Venerable Pierre Toussaint – 40 Years a Slave, Forever a Saint [Also, A Black Catholic Controversy?]

Venerable Pierre Toussaint – 40 Years a Slave, Forever a Saint [Also, A Black Catholic Controversy?]

Born: June 27, 1766

Death: June 30, 1853

Sainthood Cause: Declared Venerable on December 17, 1997 by Pope St. John Paul II

Some of the following will be drawn from four sources:

  • Franciscan Media’s page on Tossaint (FM)
  • Black and Indian Mission Office’s page on Toussaint (BIM)
  • National Black Catholic Congress’s page on Toussaint (NBCC)
  • Toussaint’s Wikipedia page (Wiki)

Early Life as a Slave in a French Colony

  • Born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (modern day Haiti) in slavery on June 27, 1766 on a plantation on the west coast of the colony.
  • Toussaint along with other slaves was owned by the Bérard family.
  • Came from family of slaves; “His maternal grandmother, Zenobe Julien, was also a slave and was later freed by the Bérards for her service to the family. His maternal great-grandmother, Tonette, had been born in Africa, where she was sold into slavery and brought to Saint-Domingue.” (Wiki)
  • Toussaint was trained as a house slave
  • “Plantation owner Pierre Bérard . . . allowed his grandmother to teach her grandson how to read and write.” (BIM)
  • He was raised in the Catholic faith, which he would remain faithful to all his life.
  • “The senior Bérards returned to France, taking Zenobe Julien with them, and their son Jean Bérard took over the plantation.” (Wiki)

Rumblings of Revolution and Leaving Home Still a Slave

  • Soon tension rose between the slave population of Saint-Domingue and the French ruling class.
  • This unrest eventually grew into what became the Haitian Revolution, which resulted in the permanent ousting of the French from Haiti and end of slavery on the island.
  • Before unrest grew to revolution Toussaint’s owner sensing what was about to come took their slaves and immigrated to America and settled in New York City.
  • Toussaint’s move came during his early 20s, and the slaves taken with him to America were  “his younger sister Rosalie, his aunt, and two other house slaves.” (NBCC)

Living in New York and Bumping Elbos with the Elite

  • Toussaint remained a slave even though he lived in the free north and continued to serve the Bérard family.
  • Toussaint was apprenticed as a hairdresser.
  • “His master had allowed him to keep much of his earnings from being hired out.” (Wiki)
  • “Pierre learned the trade quickly and eventually worked in the homes of rich women in New York City.” (NBCC)
  • As a hairdresser he was introduced to the life among the elite New Yorkers of the time, and because of his expertise he would gain many lucrative clients.
  • This trade would serve him extremely well during the rest of his years of servitude and after.
  •  He became well known and beloved by the community. 
  • “As Pierre established a good reputation among New York’s elite as a hairdresser, an increasing number of Haitian refugees in the American city brought reports of murder and devastation from the island. With the money he had received from the women whose hair he cut, Pierre bought his sister’s freedom.” (BIM)

Half a Lifetime in Slavery, Now Finally Free

  • Jean Bérard, the man who had taken over the plantation before the left Saint-Domingue and who had brought him to New York later died.
  • “When his master died, Pierre was determined to support himself, his master’s widow, and the other house slaves.” (BIM)
  • Though he was a slave Toussaint voluntarily remained in servitude in order to take care of his slave mistress after her husband died, which is an aspect of his life that has garnered some controversy when it comes to his Cause for canonization to be discussed below.
  • His wife “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.” (Wiki)
  • Before Madame Bérard died she freed Toussaint in 1807. Toussaint was in his 40s when he was freed at last.
  • After his freedom had finally come “Pierre took the surname of ‘Toussaint’ in honor of the hero of the Haitian Revolution [Toussaint Louverture] which established that nation.” (Wiki)
  • He met a enslaved woman that would become his wife, Juliette Noel/Marie Rose Juliette (the above sources give different names for the same woman.
  • Toussaint bought her freedom with his earnings and later married her in 1811.

I have enough for myself, but if I stop working I have not enough for others”: Out of Much Pierre Gave Much

  • Though Toussaint benefited greatly from his career as a hairdresser to the New York elite he chose to live a completely selfless live of generosity and care for the less fortunate, especially the orphaned.
  • He adopted his sister’s daughter Euphémie/Euphemia when her own mother died of tuberculosis. Toussaint and his wife would raise her as their own child, though she later she would precede both her adoptive parents in death due to the same disease that had killed her mother many years earlier.
  • “When the plague struck New York, Pierre personally cared for the victims.” (BIM)
  • “Pierre donated to various charities, generously assisting blacks and whites in need. He and his wife opened their home to orphans and educated them.” (FM)
  • In a property that he owned Toussaint took care of numerous orphans in succession as they came to him and grew up.
  • “Toussaint supported them in getting an education and learning a trade; he sometimes helped them get their first jobs through his connections in the city.” (Wiki)
  • “He attended daily Mass at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street, the same parish that Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton had attended.” (FM)
  • He used his wealth to contribute to many charitable projects and raised money for Church causes including funds that would go into building New York’s Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
  • He was once refused entrance at the very church he helped to found because of his race.
  • Both he and his wife Juliette lived lives of charity. She frequently engaged in good works alongside her husband.    
  • “They organized a credit bureau, an employment agency, and a refuge for priests and destitute travelers.” (Wiki)
  • “They also provided financial help to the Oblate Sisters of Providence,” (Wiki) which was the first order for Black religious sisters in U.S. history founded by Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, another African American holy one who as a Cause.  
  •  “Many Haitian refugees went to New York, and because Toussaint spoke both French and English, he frequently helped the new immigrants.” (Wiki)

Later Life and Death

  • Though Toussaint could have retired and lived off of more than enough wealth for himself he chose to keep working tirelessly.
  •  “Urged to retire and enjoy the wealth he had accumulated, Pierre responded, ‘I have enough for myself, but if I stop working I have not enough for others.’” (FM)
  • “In 1851, Pierre—at age 85—suffered the last and greatest sorrow of his life when his beloved Juliette died.” (BIM)
  • Three years after his wife passed Toussaint would die at the advanced age of 87 on June 30, 1853 in New York three days before his 88th birthday.
  • He was buried next to Juliette and Euphémie.

Development in His Cause for Sainthood

  • The process to make him a saint Toussaint began in 1968 by the Archdiocese of New York.
  • “In 1990, his body was moved to a crypt under the main altar of [the present] St. Patrick’s Cathedral” where it resides today. “His sanctity and the popular devotion to him caused his body to be moved to the present location.” (Wiki) (FM)
  • When his body was moved to the crypt in St. Patrick he became the first layperson to be buried there, a spot that had been reserved for New York’s bishops.
  • In 1991 Toussaint was declared a Servant of God when Cardinal Archbishop John O’Connor sent all the proper documentation regarding his life to the Vatican and the official part of the canonization process began.
  • On December 17, 1997 declared Venerable by Pope St. John Paul II. (NBCC)

Pierre Toussaint’s Cause – A Black Catholic Controversy?

I do not know if the controversy still surround Toussaint today, but back in 1992, a year he was declared a Servant of God an article written in the New York Times titled “Canonizing a Slave: Saint or Uncle Tom?” was published. In it the author gave report that his life was subject of “a heated debate among American Catholics that reveals much about the modern-day church’s complicated and sometimes awkward relations with its black parishioners.” I will provide a link to the article below, but I will briefly give the gist of the issue here. Remember when I said that during his life he made the decision to remain a slave in order to take care of his master’s wife when he died? Some people apparently took that and being a bit “Uncle Tom-ish.”

John Cardinal O’Connor says he was a model of faith and should be made a saint, a gesture of the church’s concern for black Catholics. But others in the church say Toussaint was an Uncle Tom and a poor role model for modern blacks.

Toussaint’s status as a house slave throughout is life before being freed probably did not help in their eyes at the time. Nevertheless, Toussaint’s Cause had the backing of not only black clergymen but also enjoyed some pretty powerful support in the persons of both the Cardinal Archbishop of New York and even the pope himself; the article mentioned that Toussaint had been a favorite of John Paul II among 1,500 other sainthood candidates on the docket at the time. Not to mention, Toussaint was the “perfect Vatican II saint: a layman, a married man, a native of a poor, troubled country and a nonwhite.” But even when his Cause had the support of New York auxiliary bishop Emerson John Moore, one of the only 11 Black bishops in the country during the early 90s and the first Black Catholic bishop in city’s history, because of Toussaint’s great sanctity and good example: 

But what is holiness to some is servility to others.

The facts of Toussaint’s life made his Cause hit a wall in some people estimation. Toussaint’s Cause played a role in some of issues that Black Catholics were having with the Church during this time. The article further reports how even some of the remarks made by supporters of the Cause only made things more awkward.

The Toussaint campaign jangles the same sensitivities. For example, Msgr. Robert O’Connell, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, refers to Toussaint as a good role model “for minority groups and young people with drugs who sometimes see the decks stacked against them and give up on life easily.

But that kind of remark makes some black Catholics wince. “It calls out the sarcastic, ‘Gee, thanks for finding us a hero’ response,” said Albert Raboteau, professor of religion at Princeton University.

The rest of the article is very interesting so I’ll let you guys read the rest for yourself.

What do you think? Have you heard of the controversy around Ven. Toussaint? Have you felt it yourself? Is he saintly older brother in the faith or gloried Uncle Tom? Whatever you think let me know in the comments below. I wanted to present this side of the story of this Black holy one because it is highly relevant. I also did not want to shy away from the controversy because nearly all the saints in heaven have some sort of speckled past. What’s that famous line we hear all the time? “There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future.”

I will post a personal reflection on his life in the future.

Venerable Pierre Toussaint pray for us!

The Office of Black Ministry of Archdiocese of New York’s page on Ven. Toussaint.  

New Your Times article: “Canonizing a Slave: Saint or Uncle Tom?” (1992) by Deborah Sontag.

Both pictures used are in the Public Domain.

Temporary Note to Reader: I will fix whatever typos there may be in a later time