The Former Slave Who Became an American Saint
Pierre Toussaint's holiness was recognized throughout New York City. All he needs now is official canonization.
BY: John Zmirak
Only a few decades ago, black Catholics in some parts of America had to stand at the end of the line for Holy Communion—a travesty of the sacrament meant to make us all one in Christ. Jesus himself provides the rebuke: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”
So it is fitting that on the short list of Americans who have been proposed for sainthood is a black New Yorker, Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853), a freed slave who, because of his race, was forbidden to ride the city's omnibuses. Born in the French colony that is now Haiti, he was brought to New York at age 22 by his prosperous masters, Jean Jacques and Marie Elisabeth Bérard, who feared racial unrest on the island. (Indeed, the tension would soon erupt in a bloody slave revolt that wiped out most of the island’s white population.) The Bérard family had raised the young man in their own home, appointing their daughter, Aurora, as his godmother. Since he served in their household, they taught him to read and write.
In New York, they arranged for him to learn from the city's leading hairdresser the art of styling women's hair in the intricate, Marie Antoinette-style pompadours and ringlets that were the rage at the end of the 18th century. The hairdressing trade was a lucrative one; wealthy women often spent over $1,000 per year on their hair—a princely sum in 1788. This meant that in what time left over from serving the Bérards, Toussaint could earn money for himself. Many slaves bought their freedom this way, but Toussaint chose instead to purchase liberty from the Bérards for his sister, Rosalie, whom he furnished with a dowry. He had already used his earnings to free a young woman named Juliette Noel, who in 1811 became his wife.
Having fled their island and estates, the Bérards were no longer rich. In 1801, Jean Jacques returned to Haiti in a futile attempt to recover his estates. There he came down with pleurisy and died. Marie found herself almost destitute. Toussaint volunteered to ply his hairdressing skills on her behalf among her wealthy friends. And this he did, traversing the fashionable homes of New York City, usually working 16 hours a day. He quietly paid the household bills—effectively serving as provider and protector to the woman who legally owned him.
When Marie sent him off to sell her jewelry so she could pay a debt, he returned with both the money and the jewels, informing her he would pay the debt himself. He even took delight in helping her maintain some of the luxuries she had formerly enjoyed, making sure that she was able to keep fresh fruit in the house and providing her with a new delicacy called “ice cream.” When she got depressed, he persuaded her to host parties to raise her spirits. Even after she remarried, Toussaint remained the main breadwinner in the household. As her health failed, Marie made provisions to give him his freedom, which became official on July 2, 1807. She died soon after that, but Toussaint continued to help support her surviving second husband.