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The freest man in America

Catholic saints or saints in the making are some of the most fascinating guides through history. One of our early possible saints is a man named Pierre Toussaint, a former slave who lived in New York in the early years of our country.

Even though he was born on a slave plantation, Pierre chose freedom through virtue, by being the best man he could be. Cardinal John O’Connor said, “If ever a man was truly free, it was Pierre Toussaint.”

Dedication-of-Memorial_DC
Cardinal Spellman dedicates Pierre’s Memorial Tablet at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, July 1, 1951. Photo provided by Archdiocese of New York.

An immigrant story

Even as a kid, nothing could keep Pierre down. He was born a slave in present-day Haiti, which was generally considered about the worst place you could be a slave. Pierre was lucky, though, because his owners were at least opposed to physical abuse.

When he was still a young man, Pierre’s owners decided to move to the newly-minted United States of America. Pierre’s owner got him an apprenticeship with a fancy hairdresser in New York.

Then his owner died, having left most of his riches back in Haiti with Pierre’s family, so it was up to Pierre to support the family, which he did through his work as a hairdresser.  He was prudent enough with his money to be able to buy the freedom of his sister and a young Haitian woman named Juliette, who rendered him helplessly in love. He also began to care for young slave boys who had been abandoned by their owners. His mistress would not let him buy his own freedom, but he continued to serve her devotedly, while also supporting her.

Pierre was a hit as a hairdresser. He earned a reputation as being ahead of the curve on all the newest fashions. He made a killing, with the fashionistas of New York clambering for him.

Through this, he became connected to much of New York’s upper crust, combing and pinning for the wives of government officials and even the family of Alexander Hamilton. As any girl who has ever had a beloved hairstylist knows, Pierre wielded some serious power, but he used his influence only for acts of mercy.

Part of a prayer card for Pierre. Courtesy of Archdiocese of New York.
A prayer card for Pierre Toussaint. Courtesy of Archdiocese of New York.


Finding fatherhood

He also cared for his own soul. He went to daily Mass, and visited the Blessed Sacrament every day after work.

As Pierre’s business boomed, a priest friend asked him to contribute to building St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Pierre agreed, and also got his fashionistas to help. So, decades before the Civil War, a black man helped build one of our nation’s first cathedrals.

In 1807, Pierre’s mistress died, and he was finally free. He married Juliette. They quickly adopted his niece when his sister died, only to be heartbroken when little Euphrasia died of tuberculosis.

 

Heroic virtue

Before Euphrasia’s death, Pierre had been a good man. Her death led him to sainthood (or at least a preliminary stage of it). He eventually reopened his shop, but his morning attendance at daily Mass turned into hours of deep prayer.

Even into his seventies, Pierre continued to care for orphan boys and teach them hairdressing, making sure the next generation had the skills it needed. Juliette eventually died of cancer. Pierre tried to continue being useful until his own health failed. He died on June 30, 1863.

His funeral at St. Peter’s was attended by many of New York’s big shots. Newspaper ran not only obituaries, but entire articles about his life and virtue.

Transfer of Toussaint’s remains to the Cathedral crypt, December 4, 1990. Photo provided by Archdiocese of New York.
Transfer of Pierre’s remains to the Cathedral crypt, December 4, 1990. Photo provided by Archdiocese of New York.

Tell his story

In 1990, a year after his Cause for Canonization was opened, Pierre’s remains were exhumed and moved to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He was the first layman to be buried there.

So talk about Pierre Toussaint. Share how before our country abolished slavery, a black man was selfless enough to help build cathedrals and churches. How he looked after orphans and the abandoned. How even before he was given legal freedom, he trained himself to always make the best choice. He was the freest man in America.

 

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