Pierre Toussaint was born in 1766 in Haiti. As a domestic slave of the Berard family, Pierre was baptized and permitted to learn to read and write. In 1787 during the violence prior to the Haitian revolution, his master’s family fled to New York. They took Pierre and several other slaves with them. Pierre became a talented and creative hairdresser to the elite women of New York. He listened, gave advice, and shared his theology and faith as he went from house to house creating the elaborate coiffeurs of the time. In this way Pierre contributed to the support of the Berard family, himself, and other enslaved persons. After the death of the master and the bankruptcy of the family, Pierre decided not to run away, but continued to care for the widow, allowing her to lead a life of dignity.
Freed in 1807, Pierre chose the surname Toussaint in honor of Toussaint Louverture, a hero of the Haitian revolution, who established Haiti as a nation and freed the enslaved people there. As an enslaved man, Pierre Toussaint knew the evil of the system and was aware of the abolitionist movement in New York, but he was not to be active in it. He eschewed anything that could lead to violence and explained, “They have not seen the blood flow as I have.” He chose instead to be an example of human dignity and a model of Christian charity to the rich and powerful and the poor of the city alike. Before securing his own freedom, Pierre purchased his sister’s freedom.
Later, as a free man with some financial means, he bought the freedom of others, including Juliette Noel, whom he married. The couple had no children themselves but adopted Euphemie, Pierre’s orphaned niece, and opened a home for orphans. They fostered a series of boys, encouraging them and educating them. The school they began for Black children taught the basics and also trades. They organized a credit union and an employment service so immigrants arriving from Haiti could find jobs. During a Yellow Fever epidemic, Pierre personally cared for the sick and the dying.
Pierre Toussaint lived to be 87. His long life was one of service and charity. He helped all in need, regardless of ethnicity, but reached out especially to former slaves. He was a philanthropist, giving generously to the Church, and supported Catholic charities and schools. His life was difficult and dangerous. Pierre was an enslaved person and immigrant who suffered racism and lived with anti-Catholicism. He financially supported causes that worked against racial and religious prejudice. After his wife and niece died, friends encouraged Pierre to retire. He said, “I have enough for myself, but if I stop working I have not enough for others.”
Faith was the sources of Pierre Toussaint’s strength. He attended daily Mass, frequently quoted Scripture, and was devoted to the rosary. His sense of personal dignity, kindness, and inclusivity challenged the people of his time and challenges us today.
In 1968, in recognition of Pierre’s virtuous life, the late Cardinal Cooke introduced his cause for canonization. In 1989, Cardinal O’Connor had Toussaint’s remains transferred to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in midtown Manhattan where he is the only layperson buried with the former archbishops and cardinals of New York. In 1997, Pope John Paul II declared Pierre Toussaint Venerable.