Born on the Haitian plantation of Jean Berard June 27, 1766, Pierre Toussaint, a slave, was taught to read and write by his grandmother, herself a slave. Monsieur Berard, noticing how intelligent the youngster was, encouraged Pierre to study and opened his fine library to him.
Pleasant though his own situation remained, for Jean Berard was considerate of his slaves, by the time Pierre reached his teens he was well aware of how slaves were sometimes treated on other plantations by sadistic owners and over-seers.
With a small company of relatives and retainers, Jean Berard set out for New York City in 1787 to join a group of aristocratic French refugees. At his side was his recent bride, Marie. Pierre Toussaint and his sister, Rosalie were brought along to serve in the new home.
The New York apartment was small in comparison with the spacious mansion in Haiti and Pierre found that he had little to do. His mistress, unwilling to have him waste his talents, suggested to her husband that they apprentice Pierre to a professional hairdresser. He readily agreed that their favorite should have an opportunity to learn that trade.
The exiles’ first days in the States were delightful. Soon, however, travelers from the Caribbean brought news of trouble in Haiti, and somber shadows fell over the lively parties that had made the New York French Quarter seem so much like home. Anxious about his property, Jean Berard returned to Haiti in 1791. He found the entire island given over to unspeakable horrors. Nothing remained of his estates or his fortune.
Madame Berard, meanwhile, was sick with worry about her husband. At last a ship’s captain brought word that Jean had died in Haiti. The young widow, left with little funds in a strange land, fell into deep depression. Pierre and his sister devoted themselves to her but it was soon obvious that, for the time being at least, she could not cope with her new responsibilities.
To Pierre, his future seemed suddenly marked out for him: charity demanded that he care for the mistress who had been so kind to him and whose need was now so great. Fortunately, hairdressing was already proving a lucrative profession. Pierre had real talent for designing the elaborate coiffures then in style. He easily secured the patronage of the city’s wealthiest ladies, many of whom spent as much as a thousand dollars a year on their tresses.
Before very long, Pierre had sufficient funds to purchase his own freedom and Rosalie’s. He bought his sister’s manumission papers, but opted to remain a slave himself, understanding that Madame Berard would be more comfortable accepting his services that way.
He explained to Madame, that if she would permit, he would be responsible for the household and expenses. Helpless, she agreed, leaving everything in his hands.
In 1807, his Madame Berard’s health took a final turn for the worse. On her deathbed, no longer able to speak, Madame wrote out directives that Pierre be freed. Holding his hands in hers, she tried over and over to thank him. Gently, he reassured her, and she died peacefully, fortified by the last sacraments.
Pierre, a free man at last, was forty-one. He had quietly sacrificed the most precious years of his life in what he saw as his Christian duty. In that interval, he had not only managed the Berard-Nicolas estate, and run his own flourishing hairdressing business, he had become an amazing one-man Saint Vincent de Paul Society.
While still a slave, he could have been one of the city’s wealthiest men – had he not given away everything he earned to the poor and to institutions that cared for them. More remarkable than his many charities, however, was the influence he had on people. Many of New York’s “first families” vied with each other in claiming the dignified, gentle black man as their counselor, one in whom they could safely confide and whose advice they gladly followed. Many called him “Our Saint Pierre”. This relationship was unprecedented in post-Revolutionary America, when racial and religious prejudices ran high.
Pierre had not received any formal school training, but did attend the early Mass each day at Saint Peter’s on Barclay Street, New York. The old church was, perhaps, the “university” where Pierre learned the gentleness, fortitude, generosity and prudence that made him the man he was.
Pierre married Juliette Noel, a Haitian girl he had known for years. She was as interested in Pierre’s charities as he was. Together they made a home for orphaned Negro children in the big house Pierre purchased, setting up a school for them and arranging for them to be taught a trade. They secured freedom papers for dozens of slaves, procured employment for impoverished French widows and made secret gifts to aristocratic refugees who would be too proud to accept charity.
When Pierre’s sister, Rosalie, died of tuberculosis, the Toussaints, childless themselves, adopted Rosalie’s sickly infant Euphemia. They heaped their love and care on Euphemia, who blossomed into a charming little girl, the joy of their home. She was enrolled in the school for Negro children that Pierre had set up. He himself instructed her in music and French.
Juliette died in 1851. Pierre, too feeble to make the daily trip to Mass, lived for two more lonely years, dying at eighty-seven. Mourning New Yorkers, white and black, rich and poor, crowded St. Peter’s for his funeral.
The pastor of St. Peter’s, who delivered the eulogy, did not refer either to Pierre’s race or his station in life. He dwelt instead on his remarkable qualities of mind and heart and on his incredible charity. “We can all be grateful for having known him” he concluded.
On December 18, 1996 Pope John Paul II declared Pierre Toussaint Venerable.
(From article by Sr. Marie Emmanuel in IMMACUIATA magazine published by Franciscan Friars, Libertyville, Illinois 60048).