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.”


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.


COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.