At the Service of God and Man: Venerable Pierre Toussaint

A French-speaking, enslaved man of African descent, he rubbed shoulders with the white New York elite as a ladies’ hairdresser. Possessed of the means to purchase his own liberty, he instead chose to provide for those around him—including the woman who owned him—and sought the liberty of other slaves. Once rudely refused entrance to a Catholic church because of his race, he remained a faithful son of the Church and a daily communicant for six decades. Pierre Toussaint embraced many tensions, and did so with a peaceful spirit whose source could only be the grace of sanctity.

Toussaint was born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1766, the third child of Ursule Julien Toussaint, chambermaid to the mistress of a rich sugar cane plantation. Pierre was destined to be a “house slave”—good fortune of sorts in the world of Caribbean slavery. The plantation workers of Haiti were treated brutally by the French aristocrats who amassed immense wealth upon their backs, and it is no wonder that the slaves overthrew their masters by equally violent means in the Haitian Revolution of 1791.

Pierre’s master, Jean-Jacques Berárd, discerning the storm clouds on the horizon, fled the increasingly unstable island with his family and a few slaves in 1787. Among them was Pierre, who arrived in New York ignorant of English, far from his parents, and bewildered at the bustling metropolis of a ten-year-old American nation. He would remain in the city for the rest of his life.

Beginning with the separation from his parents and dear grandmother, Pierre’s life was a series of deprivations of those he cared for and loved. Jean-Jacques Berárd died in 1801, and the firm holding his wealth failed, leaving his widow, Marie Elisabeth, destitute. By that time, however, Pierre was thriving in the highly competitive hairdressing profession, heavily in demand to manage the coiffures of the most elegant women of New York. His creativity and ability to adapt as quickly as the fashions assured him of success: As he put it, styles were “change, change, and all to the good—for poor people who have to make a living.” His signature element was to weave flowers into the hair of his clients, a practice borrowed from the Haitian mulattoes he had observed as a child. He took upon himself the financial support of the household, mistress and slaves alike.

One of those slaves was his sister, Rosalie, whose release he purchased with his hard-earned savings. He also paid the way to freedom for a fellow Haitian he had met in New York, an attractive young woman named Juliette. On July 2, 1807, Pierre gained his own freedom when a dying Marie Elisabeth signed his liberation papers. Four years later, he and Juliette were married.

If Pierre was well known among the elite for his hairstyling prowess, he was beloved in less exalted circles for other reasons. He had always been generous toward the many orphans of New York, a practice that continued after his marriage, when he and Juliette would take children in off the street to feed and shelter them. As his means increased and his reputation for philanthropy grew, he became a significant benefactor to an array of charitable causes, including aid to Haiti after a devastating earthquake in 1842.

He was especially generous to Catholic institutions, helping to build a new St. Peter’s Church when the decrepit original was condemned. St. Peter, the oldest Catholic church in New York, was the place where Pierre made his daily devotions without fail for sixty years, stopping for morning Mass before continuing on to his appointments. He also contributed to the construction of the city’s first Catholic cathedral, Old St. Patrick’s, after New York was made a diocese in 1808.

In light of this record, ironic seems too mild to describe the incident that tested the considerable forbearance of Pierre Toussaint to the breaking point. Stepping into Old St. Pat’s for an event with his wife and an elderly friend, the three were summarily turned away by an usher who insisted that there was no seating for blacks. When the president of the church’s board of trustees, Louis Binsse—who was a personal friend of the Toussaints—learned of the disgrace, he wrote an appropriately abject apology that also serves as a tribute to Pierre. “For my part,” he wrote, “I should find myself more at ease seated in the house of the Lord between you and your wife … than beside many other persons whose skin is as white as satin. In the house of the Lord there is no distinction. God looks at the heart, but never at the color of the skin.”

Pierre knew troubles besides those of prejudice. Rosalie’s husband abandoned her during her first pregnancy and she died soon after giving birth to Euphemia (so named by Pierre according to the saint of her day of birth). Pierre and Juliet adopted the girl and loved her as their own, making all the more painful her death from tuberculosis at the age of fourteen. Euphemia was buried beside her mother in the cemetery of Old St. Patrick Cathedral.

Pierre and Juliet enjoyed a model marriage of mutual love and respect, of shared devotion to their faith, and of joint participation in the cause of charity toward their neighbors. Yet, even though he was twenty years her senior, Pierre would also suffer the loss of his wife, who died of cancer in 1851. Her body was buried with those of Rosalie and Euphemia.

In his eighties, Pierre could still be seen striding through the city as he went about his business, bearing a striking dignity upon which observers would comment. But after Juliette’s death, Pierre’s age finally caught up with him. Suddenly, one summer day in 1853, he failed to appear at the morning Mass at St. Peter’s. A brief illness was all that stood between Pierre and his God. A priest from St. Peter’s was present when he crossed the threshold from this life to the next on June 30.

He was buried—where else?—at Old St. Pat’s. Encomiums appeared in the city’s papers. Toussaint, said one, had displayed “goodness springing from refined and elevated principles, and from a sense of religious duty, which never permitted him to omit a most scrupulous compliance with all the requirements of his faith.” This goodness “made his life a constant round of acts of kindness and sympathy.”

The Archdiocese of New York agreed. In 1989, John Cardinal O’Connor formally opened his cause for canonization. In a final irony, one more separation awaited Pierre Toussaint, but this one would not be painful. So as to examine the body as well as provide a more convenient location for veneration, Pierre’s remains were exhumed and removed from the neglected cemetery, leaving behind Rosalie, Euphemia, and Juliette. The man once refused entry to the old cathedral was now given a place of honor in the new St. Patrick’s, the first layman to be interred alongside New York’s bishops in the cathedral crypt.

Author’s note on sources: Arthur Jones, Pierre Toussaint (Doubleday, 2003); Ellen Tarry, Pierre Toussaint: Apostle of Old New York, 2nd ed. (Pauline, 1998; 1981). The latter is a creative elaboration on the known facts of Toussaint’s life.

Kevin Schmiesing

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Kevin Schmiesing is a research fellow at the Acton Institute. He is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and, most recently, of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). He is the book review editor for The Journal of Markets & Morality and is also executive director of CatholicHistory.net. Schmiesing earned his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania.

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