Former Haitian slave remembered for exemplary acts of kindness
By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer
Pierre Toussaint is one of the most renowned Catholics of all time. He was an extraordinary man who overcame poverty, racism and political upheaval. Surviving the atrocities of slavery and the Haitian revolution, he made an indelible mark on New York City and the Catholic Church.
Born in 1766 as a child of an enslaved Haitian and owned by the Jean Berard family, Toussaint came to exemplify the principles of Catholic faith to such an extent that he has become a candidate for canonization.
After learning how to read and write from his grandmother and surviving the Haitian revolution, Toussaint fled to New York City in 1781. There he became an apprentice to one of New York’s leading hairdressers. He later became a stylist and confidant to the city‘s wealthiest women (his clients included Alexander Hamilton’s wife and granddaughter). He was the most sought-after hairdresser among white, high-society women in the city. His talent, along with his charm and sophisticated manner, helped him to defy the limitations of race and class.
Toussaint became both a fixture in white society and a pillar of the black and Catholic communities. He became a social reformer in New York, which was still engaged in slavery in the late 1770s. He confronted vicious racial attitudes and anti-Catholic sentiment while maintaining a dignified and humble demeanor.
Steadfast in his Catholic faith, Toussaint devoted his life to helping former slaves, as well as other immigrants, the poor and the oppressed. He not only provided money but also demonstrated genuine care and concern for their suffering. Turning to God for help and strength, he attended daily Mass for 60 years.
Toussaint helped found one of New York’s first orphanages with the first American saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, and was instrumental in raising funds for the first cathedral in New York City, St. Patrick’s.
He was freed from slavery in 1807 after his owner died. Toussaint fell in love with another slave, Juliette Noel. He later married her, and together they opened their home as a shelter for orphans, as well as a credit bureau, an employment agency and a refuge for priests and poverty-stricken travelers.
Toussaint generously lent his support to the Oblate Sisters of Providence, established in Baltimore as the first congregation of women religious of African descent. He was also a benefactor of St. Vincent de Paul School, the first Catholic school for black children in New York.
After the death of Toussaint’s sister, Rosalie, he and his wife adopted Rosalie’s daughter, Euphemia, and raised her as their own.
As Toussaint grew older, he continued to help others.
His wife Juliette died in 1851. Toussaint died two years later on June 30, 1853, at the age of 87. He was buried beside his wife and adopted daughter Euphemia at Old St. Patrick’s on Mott Street.
In 1941, his grave was discovered by Father Charles McTague. In 1990, John Cardinal O’Connor, then Archbishop of New York, had Toussaint exhumed and interred in the crypt below the altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. Due to his works of charity and his piety, Toussaint was strongly supported for sainthood by Cardinal O’Connor. On Nov. 14, 1993, Toussaint’s cause was presented for the process of canonization by the Catholic Church, paving the way for his consideration for sainthood. In December 1996, Pope John Paul II declared him “Venerable.”