Hairdresser saint?

Pierre Toussaint, born in 1766 in what is now Haiti, sailed to New York with his master in 1787; died in the odour of sanctity in his house on Franklin Street in Manhattan on June 30, 1853; and now lives happily forever in Heaven, enjoying for all eternity the beatific vision of God in the glorious company of the angels and saints.

Toussaint, who can't be found in history books or in any anthology of black pioneers or in the pantheon of black heroes, nonetheless wears the crown of glory--or so Cardinal John J. O'Connor firmly believes. The Cardinal Archbishop had Toussaint's remains removed from the cemetery of old Saint Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street in lower Manhattan to the crypt below the main altar of the present Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. The crypt is ordinarily reserved for the princes of the New York See; no other black, no other lay man has been so esteemed. This craftsman, who made a fortune and is thus the first great black entrepreneur is, paradoxically, a worthy candidate for canonization.

Official materials from Toussaint's cause have been sent to the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome. The Catholic Almanac defines canonization as "an infallible declaration by the pope that a person who died as a martyr and/or practiced Christian virtue to a heroic degree, is now in heaven and is worthy of honour and imitation by all the faithful." However, "such a declaration is preceded by the process of beatification, which begins with an investigation of the candidate's life, writings, and heroic practice of virtue, and except in the case of martyrs, the certification of one miracle worked by God through his or her intercession."

Life on the island of Hispaniola

Like many other holy men and women destined to be among the elect, Toussaint was born in bad times, at "L'Artibonite," the sugar plantation of Jean Berard in the parish of Saint Marc, Saint Dominique, on the island of Hispaniola, in 1766. According to his biographer Ellen Tarry, author of The Other Toussaint, he was fortunate as a slave to know his mother and father and to be instructed in the Catholic faith and receive baptism and the other sacraments of the Church. His master, an upstanding French Catholic, didn't avoid his responsibility. According to their French Code Noir of 1685, decreed by Louis XIV, baptism and religious instruction were required for slaves, and even rest days on Sundays and holidays. Toussaint was given a chance to develop love for the Church. His grandmother and parents were the favourite slaves of the Berards, being in charge of both the plantation domestics and the field hands.

In 1787, by the time he was an adult, the heavily populated island of Saint Dominique was coming to the boiling point; it had 5,000 black slaves, 20,000 mulattoes, and 40,000 whites, each group demanding sovereignty over the colony, each driven by destructive passions. For generations, the white planter had his relations with the black women, and now there was a race of mulattoes large enough in number to be rebellious and to demand respect. The mulattoes were traditionally freed at age 21; they themselves owned 10% of the productive land, largely through inheritance, and also 50,000 slaves! The whites did not heed the warnings of the governors not to import any more black slaves, because they were already numerous enough to deliver a mortal blow. The blacks would achieve victory at a heavy price, demanding too much too soon. Even today, Haiti finds it difficult to emerge from poverty.


The Berards created no Frankenstein monsters to turn against them because of inhuman abuse. Like their peers in the colony, they were upper-class Frenchmen, supporters of the ancien regime, citizens of the most powerful country in Europe, children of the eldest daughter of the Church, members of the most respected Christian culture on earth. Unlike the others, they were not abusive of their personal and inherited graces. Young Pierre went to the secret meetings of the rebels in the mountains and was struck by the legitimate tales of woe he heard, but he refused conscription into the army of rebellion. The Catholic faith had taken lasting root in his heart; he liked the French and loved his masters, and the rebels' agenda was not his. Providence had arranged for him to mature in a healthier climate.

In 1787 Jean Berard and his wife started packing for France, to sail to safety even though the Revolution was looming. He had transferred the ownership of L'Artibonite to his son Jean junior, who sailed before his father to New York with his wife, her two sisters and five of his slaves, to set up a North American base and an investment business. Pierre, his sister Rosalie, and their aunt were among the five slaves.

No sooner had he settled in a house on Reade Street than young Berard paid a hairdresser, a Mr. Merchant, to apprentice his 21-year-old Pierre in the craft--a practical idea and a good inspiration. It was not uncommon for a master to apprentice two or more of his male slaves to, say, a carpenter to have them earn their keep and help him to supplement his income. Paradoxically, the institution of slavery kept many a master in debt, what with slave prices constantly rising, up to $3,000 for a healthy African male of 20 in the North American states at the peak of the trade, and $90 a year to keep him in food alone. Berard had two properties to maintain. He knew Pierre would do well in this trade which required the best of manners and sensitivity, because his young slave's goodness was as clear as a bell, and would disarm the ladies and keep him busy.

Mr. Merchant, who himself did the ladies' hair, started his young apprentice on the hair of the children of the prominent families, who were mostly English-speaking and Protestant. Nothing happens by accident, said Blessed Juliana of Norwich, the 14th-century English mystic; this was a wonderful decision. The children and Pierre got along famously with their teaching of each other, he amusing them with his French tales and they improving his English through their responses and their happy conversation with one another. He was eager to learn; in New York, it was imperative to speak English in order to survive.


Pierre's accent and novel French mannerisms added much to his charm and popularity. He began to do the hair of Marie Berard and her sisters, who had been the clients of his employer. Word of his skill and inventiveness, and his humble and sincere personality, spread by way of the children, who told their parents about this "funny, nice man," and by his mistress, who had begun to believe him saintly at this young age. The fashionable New York ladies began to bypass Mr. Merchant for Pierre, by sending their servants for him at his home. They wanted to be in the hands of this clearly religious slave, about whom unbelievable things were said. He was not just "a most unusual black man," as a nun whom he'd helped financially called him, but "an unusual man," as a great lady and patroness of Pierre corrected her. Within two years, he was the preferred hairdresser for many of the rich and famous.

If he became the young black professional with money in his pocket, he soon paid a price in personal suffering and sorrow. As the Gospel says, "From him to whom much has been given, much is required." Young Berard's hope of living in a lordly manner in New York was shrinking, as were his finances and his New York investments with the sharks. In Saint Dominique, serious trouble was very near L'Artibonite because the nearby plantation of Berard's wife's family was under siege. Pierre was anxious about home too, not having heard for some time about his mother and father, who had not left the plantation; he went daily to the docks to ask the ship captains of news from Saint Dominique. Had he not been at Mass and communion every morning, he would not have had the strength to be cheerful with his clients and be attentive to their "confessions" as he coiffed them. The Church disciplined him to withstand the pains and vicissitudes of life destined for him.

Suddenly one day, Berard bolted from his house and boarded a ship for Saint Dominique, hoping to recapture his plantation to which he was very attached. Toussaint could not convince him not to go; neither could his wife; the master sailed, and at that moment Pierre became the master of his master's house, something like Joseph, sold as a slave to the Egyptians, becoming the governor of Egypt in time. Berard "decreased," while Toussaint "increased" by the will of Providence.

Apostolic work

Marie Berard learned from her husband that he had arrived safely, but then there was a long silence of nearly a year. In 1791, she received a letter from a business associate of his in Saint Dominique, who said tersely that her husband had died suddenly from pleurisy. Shortly afterwards, an angry white man came to her door demanding the money her husband owed him. This penniless widow in New York, surrounded by anti-Catholic Americans and with no husband and no skill, felt herself destroyed. Toussaint rose to the occasion and, being the exemplary Christian, saved her. She gave him her jewels to pawn to pay her husband's debt. He took them and returned in a few days with two boxes, one with the money he had put together (mostly from his own pocket) and another with her jewels. When he gave them to her, she was both astonished and embarrassed. From that moment he kept from her a still bigger secret, namely that he also paid all the household bills. Not only did he insist that she live the life of the lady she was, but he sent out the invitations for the elegant dinners she put on and paid for them himself; he even performed at them as an entertainer and fiddler. He kept up his mistress's pretences for nearly twenty years, until her death; he was, like the Lord Jesus, lavish with his favours.


Pierre married when he was 45, after the death of Marie Berard, who freed him in her will. He and his bride Juliette Noel, his mistress's cook, whose freedom he purchased (she was fifteen years his junior), were happily married by Father Kohlmann in Saint Peter's Church, August 5, 1811. She was pious too, and remarkably unselfish. There were many homeless black boys they boarded and fed, Catholic societies and congregations they helped, immigrants and other needy people they aided.

Shortly they had a child to raise, his niece, daughter of his sister Rosalie, who no sooner had married and given birth than her irresponsible husband abandoned her and injured her health so severely that she died in a few short years. The daughter whom Pierre and Muliette adopted and loved as their own was sickly, living only to age 15; her death bowed Toussaint's head in grief; but he kept busy helping others. Saint Dominique had now been sacked; refugees were pouring in looking for him. When New York was stricken by plague, which was not infrequent, he braved contagion to help the sick, despite his wife's objections.

One day in 1863, his Christian composure was put to the test by a young white Catholic man. Toussaint had helped financially to rebuild Saint Peter's when it had been razed by fire the year before, and also helped to raise funds for the building of the new Saint Patrick's in lower Manhattan. When he went to the Cathedral on this particular day, he and Juliette were barred from the premises by the young man who was an usher. Civilized New York heard about the brutal behaviour of this young cad. A scandalized trustee of the church apologized profusely to Toussaint in a letter, saying among other things that the man had been "reprimanded most severally by several of the trustees." Toussaint turned humiliation into a grace; a Protestant gentlewoman told Juliette, "Only a saint would thank God for an insult!"

Juliette died on May 14, 1851, after forty years of marriage to this holy man; he was left bereft of loved ones and old friends, since most of the great patrons of the previous thirty years were now dead. At 85, he suffered from arthritis and heart disease, which moved one observer to say that his head was covered with the "blossoms of the grave."

He had attended daily mass for sixty years. His last days, however, confined him to a sick bed, where he underwent his final agonies; he died on June 30, 1853, with Father Quinn of St. Peter's, who had administered the last rites, at his bedside. Saint Peter's Church gave him the funeral of a prince, with a solemn high Mass, and many priests, religious and laymen rich and poor in attendance. The New York press devoted respectful obituaries to him.

A miraculous cure

A miracle wrought by God through the intercession of Pierre Toussaint has to be approved by the Church. In 1966, in Saint Marc, Haiti, a young man lay ill with terminal stomach and lung cancer, and was given only three months to live. When doctors had given up hope, a priest suggested that the man seeked Pierre Toussaint's intercession, which he did; he "prayed with confidence." Three months later he was completely cured; he resumed his active life and lived for seventeen more years.

The Pope can dispense from some of the formalities ordinarily required in canonization procedures. On October 7, 1995, the feast of the Holy Rosary, Pope John Paul II said in Saint Patrick's Cathedral, "Beneath the high altar of this cathedral, together with the former cardinals and archbishops of New York, there is buried the servant of God, Pierre Toussaint, a married man, a one-time slave from Haiti. What is so extraordinary about this man? He radiated a most serene and joyful faith, nourished by the Eucharist and visits to the Blessed Sacrament."

Surely Pierre Toussaint's life of faith and devotion will win him beatification eventually.

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