The Former Slave Proposed as an American Saint

Only a few decades ago, black Catholics in some parts of America had to stand at the end of the line for Holy Communion — a travesty of the sacrament meant to make us all one in Christ. Jesus Himself provides the rebuke: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”

Early Keys to Success

So it is fitting that on the short list of Americans who have been proposed for sainthood is a black New Yorker, Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853), a freed slave who, because of his race, was forbidden to ride the city's omnibuses. Born in the French colony that is now Haiti, he was taken to New York at age 22 by his prosperous masters, Jean Jacques and Marie Elisabeth Bérard, who feared racial unrest on the island. (Indeed, the tension would soon erupt in a bloody slave revolt that wiped out most of the island’s white population.) The Bérard family had raised the young man in their own home, appointing their daughter, Aurora, as his godmother. Since he served in their household, they taught him to read and write.

In New York, they arranged for him to learn from the city's leading hairdresser the art of styling women's hair in the intricate, Marie Antoinette-style pompadours and ringlets that were the rage at the end of the 18th century. The hairdressing trade was a lucrative one; wealthy women often spent over $1,000 per year on their hair — a princely sum in 1788. This meant that in time left over from serving the Bérards, Toussaint could earn money for himself. Many slaves bought their freedom this way, but Toussaint chose instead to purchase liberty from the Bérards for his sister, Rosalie, whom he furnished with a dowry. He had already used his earnings to free a young woman named Juliette Noel, who in 1811 became his wife.

Provider and Protector

Having fled their island and estates, the Bérards were no longer rich. In 1801, Jean Jacques returned to Haiti in a futile attempt to recover his estates. There he came down with pleurisy and died. Marie found herself almost destitute. Toussaint volunteered to ply his hairdressing skills on her behalf among her wealthy friends. And this he did, travelling to the fashionable homes of New York City, usually working 16 hours a day. He quietly paid the household bills — effectively serving as provider and protector to the woman who legally owned him.

When Marie sent him off to sell her jewelry so she could pay a debt, he returned with both the money and the jewels, informing her he would pay the debt himself. He even took delight in helping her maintain some of the luxuries she had formerly enjoyed, making sure that she was able to keep fresh fruit in the house and providing her with a new delicacy called “ice cream.” When she got depressed, he persuaded her to host parties to raise her spirits. Even after she remarried, Toussaint remained the main breadwinner in the household. As her health failed, Marie made provisions to give him his freedom, which became official on July 2, 1807. She died soon after that, but Toussaint continued to help support her surviving second husband.

Scrupulously careful with money, Toussaint saved every penny he could, much of which he gave to charity, especially to slaves seeking freedom, former slaves in need, New York’s first Catholic school for black children, and newly-founded religious orders for black Catholics such as the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Pierre and Juliette could have no children of their own, but when Pierre’s sister Rosalie died, they adopted her daughter Euphemia as their own, taking her into the Bérard home.

While a slave and later as a free man, Toussaint helped slaves and former slaves obtain education and enter professions. He also became a key member of St. Peter’s parish, a church near Wall Street that still stands today. Although he suffered from discrimination — a white usher once haughtily ordered him out of the church during Mass — Toussaint believed that the parish was his as much as any white man’s. So when a fire devastated the building he helped lead the effort (and provided a good part of the funds) to rebuild it in 1836. When the time came to build what is now called Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street, Toussaint gave generously. (He would someday be buried at that church, and later moved to the new St. Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue, where he rests today.) In an epidemic of yellow fever (probably in 1803), Toussaint risked his life to nurse the sick after most doctors had fled the city.

Intellect, Character and Faith

For Pierre Toussaint, faith was the very air he breathed. According to the document compiled by Rev. William Elder of the New York Archdiocese for his proposed canonization, Toussaint attended Mass almost every day of his adult life. He got special permission as a layman to receive Holy Communion weekly, though that was not customary at the time. Although he was doubly stigmatized as a slave and a Catholic in white Protestant New York, Toussaint’s intellect and character broke down those barriers. He became renowned for his patient explanations of Catholic doctrine and practices to suspicious non-Catholics. Once, when he was asked by a Protestant friend why he venerated pictures of the Virgin Mary, he pointed to a portrait of his friend’s mother hanging on the wall: “You like to look at this. It makes you think of her, love her more, try to do what she likes you to do.” He explained that it was the same with Mary, everyone's mother.

Toussaint always referred to God as “my heavenly Father,” and he spoke often to his friends about how much he trusted in Him. That trust would be tested in the greatest griefs of his life — in 1832, when Euphemia died of tuberculosis at age 15, and later in 1851, when Juliette died of cancer.

His goodness was so obvious to those who came into contact with him that several upper-class white New Yorkers remembered him after his death as the “most perfect gentleman” they had ever met. Protestant and Catholic, they crowded his 1853 funeral at St. Peter’s church — although in deference to his wishes, only his fellow black Catholics followed his coffin.

The documents proposing Pierre Toussaint’s canonization now lie in the Vatican awaiting the two miracles needed to make him officially a saint. But the account of his life in those papers makes it clear why many regard his canonization as inevitable: “Even though he lived in a time of prejudice against both Catholics and blacks, he bore public witness to the faith. He did so quietly, in a way that sprang naturally from the deep resources of his hidden spiritual life.”

John Zmirak is author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living.

This article originally appeared on and is used by permission.

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