discreetly support the entire Berard household. Even the grieving Mrs. Berard didn’t know the full extent of his financial generosity. He cultivated a large clientele, sometimes working 16 hours a day creating fancy, highly-stacked hairstyles for his wealthy customers.
Mrs. Berard eventually married again. Several years later, on her deathbed, she gave Toussaint his freedom. Toussaint then bought freedom for his sister Rosalie and another slave, Juliette Noel, whom he married in 1811. Both Juliette and Pierre had a deep compassion for those in need. They eventually opened their home as an orphanage, credit union, employment agency, and refuge for travelers. They never had children of their own, but when Rosalie died of tuberculosis, they adopted her daughter Euphemia. The couple also fostered a succession of children in their home, teaching them a trade so they could support themselves. Toussaint even found them jobs through his many connections in the city.
Toussaint was not only an excellent hairdresser, he also had a knack for investing and fundraising. When Mother Seton wanted to build a Catholic Orphanage in New York in 1817, for example, Toussaint helped her financially by donating not only some of his own savings, but also by soliciting large donations from his clients. He also had empathy for the sick. During a yellow fever epidemic in the city, he went into barricaded neighborhoods to aid the sick, places most people were afraid to enter. So expansive was his charity, that Toussaint has been called “The Father of Catholic Charities in New York.”
Toussaint was preceded in death by his daughter Euphemia and his wife Juliette. He died at the age of 87. In a highly unusual move, several of the New York newspapers of the day wrote about his passing, praising him for all he had done for the poor of the city. Although his ghostwritten memoir was published in 1854, he was relatively unnoticed until, in 1968, Cardinal Cooke introduced his cause for canonization.
Toussaint suffered much during his life. He was a slave for over 40 years. Once emancipated, he had to endure the racism of his day. When he went to his clients’ wealthy homes, for example, he often had to walk there since Blacks were banned from riding the horse-cars of his day. Toussaint was one of the main fundraisers for the original St. Patrick’s on Mulberry Street, but when he tried to enter the church for the dedication ceremony, he was turned away by an usher because he was Black. Fortunately, another usher recognized him and escorted him to one of the places of honor.
During his day, there was also a lot of anti-Catholicism. Yet this humble and devout man still managed to attend daily Mass for over 60 years and was devoted to the rosary. When he died, he was buried in the cemetery at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. But in 1990, Archbishop John O’Connor had his body moved to the present location of St. Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue. He is the only layman to be buried in the crypt of that famous church.
Toussaint kept working well into his 80s. Friends asked him why he didn’t retire. After all, he had enough savings to live on. He replied, “I have enough for myself, but not for others.” One publication said of him, “Helping others, regardless of ethnicity, was a constant theme in his long life.” Pope John Paul II declared him venerable in 1996.
Let me close with these simple words of Pierre Toussaint: “I have never felt I am a slave to any man or woman, but I am a servant of the Almighty God who made us all.” Let us pray for his canonization. We need his powerful and inspiring example more than ever in our world today.
Is there anything in this reflection that stood out for you? If so, do you know why?
What lessons do you derive from the story of Pierre Toussaint?
If you go to the website for St. Patrick’s Cathedral, there is a section on Toussaint which includes his biography and a short video on the Pierre Toussaint Guild.
PS: Thank you for your prayers for last week’s zoom retreat with the Sisters of the Precious Blood in Dayton, OH. What a beautiful group of women they are! I want to thank especially Sisters Nancy and Judy for helping to make the retreat run smoothly.
I think this song by Marty Haugen reflects the life and spirit of Pierre Toussaint. It’s called “All Are Welcome.”
Thanks again for being a part of our “Sunflower Seeds” community!