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Pierre Toussaint,a slave, society hairdresser, philanthropist, may become nation’s first black saint

NCR Staff
New York

This is the story of four Catholic boys, one of whom is on the way to becoming the nation’s first official black Catholic saint and three others who played a role in making it happen.

The prospective saint is Pierre Toussaint, whose childhood was spent as a slave in 18th-century Haiti. Then called Saint Domingue, it was the wealthiest colony the world had ever seen.

Since the 1980s, a devoted group of advocates has collected around Toussaint, who was brought to the United States by his owner and became a hairdresser for 19th-century New York society. Four years ago, Pope John Paul II, eager to declare more modern role models saints, declared Toussaint “venerable,” the first formal stage in the canonization process.

If the cure of a 5-year-old American boy last February is declared miraculous by the Vatican, Toussaint could move to stage two, beatification. A second approved miracle would make him an official saint.

And that, said Ellen Tarry of Harlem, N.Y., a biographer of Toussaint, “would be a very big thing. It would be the first time we’ve had an African-American from North America declared a saint. We have every reason to be excited.”

Toussaint and his wife, Juliette, nursed the sick, raised orphans and housed refugees after Toussaint was granted freedom by his owner’s widow, a white woman whom he supported after her first husband’s death. Toussaint, who arrived in the United States in the 1770s, inspired a generation of New Yorkers by his life of service, charity and philanthropy.

Skip forward 150 years.

In 1938, Garland White, the second boy in the story, was a precocious 9-year-old living in Montclair, N.J. One of a group of black youngsters at St. Peter Claver Mission preparing for first Communion, White challenged his young teacher. He told 18-year-old Charles McTague, a white Seton Prep student headed for seminary, “You can’t name me one black Catholic white people respected.”

McTague admitted he did not know one. He said he’d find one, though. He wasn’t sure how.

That same month McTague attended a Catholic Interracial Council meeting at Fordham University and there picked up a copy of the Interracial Review. It carried an article on Toussaint.

He fixed Grandmother’s hair

McTague subsequently met Jesuit Fr. John LaFarge, a major force behind the Interracial Council and the Review, who told McTague that Toussaint had dressed Grandmother LaFarge’s hair. LaFarge said his grandmother had spoken glowingly of the saintly Christian, a man much admired from about 1810 through the 1850s.

With the Interracial Review article in mind, McTague was able to report to Garland White that he’d indeed found a black Catholic layman, a married man, a successful businessman whom white people respected. He was also able to report that the black Catholic’s biography had been published in 1854.

But McTague didn’t stop there.

That winter, in Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral churchyard on Mulberry Street, McTague located a weathered headstone he believed to mark Toussaint’s grave. It took considerable searching to find it. McTague’s allies in these excursions were often his mother and Bill Cannady, another young member of St. Peter Claver who is the fourth boy in our story.

No lettering on the stone was apparent to the naked eye. Tracing and rubbing produced nothing. The innovative McTague, an aficionado of Nick Carter detective stories, soon had his graveyard assistants maneuvering a large mirror, bought at a nearby junkshop, to cast sunlight across the headstone’s surface, thus revealing any indentations, while he photographed it from every angle.

The prints revealed no lettering, but the negatives showed the last five letters of Toussaint’s name -- saint -- as well as “émie,” the last four letters of the name of his adopted daughter, Euphémie.

The 1938 discovery of Toussaint’s headstone and the subsequent fictionalized 1955 biography by McTague’s friend, Catholic Worker Arthur Sheehan, and his wife, Elizabeth Odell, stimulated interest in Toussaint. The book’s title is Pierre Tous-saint: A Citizen of Old New York.

McTague and Cannady remained friends for decades, connected by an interest in their historic mutual friend.

From 1938, skip forward another 62 years, to February 2000.

Five year-old Joey Peacock of Silver Spring, Md., the fourth boy in these interlocking lives, had just come from Johns Hopkins University, where x-rays showed that severe scoliosis (spinal curvature), evident just months earlier, was practically gone. The Peacock family, parents Lisa and John and sons Danny and Joey, had been praying for a cure, asking Pierre Toussaint to intercede with God on Joey’s behalf.

Joey’s case indicates the extent to which the name of Pierre Toussaint has spread during the past half century. Lisa Peacock had read about the 19th-century Catholic in the religion section of The Washington Post.

The story of Joey’s cure has gone to Rome, where the Vatican must rule on whether it qualifies as the miracle Toussaint needs for beatification. The Vatican has rejected four other medical recoveries attributed to Toussaint as lacking elements needed to be declared miraculous.

Kenneth L. Woodward, religion editor for Newsweek and author of Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why (1996), said Haitian-Americans and black Catholic Americans had kept Toussaint’s memory alive, lending weight to efforts to declare him a saint.

“There is a strong devotion to Pierre Toussaint” in those groups, Woodward said. “People forget that in its initial phases, the canonization process is one of the most democratic in a church not known for its democratic ways. Which is to say, as with all the other saints, Pierre Toussaint was not picked out by the authorities but by all the people. You need to see a popular cult develop around a figure like Toussaint before the engines of investigation by church authorities can be brought into play.”

The actual dates for Toussaint’s early life are uncertain. Recent research suggests his life began a decade earlier than the 1766 birth date given in two fictionalized biographies. What is certain is that Pierre, with his younger sister, Rosalie, an aunt, Marie Bouquement, and two other house slaves, arrived in New York when Jean Jacques Bérard moved his wife, Marie Elisabeth, and her two sisters from Haiti to safety during a slave uprising in 1793.

What’s hard to grasp across the centuries is how carelessly affluent, indeed filthy rich, slavery-based Saint Domingue was. At a time when George Washington was president and New York City was the U.S. capital, Manhattan was primitive compared to Haiti’s cultural capital, Le Cap François (now Cap Haitien). In the 1780s and ’90s, Haiti was in upheaval. The French Revolution had created tremendous unrest.

Haiti was noted for its cruelty. All groups detested and feared the slaves, who were branded and brutalized, though they greatly outnumbered the rest of the population. Most were dead by age 40. The wealthy white planters were at deadly odds with the French Revolution’s sympathizers.

In 1793, slaves razed 300 plantations and destroyed Le Cap, the cultural capital, prompting the majority of Haiti’s whites and mulattos to flee (and worrying U.S. plantation owners, who feared a similar uprising at home).

Sharing a famous name

Toussaint’s life as a slave was unusual. The child of married parents, he had been baptized and educated. Yet history plays tricks. Haiti’s liberator, the man who declared Haiti a republic, was a freed slave with a similar name, Pierre François Dominique Toussaint “L’Ouverture” (“the Opener”). He was not related to Pierre Toussaint the would-be saint, but like him, “L’Ouverture” (1743?-1803) had been baptized and educated.

In New York, with three wealthy young society women in the house in an age of elaborate hairdos, Bérard apprenticed Toussaint to a local hairdresser. Then, worried about his Artibonite plantation, Bérard returned to Haiti. He died there of pleurisy.

Local New York businessmen with whom Bérard had invested his money soon informed Madame Bérard the investment had been “lost.” The young widow was bankrupt and bereft.

Slave Toussaint, the only man in the house, kept the eight-member house afloat, first contributing his tips and later his wages as a budding society hairdresser.

On her deathbed in 1807, Madame Bérard -- now Madame Nicolas by remarriage -- freed Toussaint.

The hairdresser’s workaday life focused on a couple of dozen Manhattan blocks bounded to the north and west by his Reade Street home, just off Broadway. Old St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street was nearby; fashionably residential Wall Street was to the south, where most of Toussaint’s wealthy customers lived. To the east was Old St. Patrick’s at Mott Street, where Toussaint, his wife, Juliette, and Euphémie, who died at 14, were buried.

Toussaint saved desperately and bought the freedoms of his sister, Rosalie, and another slave, Marie Rose Juliette, called Juliette. He and Juliette were wed by Jesuit Fr. Anthony Kohlman in St. Peter’s Church in 1811. When the married and subsequently abandoned Rosalie died, Pierre and Juliette raised their niece, Euphémie, as their own.

Honored at the church

Plaques on the front wall of St. Peter’s Church memorialize Toussaint and the future saint, Elizabeth Seton, who became a Catholic there in 1805. Toussaint was also well known at the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan’s Wall Street area for financial contributions when it was being built. Later, though, he was turned away by a racially biased usher, barred from attending Mass.

Toussaint, a cheerful, humorous, determined, devout man, was a 16-hour-a-day hairdresser, who walked from one house to the next to ply his craft. In his rare off-duty hours, he risked his life as he nursed abandoned plague victims. He also helped slaves buy their freedom.

He and Juliette raised orphaned young black boys and found them jobs. They brought sick people, including priests, into their home, which always offered temporary lodging for the offspring of their Paris-based friends, French and Haitian refugees from the French Revolution who had returned to France. He raised money for the Sisters of Charity’s first New York orphanage.

One friend wrote to thank Toussaint for saving her son’s faith during his stay in New York.

Toussaint would quote scripture at length, even to some of his Protestant customers, apparently from the Sermon on the Mount. He explained Our Lady to them, recited from memory lengthy passages from the celebrated French preachers and Bishops Jacques Benigné Bossuet and Jean Baptiste Massillon, and from Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ.

Toussaint’s knowledge of religion was not limited to Catholic thought. The coiffeur also quoted from the sermons of the Unitarian abolitionist William Ellery Channing.

Toussaint so impressed his upper crust Protestant friends that one of them, in a letter to her children, referred to Toussaint as “St. Pierre.” That friend was Mary Ann Sawyer Schuyler. Her sister, Hannah Sawyer Lee, became Toussaint’s 1854 biographer.

Toussaint, alas, was not too well served by his well-intentioned next biographer, Henry L. Binsse, who in 1918 wrote a Catholic Historical Records and Studies monograph titled “Pierre Toussaint: A Catholic Uncle Tom.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or The Lives of the Lowly, by abolitionist tract writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, appeared in serial form in New York in the last years of Toussaint’s life. Binsse, as only a white person could, meant “Uncle Tom” as a compliment. Toussaint’s reputation has labored a little under the sobriquet.

“In telling the stories of people’s lives, there’s a lot of freedom to do that in different ways,” Woodward said. But, he added, the canonization process transcends political concerns. On its own, Toussaint’s story is quite interesting, he said, “and a lot of people are going to salute it.”

The burden of proof rests on Toussaint’s accusers. However, he is at this disadvantage. With a half-dozen exceptions, the hundreds of letters (not counting Euphémie’s) were, like the 1854 biography, all written by whites, most of whom lived in Paris.

One explanation for the lack of letters from black friends is that they all were local, so there was no need for written correspondence. Only four letters, (not counting begging letters from the black Dublin-born Fr. George Paddington) touch on Toussaint’s involvement with his black world.

Toussaint did keep his black world and his white world quite separate. When Juliette died in 1851, he insisted that only their black friends accompany the cortege on the walk from St. Peter’s Church to St. Patrick’s graveyard, where the whites from church were welcome to gather. And his white friends honored the same feeling when Toussaint died.

Finally on the “Uncle Tom” issue: In 1992 when, under New York Cardinal John O’Connor, the canonization cause was given a major push, an Associated Press news release, “Pierre Toussaint: Candidate for Sainthood or Uncle Tom?” left the issue dangling. More pertinent, perhaps, were two questions raised by African-American scholars that year in America magazine. They did not discount Toussaint’s holiness, but held it to a different measure.

Albert J. Raboteau, Princeton University religion department chairman, thought Toussaint might be better promoted for sainthood for his charity, without specific reference to his race. And Dominican Sr. Jamie T. Phelps (systematic theology professor at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union) said African-Americans “need a saint who speaks to today’s complexities, not the ‘humble servant’ role of a St. Martin de Porres,” whose life is seen as sanctifying the servant role.

Nineteenth-century circumstances never allowed Toussaint to forget he was black. He lived in an era when even U.S. Catholic bishops and religious orders owned slaves, and some bishops defended slavery.

Even in his old age with arthritis in his right knee plaguing him as he walked city blocks day after day to his customers, Toussaint was not allowed to ride on the public horse-drawn omnibuses. He had decided to remain in the United States, even though he knew he could have had legal and social equality in France. As a former French colonial slave, his freedom granted by a French owner, Toussaint was, in fact, a French citizen. For a few years in the early 1800s, he considered moving to Paris where his godmother, Aurore Bérard, and other French friends lived.

In 1951, Cardinal Francis Spellman blessed a plaque on Toussaint’s headstone, put there by the John Boyle O’Reilly Society for Interracial Justice.

Spellman’s successor, Cardinal Terence Cooke, decided Toussaint deserved canonization, began the paper work and encouraged formation of the Pierre Toussaint Guild as a support group. He persuaded Ellen Tarry, the African-American writer from Harlem, to write a new Toussaint book. Her fictionalized biography, The Other Toussaint: A Modern Biography of Pierre Toussaint, a Post-Revolutionary Black, was published in 1981.

After Cooke’s death, the Vatican lost the Toussaint paperwork that Cooke had started. Successor O’Connor took up the cause with vigor and publicity. Toussaint’s remains were exhumed and verified, then placed alongside cardinals in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue.

The wait to have the first miracle approved continues, and then for a second miracle, before canonization can occur.

New York’s Msgr. Robert M. O’Connell, vice postulator for Toussaint’s cause, said reports from Rome on Joey Peacock’s cure are hopeful.

If Toussaint becomes the nation’s first black American saint, perhaps three young boys, two black, one white, in two different centuries, the 20th and the 21st, will have helped to bring it about.

Arthur Jones, NCR’s editor-at-large, is writing Toussaint’s biography for Doubleday. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000