Pierre Toussaint (1766 – 1854) Successful entrepreneur, philanthropist, and former slave
by Fritz Cherubin, Jr.
Venerable Pierre Toussaint was born into slavery on June 27, 1766 on the French colony Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). He was educated as a child by his owners, the Bérard family; trained as a house slave; and raised as a Catholic.
On the brink of the Haitian Revolution (a beautiful story for another time), the Bérards moved to New York City along with their slaves, including Pierre and his sister, Rosalie. It was here in New York City, where Pierre first apprenticed and then became one of New York’s leading hairdressers, especially for the upper class. His reputation as a skilled hairdresser allowed him to earn a good living. In fact, he discreetly supported Madame Bérard through his earnings after her husband’s death. He was granted freedom at the age of 45 upon Madame Bérard’s death. By that point, he had saved enough money to pay for his sister’s freedom and purchase a house in Manhattan (unheard of at the time). He took the surname of Toussaint, honoring Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution.
Toussaint married Juliette Noel in 1811, after purchasing her freedom from slavery, and adopted his niece, Euphemia, the daughter of his late sister, Rosalie. Pierre was devoted to his Catholic faith attending St. Peter’s Church in Lower Manhattan regularly and continued to be active in charitable works especially for Black causes. The Toussaint family opened their home to shelter and support orphan children, so that they could receive an education and earn a livelihood.
His many accomplishments include creating a credit bureau, an employment agency, and a refuge for priests and destitute travelers. Many Haitian refugees to New York connected with Toussaint as he spoke both French and English. Toussaint’s service to others can be an example to us today. During a yellow fever epidemic in New York, he cared for the sick and dying when most New Yorkers, especially political figures and the wealthy, left the city for rural areas.
What is fascinating is that, as a free Black leader, Pierre was central to the fundraising efforts in building a new Catholic Church in New York, which became Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street. Pierre and Juliette were also benefactors of the first New York City Catholic school for Black children.
Pierre died in 1853 and was buried beside his wife and daughter in Lower Manhattan. He has since been recognized for being one of the most well-known and respected charitable leaders in New York City. His renowned recognition and charitable works—he is considered an important founder of Catholic Charities in New York—spurred the official canonization process, which began in 1968. At the instruction of Cardinal O’Connor, the remains of Pierre Toussaint were transferred to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1990, making Pierre the first lay person to be buried in the crypt below the main alter. Pope John Paul II declared Pierre Toussaint “Venerable” in 1996, advancing the canonization process and bringing Pierre closer to sainthood.
We encourage everyone to research the life and good works of Pierre Toussaint, an example of a modern-day Saint and a former slave whose story truly embodies the American spirit and commitment to serving others even in challenging circumstances. The biographies on the Washington Archdiocese website and in the New York Almanack are good starting places.
We should feel inspired by his story to continue to do the good works of Christ by living out the greatest commandments, the first being to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and the second commandment being to love your neighbor as yourself.
Famous Quote: “I have enough for myself, but if I stop work, I have not enough for others.”
Prayer for the Canonization
of the Venerable Pierre Toussaint
Lord God, source of love and compassion, we praise and honor You for the virtuous and charitable life of our brother in Christ, Venerable Pierre Toussaint.
Inspired by the example of our Lord Jesus, Pierre worshipped You with love and served Your people with generosity. He attended Mass daily and responded to the practical and spiritual needs of friends and strangers, of the rich and the poor, the sick and the homeless of the 19th century, New York.
If it is your will, let the name of Venerable Pierre Toussaint be officially raised to the rank of Saint, so that the world may know this Haitian New Yorker who refused to hate of be selfish, but instead lived to the full commandments of heaven and the divine law of love—love for God and for neighbor.
By following his example and asking for his prayer, may we, too, be counted among the blessed in heaven.
We ask for this through Christ our Lord. Amen
Writers needed! We are still looking for additional volunteers who could help us all learn more about the other Black Americans who are under consideration for sainthood (see America‘s article Who will be the first Black Catholic saint from the United States? for more details about them) If you would be interested in helping by writing short summaries about their lives and what makes them holy men and women, please contact Donna Whiteford, [email protected], and Mike McGowan, [email protected].