Pierre Toussaint, declared venerable in 1997, is depicted in a stained-glass window in the mausoleum chapel at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury, N.Y. Born into slavery in modern-day Haiti, Toussaint (1766-1853) became a successful hairdresser in New York City. He later bought his freedom and generously supported many charitable endeavors of the local Catholic church. CNS PHOTO/GREGORY A. SHEMITZ
Black Americans on the road to sainthood: Pierre Toussaint – From slave to sainthood
BY F. VERONICA WILHITE, OFFICE OF BLACK CATHOLIC MINISTRY
During the month of January we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi to pay homage to “the king of kings.” The Psalm for this day’s liturgy tells us that this king will “govern [the] people with justice” (Ps. 72:2) and that as a ruler, this king “rescues the poor when they cry out, the oppressed who have no one to help. He shows pity to the needy and the poor and saves the lives of the poor” (Ps. 72:12-13).
As we continue our journey with Black Americans on the road to sainthood, this month Pierre Toussaint comes to mind as an embodiment of the qualities noted in this scripture.
Born a house slave in Haiti on a French plantation on June 27, 1766, Pierre and his sister were raised as Catholics and he as the godson of his master’s sister with whom he maintained a close relationship until her death. In 1787, Pierre and his sister were transported to New York with their master’s family as they fled the violent Haitian slave revolts. In New York, the family joined the small Catholic population there and reportedly Pierre attended daily Mass for over 60 years.
He was apprenticed to a beautician and quickly mastered the art at which his proficiency made his services highly desirable and provided him a means to support his master’s family and to provide charitable assistance to many in need. For the next several decades, he was a well-known beautician and offered counsel to many ladies of high society in New York City.
Pierre lived as a slave and after his master’s death, financially supported his master’s household and young widow. Never asking for his own freedom, he bought the freedom of several slaves including his own sister, Rosalie. He attended daily Mass at Old St. Peter’s, did the household marketing and chores and then, because he was prohibited from using the transportation system due to his race, went on foot throughout the city with his barbering equipment to dress the hair of his extensive clientele. He became known for his good advice and his counsel which was sought after by many even after he was too old to continue this grueling daily routine.
Toussaint was eventually freed from slavery by his mistress just before her death. He later expressed his joy that she never had a want, and he was glad he had served her. The remainder of Pierre’s life was spent in service to the Catholic cause in New York City. As his clientele grew, he had become one of New York’s foremost entrepreneurs, investing in banking and real estate. He might have been the richest Black man in the United States – had he not spent so much of his resources aiding those in need and assisting the Church. In fact, he was a major benefactor in the construction of old St. Patrick’s Cathedral; he gave assistance to St. Elizabeth Seton’s new founded order; he purchased the freedom of many slaves; he cared for the sick in the time of a contagious plague, and he gave wise counsel to all who sought his advice. He was a benefactor of the Catholic Orphan Asylum and even raised several homeless Black children.
Pierre Tousaint died on June 30, 1853 at the age of 87. His funeral was a celebration of his life of selflessness. Initially buried in the graveyard of old St. Patrick’s, his remains were exhumed and moved to the current St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in 1991 when Cardinal O’Connor introduced his cause for canonization. In 1996 Pierre was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II.
Please pray for the cause of this holy man.
While not a candidate for canonization, we certainly acknowledge the martyrdom of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and celebrate his life of advocacy for freedom and justice this month. Let us continue to pray for the repose of his soul and for freedom, justice and mercy in our world.
“Memoir of Pierre Toussaint” by Hannah Sawyer is the source of information for this article.
F. Veronica Wilhite is the director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry in the Diocese of Owensboro.
Originally printed in the January 2023 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.