Pierre Toussaint

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Venerable Pierre Toussaint
Pierre Toussaint.jpg
Philanthropist, founder of Catholic charitable works in the United States
Born 1766
Died June 30, 1853
New York, New York, U.S.
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Major shrine St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York, New York

The Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1766 – June 30, 1853) was a former slave from the French colony of Saint-Domingue who was brought to New York City by his owners in 1787. There he eventually gained his freedom and became a noted philanthropist to the poor of the city. Freed in 1807, after the death of his mistress, Pierre took the surname Toussaint in honor of the hero of the Haitian Revolution which established that nation.

After his marriage in 1811, Toussaint and his wife performed many charitable works, opening their home as an orphanage, employment bureau, and a refuge for travelers. He contributed funds and helped raise money to build St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, New York on Mulberry Street. He was considered "one of the leading black New Yorkers of his day."[1] His ghostwritten memoir was published in 1854.

Due to his devout and exemplary life, the Catholic Church has been investigating his life for possible canonization and in 1996 he was declared "Venerable" by Pope John Paul II, the second step in the process. Toussiant is the first layperson to be buried in the crypt below the main altar of St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, normally reserved for bishops of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York .


Early life[edit]

Born as a slave, he was born simply Pierre in Saint-Domingue (later Haiti) to a slave woman, Ursule, at the L'Artibonite plantation, owned by the Bérnard family on the L'Artibonite River near Saint-Marc on the colony's west coast.[2] His father's name is not known, but he had a sister, Rosalie. His grandmother, Zenobe Julien, was also a slave and later freed by the Bérards for her service to the family.[2] His great-grandmother, Tonette, had been born in Africa, where she was sold into slavery and brought to Saint-Domingue. He was reared as a Catholic.[3]

Pierre worked as a house slave at the plantation and was educated as a child by the Bérard family's tutors. The senior Bérards returned to France, accompanied by Zenobe Julien, and Jean Bérard took over the plantation. As the tensions rose which would lead to Haitian slaves and free people of color rising in rebellion, in 1787 Bérard and his second wife left the island for New York City, accompanied by five of their slaves.[2] Pierre and Rosalie were among those chosen to go to New York City.

New York[edit]

Upon their arrival in New York, Bérard had Pierre apprenticed to one of New York's leading hairdressers before returning to Saint-Domingue to see to his property. After Jean Bérard died in St. Domingue of pleurisy,[2] Pierre, who was becoming increasingly successful as a hairdresser in New York, voluntarily took on the support of Madame Bérard, although entitled to keep much of his earnings by being hired out. (His kindnesses were noted by one of her friends, Mrs. Philip Schuyler, whose notes were a source for the 1854 memoir of Toussaint.)[2] Madame Bérard eventually remarried, to a Monsieur Nicolas, also from Saint-Domingue. On her deathbed, she made her husband promise to free Pierre from slavery.

As a very popular hairdresser among the upper echelon of New York society, Toussaint earned a good living. He saved his money and paid for his sister Rosalie's freedom. They both still lived in what was then the Nicolas house. After he was freed at age 45, Pierre took the surname Toussaint after Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, which led to its independence in 1804.

Due to connections among the French emigrant community in New York, Toussaint met people who knew the Bérards in Paris. He began a correspondence with them that lasted for some decades, particularly with Aurora Bérard, who had been his godmother. The Bérards had lost their fortune in the French Revolution, during which Aurora's father died in prison and her mother soon after. Her other siblings had married in France.[2] Toussaint also corresponded with friends in Haiti; his collected correspondence filled 15 bound volumes, as part of documentation submitted by the Archdiocese of New York to the Holy See as part of the process of canonization.[1]

Marriage and family[edit]

In 1811 Toussaint married Juliette Noel, a slave 20 years younger than he, after purchasing her freedom. For four years they continued to board at the Nicolas house. They took in Euphemia, the daughter of his sister Rosalie, and raised her as their own, providing for her education and music classes. In 1815, Nicolas moved to the American South.[2] Together the Toussaints began a career of charity among the poor of New York City, often taking baked goods to the children of the Orphan Asylum and donating money to its operations.


Toussaint attended daily Mass for 66 years at St. Peter's in New York.[1] He owned a house in Franklin Street, where the Toussaints sheltered orphans, and fostered numerous boys in succession. Toussaint supported them in getting an education and learning a trade; he sometimes helped them get their first jobs because of his connections in the city.[2]

They also organized a credit bureau, an employment agency, and a refuge for priests and destitute travelers. Many Haitian refugees went to New York, and because Toussaint spoke both French and English, he frequently helped the new immigrants, such as by arranging sales of goods so they could raise money to live on. He was "renowned for crossing barricades to nurse quarantined cholera patients" during an epidemic in New York.[1]

Toussaint also helped raise money to build a new Roman Catholic church in New York, which became Old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street. He was a benefactor of the First New York City Catholic school for Black children at St. Vincent de Paul on Canal Street.[4] As Toussaint aged, he continued his charity. At his death, his papers included records of his many charitable gifts to Catholic and other institutions; his character was lauded by friends and acquaintances.[2] He was "one of the leading black New Yorkers of his day", but his story became lost to history.[1]

Later years[edit]

Euphemia died before her adoptive parents, of tuberculosis, like her mother.[2] Juliette died in 1851. Two years later, Pierre Toussaint died on June 30, 1853, at the age of 87. He was buried alongside his wife and Euphemia, in the cemetery of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral on Mott Street.

Juliette Noel[edit]

Juliette Noel was the wife of Pierre Toussaint, both of whom consecrated their life in helping the poor and doing charities. Juliette was born on 1786 to a French family and worked in America as a slave which have been the love of Pierre. Her freedom was purchased by Pierre and then they got married in 1811. They continued the charitable works Pierre had begun. The couple helped refugees find jobs, cared for orphans, and opened a school to teach black children. They also provided financial help to the Oblate Sisters of Providence. When a plague struck the city of New York, they worked and cared for the victims in a pious and religious way. She died on 1851 in New York. Pierre was eighty-five old at that time Juliette died. Some of the people today wish to open the beatification of Juliette with Pierre whom is now a "Venerable".


After the formal approval of the cause for Toussaint's canonization by the Holy See, his grave was tracked down in the cemetery where he had been buried and identified. It was then transferred to the crypt of the uptown cathedral which now serves as the seat of the Archbishop of New York.[5]


  • 1854, a biography, Memoir of Pierre Toussaint, Born a Slave in St. Domingo, was written by Hannah Farnham Sawyer Lee and published in Boston, one of the genre known as slave narratives.[2]
  • In the 1950s, John Boyle O'Reilly Committee for Interracial Justice, an Irish-American group devoted to social justice for blacks, began researching and promoting Toussaint's life story.[1]
  • Because of Toussaint's reputation of great charity and piety, Cardinal Terence Cooke, then Archbishop of New York, authorized the formation of a committee to study the possibility of a formal cause for seeking his canonization. In 1991 his successor, Cardinal John O'Connor, strongly supported Toussaint for sainthood and began the official process, thereby according him the title of Servant of God, and sent the needed documentation to the Vatican for this process. As part of the process, the cardinal had Toussaint's body exhumed and examined. He was reinterred in the main cathedral.[1]
  • Toussaint was the first layman to be honored by burial in the crypt below the main altar of St Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. The crypt is normally reserved for bishops of the Archdiocese of New York.[1]
  • In 1996 Toussaint was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II, the second step toward sainthood.[1]
  • The Pierre Toussaint Haitian-Catholic Center in Miami, Florida is named for him.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Deborah Sontag, "Canonizing a Slave: Saint or Uncle Tom?", New York Times, 23 February 1992, accessed 18 February 2012
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Hannah Farnham Sawyer Lee, Memoir of Pierre Toussaint, Born a Slave in St. Domingo, Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Company, 1854; Documents of the American South, University of North Carolina
  3. ^ Couve de Murville, M.N.L., Slave from Haïti: A Saint for New York?, London: Catholic Truth Society
  4. ^ "Pierre Toussaint", National Black Catholic Congress
  5. ^ "Visit the cathedral: Crypt". St. Patrick's Cathedral. Retrieved 3 December 2012. 

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