Pierre was born into slavery on June 27, 1766 in Haiti. His masters were the Berard family and he was trained as a house slave. His mother was Ursule, his grandmother was Zenobe. His great-grandmother, Tonette, had been born and sold into slavery in Africa. They were all owned by the Berard family, including Pierre’s sister, Rosalie. Pierre was raised Catholic.
In 1787 tensions began to rise in Haiti as slaves and free people of color rose to rebellion. The Berard family moved to New York City, taking five of their slaves with them, including Pierre and Rosalie. When the master Berard returned to Haiti to look over his property he died there of pleurisy. Pierre, who had been hired out as an apprentice to a hairdresser and allowed by his master to keep some of his earnings, vowed to take over the care of Madame Berard. Madame Berard eventually remarried and on her deathbed made her new husband promise to free Pierre.
Pierre became increasingly sought out as a hairdresser to the wealthy of New York. Freed in 1807 at the age of 45, Pierre earned enough money to purchase his sister’s freedom. On attaining his freedom, Pierre took the last name “Toussaint” in honor of the man who freed Haiti from European rule. They continued to board for twenty more years in the home of their former masters, however, and Pierre continued to be a success as a hairdresser. In 1811, Pierre purchased the freedom of Juliette Noel, whom he married. When is sister died of tuberculosis, the Toussaints adopted her daughter, Euphemia, arranging for her education and music lessons. The Orphan Asylum in New York became a favorite charity of the Toussaint family and, after purchasing their own home, would take in many foster boys and provide for them an education, job training, and connections for employment. From their home, they organized a credit bureau, an employment agency, and provided refuge to priests and immigrants. Toussaint provided invaluable aid to the many immigrants from Haiti who arrived in New York, helping them with basic needs and services to allow them to get on their feet and establish themselves. Even during a cholera epidemic that struck the city, Toussaint was seen crossing into the quarantined areas to provide nursing aid. In 1817, Mother Elizabeth Seton opened an orphanage in New York, and Pierre would donate money to its support. He often elicited donations from his wealthy customers.
Toussaint attended daily Mass at St. Peter’s for 66 years, but he also paid for the construction of a new church, Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street. During the first Mass at the new parish, Toussaint was stopped from entering the church by a white man unaware of who he was! The Toussaints also contributed to the Catholic school for black children at St. Vincent de Paul Church on Canal Street. They continued their many charitable works even into their old age.
Euphemia died of tuberculosis prior to Juliette and Pierre. Though twenty years younger, Juliette preceded Pierre in death, passing in 1851. Pierre died at the age of 87, on June 30, 1853. By the time of their deaths, their renown for charity was well known in New York. Sadly, like so many others, their story was lost until the middle of the 20th century. In the 1950s, the John Boyle O’Reilly Committee for Interracial Justice, an Irish-American organization that fought for racial justice, learned of Pierre Toussaint and began raising awareness of his story. Terrance Cardinal Cooke formed a committee to study the life of Toussaint and, in 1991, John Cardinal O’Connor officially opened the cause for his canonization, and Pierre was given the title Servant of God. Toussaint’s grave was identified and his remains transferred to the crypt underneath the main altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Usually reserved for the bishops of New York City, Toussaint was the first layman to be honored by burial there.
In 1996, Pope St. John Paul the Great declared Pierre Toussaint venerable.
“I have never felt I am a slave to any man or woman but I am a servant of Almighty God Who made us all. When one of His children is in need, I am glad to be His slave.” Ven. Pierre Toussaint
O virtuous Pierre Toussaint, son of Haiti, pray for all the poor and afflicted. Pray espcially for your brothers and sisters in Haiti as they seek freedom from the oppression of poverty and calamity. Through your prayerful intercession, strengthen the weak, enrich the poor, comfort the downcast and inspire courage and hope among all those who struggle each day.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.