PIERRE TOUSSAINT

(1766 – 1853)

 

Pierre Toussaint was born into slavery around 1766 in Haiti, when it was still a French colony. The man who owned him, Monsieur Bérard, ensured that Toussaint was educated and raised as a Catholic. As tensions rose in the colony, the Bérard family fled to New York, taking Toussaint with them, in an effort to escape the revolution that would eventually drive out the French.

In New York, Toussaint gained an apprenticeship with one of the city’s leading hairdressers, and became quite successful as hairdresser to the rich and powerful. When Bérard died, Toussaint quietly supported his widow. In gratitude, Madame Bérard freed Toussaint upon her death. He went on to marry his wife Juliette, and became an influential figure.

Among his many contributions, Toussaint ministered to the sick during a plague, and used his considerable wealth and network to help build the first Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. He also supported institutions that sought racial justice, including the founding of the first New York Catholic school for black children and the first Roman Catholic order for Black women in the U.S.

Toussaint’s death in 1853, at age 87, sparked widespread mourning. In 1996, Pope John Paul II declared Pierre Toussaint as “Venerable,” the second step towards sainthood.