February is Black History Month in the United States. This month I am running some notices about American Black Catholics whose Causes are opened for sainthood. People forget that Catholicism has been a strong part of African-American life, especially in Louisiana, Maryland, and New York City.
Servant of God, Pierre Toussaint: This former slave from Haiti is the only layman resting in the crypt of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, surrounded by cardinals and archbishops. Born in Haiti, he was brought to New York City by the Bernard family when they feared – rightly- that there were going to be slave revolts. The Berards had baptized their slaves and instructed them in the Faith (though how it was that even priests thought it was all right to own slaves remains a mystery to me). But like all the planters, they lived in incredible luxury that came from the sweat of thousands of enslaved Africans. Basic evangelization rarely included charity, and even more rarely, freedom. The Berards brought the “house slaves” with them, and the plantation was later destroyed in the great rebellion that swept Haiti.
Apprenticed by his owner as a hairdresser – a profitable trade in the 18th century given the elaborate hair styles of the wealthy and middle class women – Pierre became a confidant to both wealthy New York families and destitute French fleeing the Haitian and French Revolutions. He attended daily Mass for sixty-six years as New Yorker, both as a slave and free man. Madame Berard became not only a widow when her husband died of pleurisy, but an impoverished one when the New York securities firm holding their savings went bankrupt. She and the other family members were now totally dependent upon Pierre’s earnings. While still contributing to the upkeep of his widowed owner, even after she remarried since the new groom was also impoverished, Pierre carefully set aside his own savings which he used both for charity and to hopefully buy his freedom.
Granted his freedom after his owner’s death in 1811, he bought the freedom of his fiancé and married her. Childless, they adopted his niece and devoted themselves to supporting Haitian refugees, teaching trades to African-American children and sheltering Black orphans, and helping the Catholic Church. Familiar with discrimination, Pierre assisted St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was rejected by New York society after her conversion to Catholicism, and his donations supported the fledgling Sisters of Charity and their work. Pierre was a founder of the first cathedral, but a white usher pushed him out at the dedication Mass, to the shock and embarrassment of his white friends who intervened. While he put in sixteen hour days, even in old age, he, like all Blacks, was forbidden to ride in the horse-drawn public omnibuses and had to either walk across the growing city or rely on a customer’s charity to get a ride in a carriage. He continued to guide young people, help the poor French, assist the Africans, and support the Church. In this he outlived almost everyone he had known, including his wife and adopted daughter. Yet he never missed six o’clock Mass, waiting at the church door in the gray dawn. A member of an influential family said of him in his last months: “The last time I saw Pierre, he was seated among a group of mourners, beside the coffin of a lady venerated for years in the highest social sphere of the city. She was almost the last tie that bound him to the past. He had visited her daily for thirty years, and brought his offering of flowers; and there he sat, with his white head bowed in grief, and every line of his honest sable face wet with tears. It was a beautiful homage to worth,–a beautiful instance of what may be the disinterested relation between the exalted and the humble,–when the genius of character and the sentiment of religion bring them thus together.
He died on June 30, 1853, and his funeral at Old Saint Patrick’s was attended, as was only fitting, by people of every class and both races. He was laid to rest by his beloved Juliette-Noel.
The “new” Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue has a special crypt for the deceased cardinals of the archdiocese. This is immediately behind the High Altar. When Pierre’s Cause finally began, his remains were exhumed from the graveyard at Old Saint Patrick’s, and they now rest among those cardinals. Quite a difference from how he was once treated by an usher, but unfortunately, our country still has a way to go in racial harmony.
Pierre and his wife, Juliette-Noel
Pierre was declared Venerable in 1996, five years after his body was re-buried in Saint Patrick’s. The first biography of him, Memoir of Pierre Toussaint (1854) was written just months after his passing, and drew heavily on the recollections of the wealthy and poor New Yorkers who loved him. In this time of racial divides, perhaps he would be a good heavenly patron for reconciliation of all Americans, just as all New Yorkers loved and revered him, telling stories of his kindness for generations among both the “old families” of New York society and the Haitians’ descendants.