Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Credible Witness: Venerable Pierre Toussaint
By Heather King
“What the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people…capable of opening the hearts and minds of many to the desire for God and for true life.” Porta Fidei 15
Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1766–1853), born in what is now Haiti, arrived in New York City as a slave but died there an accomplished hairdresser, a free man, and a beloved member of the city’s Catholic community.
Pierre Bérard, the plantation owner where Toussaint grew up, allowed the young Toussaint’s grandmother to teach him to read and write. He was baptized, and raised Catholic.
When Toussaint was in his early twenties, Haitian blacks began rebelling against their enslavement. Fearing political violence, Bérard fled to New York City, taking Toussaint, his younger sister, his aunt, and two other house slaves with him.
In Manhattan, Bérard apprenticed Toussaint to a local hairdresser. He learned the trade quickly and soon made his way to the top echelons of New York society, catering especially to wealthy white women. Hairstyles in those days were elaborate tiered affairs, often adorned with ribbons, feathers, jewels, and plumes.
Bérard allowed him to keep his earnings and Toussaint was soon wealthy himself. After Bérard died, Toussaint took it upon himself to support his master’s widow and the other house slaves. In gratitude, Mrs. Bérard saw to it that Toussaint was freed shortly before her death in 1807.
He in turn purchased the freedom of a woman twenty years his junior named Marie-Rose Juliette, also known as Juliette Noel, and married her in 1811. The couple later adopted a niece of Toussaint’s named Euphemia.
He went to Mass daily at Saint Peter’s on Barclay Street, in what is now the New York City Financial District. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton had attended the same church.
He crossed quarantine lines to help those suffering from cholera, gave tirelessly to both black and white charities, and encouraged his wife to use their home as a residence and school for orphans. They also instituted a credit bureau, helped the destitute to find work, and welcomed priests and refugees. With his ability to speak both English and French, Toussaint was able to be of particular use to immigrants newly arrived from Haiti.
He helped raise funds to build the old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street. Though he would later once be denied entry on the basis of his race, he was also originally buried there.
His wife and Euphemia predeceased him. Upon his death at age eighty-seven, he had been a member of Saint Peter’s for sixty-six years. A solemn Requiem Mass was celebrated. In his eulogy, Father William Quinn noted: “Though no relative was left to mourn for him, yet many present would feel that they had lost one who always had wise counsel for the rich, words of encouragement for the poor, and all would be grateful for having known him. There were few among the clergy superior to him in devotion and zeal for the Church and for the glory of God; among laymen, none.” In pre-Emancipation Proclamation 1853, honoring a black man in this way was almost unheard of.
Toussaint’s cause for canonization was introduced in 1968. By popular acclaim and based on his universally acknowledged sanctity, his remains were moved at that time to the crypt of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue.