Died: June 30, 1853
Venerated: December 17, 1996
Pierre Toussaint was born a slave in 1766 in the French colony of Saint Domingue, which is modern-day Haiti. His great-grandmother had been born in Africa and sold into slavery in the Caribbean. Pierre worked as a house slave inside a plantation owned by Jean Berard. He was educated by the family’s tutors, which was very unusual for the time.
When political unrest came to the island, his master sent his wife to New York for safekeeping in 1787. Pierre and his sister, Rosalie, were sent along. There in New York Pierre was allowed to train as a hairdresser. He earned his own money, and when his owner’s family fell on hard times, he used that money to take care of them. Madame Berard promised to free him when she died, which she did in 1807, when Pierre was 41.
Pierre did well as a hairdresser among the wealthy of New York. He purchased the freedom of another slave, Juliette Noel, and they married and adopted a daughter. From early on, the couple were very conscious of the needs of the poor. They opened their home to orphans and as a refuge to those in need. There was tragedy, too, when their daughter died at the age of 14.
Pierre lived in an era when not only was he looked down upon as a freed slave, but anti-Catholicism was strong in New York at the time. It did not stop Pierre from professing his Catholic faith. He attended Mass every day for more than 60 years and was devoted to the Rosary. He was also a teacher of the faith and could explain the church’s teachings well and simply.
In addition to helping others with the money he made, he gave a great deal of money to help finance the construction of the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street. The story is told that on the day the cathedral was dedicated, Pierre went to the church for the celebration. But because he was black, an usher would not allow him to enter. Pierre, who had paid for so much of the cathedral’s building, apologized and turned to leave. But another usher recognized him and immediately brought him to a seat of honor.
When Pierre died in 1853, he was buried in the cemetery of the cathedral. But in 1990, the cardinal in New York had his remains moved to the crypt in St. Patrick’s Cathedral where only cardinals and archbishops are buried. Pierre is the only layperson to be so honored.
In 1996 Pope John Paul II declared Pierre Toussaint “venerable.”
Connecting to Be My Disciples®
Grade 5, chapter 24