January 26, 2018

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Black Catholics in U.S. history: This week, Pierre Toussaint

John F. FinkFebruary is Black History Month. I’ll observe it by telling you about some black Catholics you should know about. I’m getting a jump on the month because I have five people in mind.

Venerable Pierre Toussaint, a former slave, is the only layman to be buried among cardinals and archbishops in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. No other place seemed as appropriate for a man regarded as a saint.

If he is ever canonized, he could become the patron saint of hairdressers because that’s what he did for a living. (Hairdressers already have Sts. Martin de Porres and Mary Magdalene as patron saints.)

Pierre was born in 1766 as a slave in Haiti on a plantation owned by the Frenchman Jean Jacques Berard. Since Toussaint worked as a domestic servant, he learned to read and write, and play the violin.

In 1791, Berard foresaw that Haiti’s slaves, about 450,000 of them, were about to revolt. He thought it best to leave the country. He took his family, two sisters-in-law and five domestic slaves, including Pierre and his sister Rosalie, to New York. (The slaves did revolt in a bloody rebellion and won their freedom in 1793.)

In New York, Pierre became apprenticed to a hairdresser. He soon became popular with the wealthiest women in New York, who were generous when paying for Pierre’s services. Jean Berard died in 1801, and Pierre used his income to support Madame Berard and the household.

Then Madame Berard contracted tuberculosis and died in 1807 when she was only 32. She had arranged that Pierre would be released from slavery when she died. He also inherited the Berard home where he lived before eventually purchasing another home.

In 1811, when he was 45, Pierre married another former slave from Haiti, Juliette Gaston. Unable to have children, they adopted the 6-month-old daughter of his sister Rosalie, whose husband had abandoned his family. The child, Euphemia, died from tuberculosis when she was 14.

Pierre’s work as a hairdresser thrived. Customers appreciated his work, but also his obvious closeness to God. They often sought his advice. He quoted the Beatitudes, The Imitation of Christ, and the French writer Father Jacques Bossuet. He would explain devotion to the Blessed Mother and other teachings of the Catholic Church, quoting from some of the Church’s great spiritual writers. If any gossip should happen to occur in his shop, he would say in broken English, “Toussaint dresses hair; he no news journal.” His customers got the point.

Pierre attended Mass and said the rosary daily. He helped Elizabeth Ann Seton raise funds for orphans and, after she founded the Daughters of Charity, he helped support that community. He opened an orphanage for black children in his own home, and began the first school for black children in the city. He provided food, clothing and shelter to black refugees from Haiti. During a yellow fever epidemic, he nursed victims, including bringing a white man with yellow fever into his home.

After 40 years of marriage, Juliette died in 1851. After two lonely years, Pierre died at age 87. †

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