July 18, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible U.S. saints: Pierre Toussaint

John F. Fink(Eighth in a series of columns)

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. When he died in 1853 at age 87, 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 is what he did for a living. (Hairdressers already have St. Martin de Porres and St. 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 Pierre worked as a domestic servant, he learned to read and write, and play the violin.

In 1791, Berard foresaw that Haiti’s slaves, who comprised 450,000 of the 520,000 population, were about to revolt. 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, and won their freedom in 1793.

In 1801, Berard returned to Haiti to see if anything was left of his plantation. There wasn’t. He wrote a letter to his wife, Marie, saying that everything they owned was “irretrievably lost.” Soon Marie received another letter: Jean Jacques had contracted pleurisy and died.

When the Berards had moved to New York 10 years earlier, Pierre had become apprenticed to a hairdresser and soon became popular with the wealthiest women in New York. He now supported Madame Berard and the household until Madame Berard contracted tuberculosis and died in 1897, when she was only 32. She and Pierre had arranged that he would be released from slavery when she died. He also inherited the Berard home.

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

Pierre continued his work as a hairdresser. Customers appreciated his work, but also his closeness to God and occasional 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 quote from 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.”

Pierre attended Mass and said the rosary daily in St. Peter’s Church. 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 when it was illegal to educate Negroes. He provided food, clothing and shelter to refugees from Haiti. He nursed victims of a yellow fever attack.

After 40 years of marriage, Juliette died in 1851 and Pierre buried her beside their daughter, Euphemia. After two lonely years, Pierre died. †

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