The Life of the Venerable Pierre Toussaint



This is the story of America’s most famous black Catholic: a man transformed from slave to philanthropist and hailed a saint.

Saint Toussaint of New York you say? Never heard of him. Well, that’s because the Vatican hasn’t decreed it…yet.

Many Catholics, white and black, from all around the world, want to call Pierre Toussaint ‘Saint Toussaint’ for good reason and in this book we shall explain why those calls are growing stronger every day and why the man once described as ‘God’s reflection in ebony’ deserves such lofty veneration.

Toussaint’s remarkable spiritual journey is a story of one man’s unwavering love for his fellow human beings, a life devoted to helping others with true acts of Christian kindness.

At Toussaint’s funeral in 1853, a member of the congregation rose to his feet and declared: “I have known Christians who were not gentlemen, and gentlemen who were not Christians, but one man I know who was both – and that man was black”.

Born on a slave plantation in Haiti in 1766, Pierre displayed the latent goodness within him at a very early age, so much so that the plantation owner Jean Berard took him under his wing and sought to give him an education.

Under the tutelage of the owner’s wife, the young Toussaint was encouraged to read from the books he was dusting during his chores in the library. That kindness was to be repaid by Toussaint in years to come.

When the rumbles of bloody insurrection began to throb through Haiti, the wealthy Berard’s decamped to New York with Pierre and a handful of other slaves in tow.

Settling with aristocratic refugees in the French Quarter of New York, the Berard household (which also included Toussaint’s sister Rosalie) enjoyed a brief period of happiness – until news of the growing violence and unrest in Haiti forced Jean Berard to return to tend his estate.

It was the last time his family saw him. The news of her husband’s death was too much for Marie Berard and she became deeply depressed, and with no income in a foreign land was a forlorn and desperate woman.

It was then that the unstintingly loyal and faithful Pierre Toussaint saw what he must do, where his future lay.

Within months of arriving in New York Pierre was encouraged to take up hairdressing as an occupation. He quickly became skilled at the practice and very soon was a popular new addition among the high society ladies of white New York.

Over time, they came to view him as much more than just their hair-stylist. To many he was their friend and confidante. To some he became ‘saint Pierre’.

Although his mistress claimed most of his earnings, he was entitled to keep some for himself. But he didn’t. As Mrs. Berard grew frailer Pierre voluntarily waived his share, adding it to his owner’s account to provide her with the care she needed and maintain the luxurious lifestyle she had been so accustomed.

Although Mrs Berard always believed Pierre would be fully repaid for his kindness on her passing, he had no such desire: he wished for nothing in return.

“I only asked to make her comfortable, and I bless God that she never knew a want.”

It is through this care for his owner that Pierre Toussaint, slave, became the pious man so many have come to love and respect as a Catholic full of the faith of his Church, brimming with liberality and enlightenment, with the guiding light that “God is our common Father, and mankind our brethren.

Pierre had a unique understanding of the human mind, a deep insight into the meaning of the soul. But he didn’t only have his owner to think about. There was also his sister Rosalie. Pierre had long thought about the day when he might be able to buy her freedom – and that day arrived one spring when Rosalie announced she was to be married.

To be free from the shackles of his own slavery he thought nothing, but it was vital to him that Rosalie should be liberated and enjoy the same equality of freedom as her husband.

When Toussaint first came to America, some of the Quakers and blacks who were already free tried to persuade him to leave his owner. They told him that a man’s freedom was his own right. “Mine,” said he, “belongs to my mistress.”

When he was invited to join the July 1800 celebrations to mark their release from bondage, he thanked them in his usual polite way, took joy in their emancipation, but declined a place in the parade saying, “I do not owe my freedom to the State, but to my mistress.”

It was not until the death of Marie Berard in 1807 that Pierre, at 41, finally became a free man.

With the ransom paid to secure his sister’s release from slavery, Pierre was soon growing closer to a kind-spirited young woman who was later to become his wife. He had known Juliette Noel for sometime before buying her freedom and then marrying her when she was 16, in 1811.

Attracted by the innate love in his Christian heart, Juliette was only too pleased to join in his charitable deeds. Together they bought a big house, turned it into a home and school for orphaned black children, arranged for the children to be taught a trade and successfully worked for the release of many slaves.

They secured employment for poor French widows and surreptitiously helped rich exiles too proud to accept charity.

A friend once said to him, “Toussaint, you are richer than any one I know; you have more than you want, why not stop working now?” He answered, “Madam, I have enough for myself, but if I stop work, I have not enough for others.”

As Catholics, charity was more than just religious duty. To Pierre and Juliette charity came from the heart.

Once, when a surge of yellow fever struck New York rendering Maiden Lane virtually deserted and many houses closed, one poor woman stricken with the disease steadfastly refused to leave.

It was Pierre Toussaint who visited her every day, walking the silent street, passing through the barricades, to enter the deserted house where she lay, fearlessly exposing himself to the deadly illness as he helped nurse her through the suffering.

There was completeness in Pierre Toussaint that instilled confidence. It is perhaps this that inspires the respect he is accorded, even today.

He was ‘a finished gentleman,’ the ladies used to say.

Pierre Toussaint understood the path he was on and recognized it was straight and clear to follow – and he followed it throughout his life. God had placed him in a situation and it was his duty to fulfill his obligation in that position. Recognizing this gave Pierre peace and serenity.

His whole being would exude sympathy when visiting friends in sorrow, so much so he could hardly bring himself to speak, for he felt too deeply to express his feelings through language. When asked what he had said to a friend on one such visit, Pierre replied, “Nothing. I could only take her hand and weep with her, and then I went away; there was nothing to be said.”

He felt that in that first instance of stunning grief, only God and God alone could speak to her.

This was his greatest characteristic, the goodness of his heart. But his heart was not only kind and affectionate, but happy and joyful, giving him the ability to lighten the gloom and distress in others.

Even when he experienced a huge loss in his own investments as a result of the great fire of 1835, Toussaint still refused to think of himself. When friends offered to make good his losses, Pierre put a halt to the plan, saying he could not take when there were others needing it more.

At the funeral of Pierre Toussaint, the full extent of the respect and love people felt for him is well illustrated by reports that appeared in the New York papers the following morning. The Church gave all it could give, they said. The priest, Mr. Quin, a friend of Pierre’s, made his address – never once alluding to his color.

It was as if his virtues as a man and a Christian had absorbed all other thoughts. A stranger would not have suspected that a black man, of his humble calling, lay in the midst of the mourners.

The aid he had given to all the Catholic institutions was dwelt upon at large. “There were few left among the clergy superior to him in devotion and zeal for the Church and for the glory of God; among laymen, none,” said the priest.

The church was full with men, women, children, nuns, and charity sisters. Black and white. All knew his general worth, the report added, “but few were acquainted with the generous qualities of his heart. His life was a constant round of acts of kindness and sympathy.”

Toussaint secured the respect, esteem, and friendship of people from all walks of life, from the richest to the poorest through his integrity, charity, and religion.

The bid to canonize Pierre Toussaint was begun in 1968 when Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York took the request to the Vatican.

In 1990 the Archbishop of New York had Pierre’s body exhumed from the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral that Pierre had helped fund throughout his life and moved to the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral where he was interred in a crypt below the altar.

Six years later and Pope John Paul II was taking to the throne in the new St. Patrick’s to make the speech that was to elevate the former slave to Venerable Pierre Toussaint.

The campaign to take the final step and grant Pierre full sainthood has been growing steadily ever since, to the point where he is now just one miracle away…because it takes two miracles to become a Saint.

The first occurred in February 2000. Five year-old Joey Peacock had just come out of hospital, where x-rays showed that the severe curvature of the spine Joey was thought to have had, had all but disappeared – the Peacock family had been praying for a cure, asking Pierre Toussaint to intercede with God on Joey’s behalf.

The story of Joey’s cure has gone to Rome, where the Vatican must rule on whether it qualifies as the miracle Toussaint needs for beatification.

The Vatican has already rejected four other cases attributed to Toussaint as lacking elements required to declare them miraculous.

Newsweek editor on Religion Kenneth L. Woodward has said Haitian-Americans and black Catholic Americans have kept Toussaint’s memory alive, lending weight to efforts to declare him a saint.

“People forget,” he said, “that in its initial phases, the canonization process is one of the most democratic in a church not known for its democratic ways. Which is to say, as with all the other saints, Pierre Toussaint was not picked out by the authorities but by all the people. You need to see a popular cult develop around a figure like Toussaint before the engines of investigation by church authorities can be brought into play.”

The wait to have the first miracle approved continues, and then for a second miracle.

For 60 years the devout Pierre never missed Mass. Even in declining health, through the harshest winters he could be seen on his way to church, or on an errand of love and charity.

But it was not only the elements that were harsh. Despite being free from slavery, racial prejudice was rife: another form of slavery. A friend spotted Pierre heading slowly to Mass one day and called out from a passing tram, “Toussaint, do get in.”

“I cannot,” he replied, “they will not let me.”

Despite such racism, Pierre Toussaint could still love the church.

New York’s Monsignor Robert O’Connell, carrying the flag for Toussaint’s cause, has said reports from Rome on Joey Peacock’s cure were hopeful.

“Even one of those rich gals spoke about him as her saint, her ‘spiritual director,’ which is unusual,” O’Connell said. “You would expect that, in that time, people would look down on a black man, a slave.”

But they didn’t. Most people recognize a Saint when they see one. And even today people still see the saint in Pierre Toussaint. It is surely only a matter of time until the Vatican does too…