Ven. Pierre Toussaint — Former Slave and Possible Future Saint

Ven. Pierre Toussaint died June 30, 1853, and is now buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

(photo: Register Files)

Pierre Toussaint’s funeral filled St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street in Lower Manhattan that summer morning of 1853. People throughout the city — high and low, black and white, French- and English-speaking, Catholic and Protestant — came to honor perhaps New York’s most beloved man at the time. In the days that followed, tributes to him appeared in the city’s newspapers and magazines. New Yorkers were still talking about him decades later.

“Why, Toussaint was a household name with us, and is still so,” Emma Cary wrote in Ave Maria magazine late in the century. “People still talk of him today. He came every day to our mother’s house to dress my mother’s hair, and our hair, too. My sister and I loved him and there was nothing I would not confide to him. It was like the confessional to talk to Toussaint, you were so sure of his secrecy. And no matter how freely we confided in him, he never swerved from his respectful demeanor. He always stood when he talked to us. ‘Do sit down Toussaint,’ someone would say to him. “Madame I cannot,” he replied.

Toussaint had taken six decades of New York high society secrets to the grave. “Toussaint,” he once told a client who had tried to illicit a bit of gossip from him, “is a hairdresser. He is no news journal.”

He had become a hairdresser at about the age of 20, while still enslaved by the Bérard family. Toussaint was among the third generation of household slaves on the Bérard plantation in present-day Haiti, then the French colony Saint Domingue. In 1797, the colony was descending into violence and Jean Jacque Bérard decided for safety’s sake to take himself, his wife, Elisabeth Marie and her two sisters to New York. He took along five servant slaves, among them teenaged Toussaint and his 10-year-old sister Rosalie. He also packed enough money to support them all for a couple of years. By then, he hoped, French troops would have bought them back into submission. The situation in Saint Domingue went from bad to worse. The Bérards lost their fortune and Jean Jacque died of pleurisy in 1800, just as Toussaint was completing his apprenticeship as a hairdresser.

Toussaint took on the support of the widowed Elisabeth Marie Bérard with his growing hairdressing business. In New York at that time, it was common for wealthy families to have a hairdresser come to their home regularly, even daily, to fix their hair and their children’s, too. Toussaint’s hair styles had a signature touch — flowers. For special occasions, he carefully selected a flower for the individual dress and look of each lady. Everyone could tell a Toussaint hairstyle and many wanted one. Through the Bérard’s connections, Toussaint also had entrée into the finest families — from French aristocrats to the Hamiltons — but his strong character was the reason he formed deep, life-long friendships with many of his clients.

Marie Elisabeth granted Toussaint his freedom a few weeks before she died in 1807. The compassion he had shown for her would characterize the rest of his life. At St. Peter’ Church, he had also joined the Blessed Sacrament Society and the Benevolence Society. He donated, raised funds, and personally visited the sick and poor. New York in the early 1800s had annual yellow fever epidemics. Anyone who could fled the city for the country. Somehow word had reached the parish of a lady sick and abandoned in the epicenter of the outbreak. Toussaint went to the empty Maiden Street, moved the barricades attempting to quarantine the area to find and tend to the poor lady. As one of the few Saint Domingians with a steady income, personal appeals he donations from other destitute colonists also reached him.

Thirty years into his career, Toussaint had become a wealthy man, between his and his wife Juliette’s hard work (she ran a boarding house) and their investments.

A friend asked him, “Toussaint why do you work so hard, you are the richest man I know?”

“Madam,” he replied, “I have enough for myself, but if I stop working, I will not have enough for others.”

No one knows how many individual requests for assistance of one kind or another he answered over the years. His major cause was orphans. He and Juliette offered their home to young black men with nowhere to go and with difficult backgrounds. They helped them get settled in to jobs and trades. Some apprenticed with Toussaint. He also donated to and fundraised for Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s new orphanage in New York, even though it only served white children. Through Juliette, they also had ties to the Oblate Sisters of Providence based in Baltimore, the first community of black religious, and supported their orphanage as well.

He died on June 30, 1853, and is now buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He was declared venerable in 1996. His canonization cause seeks an intercessory miracle — the instantaneous, complete and lasting cure of a serious medical condition — for him to move on to the next step of beatification.