Born a slave in Haiti on a sugar plantation owned by Jean Berard on June 27, 1766, the few who marked Pierre Toussaint’s entry into this world could not have guessed the destiny that awaited him. Taught to read and write by his grandmother, Toussaint’s master early recognized his intelligence and opened his fine library to the boy. In 1787 his master emigrated to New York City and took Toussaint and Toussaint’s sister Rosalie with him.
Berard apprenticed Toussaint to a hairdresser, and Toussaint quickly proved himself a master at that trade. Berard went back to Haiti in 1791 after the Haitian revolution to check on his plantation that now lay in ruins. Berard died in Haiti. His young widow Marie was now left in New York with slender resources.
With incredible charity, Toussaint decided to care for the widow of the master who had been kind to him. He quickly became the most sought after hairdresser in New York, earning enough to buy his sister’s freedom and to pay the expenses of the household. He did not buy his own freedom for fear that Marie would not then allow him to support her. In 1807 on her death, Marie Berard freed Toussaint.
By this time Toussaint was not only a hairdresser to the rich but also a counselor to many of the rich, who referred to him, no doubt to his distress, as “our Saint Pierre”. He was noted for his extreme charity, giving away most of his earnings to the poor of the city. Each morning he would also attend the early mass at Saint Peter’s on Barclay Street.
After he obtained his freedom, Toussaint married in 1811 Juliette Noel, a Haitian woman he had known for years. They purchased a large house, and took in many black orphans, educating them and teaching them trades. They purchased the freedom of dozens of slaves. They also aided French refugees, often doing so secretly so as not to hurt the pride of the recipients of their bounty. They cared for the sick, especially in the periodic yellow fever epidemics, often nursing the sick in their home. As Toussaint aged he was often urged by his friends to retire and enjoy life. His response: “I have enough for myself, but if I stop working I have not enough for others.”
Toussaint and Juliette shared the type of love and respect that all married couples desire. They had no children of their own, but adopted Toussaint’s niece Euphemia after his sister Rosalie died. It was the great tragedy of their life when their beloved daughter died of tuberculosis at 14.
Toussaint and his wife filled their lives with charity and good works until her death in 1851. Toussaint died in 1853. Saint Peter’s was jammed with rich and poor for his funeral. One of his friends, Philip Schuyler, summed up the esteem in which Toussaint was held, “I have known Christians who were not gentlemen, and gentlemen who were not Christians, but one man I know who was both – and that man was black”. Another admirer called Toussaint “God’s reflection in ebony.”
On December 18, 1996 Toussaint was proclaimed Venerable by Pope John Paul II. One day, and perhaps soon as these things go, the former slave and hairdresser will be proclaimed a Saint by the Church. Toussaint’s life was a miracle of charity and kindness. Born a slave, he did not allow that fact to prevent him from helping his fellow man, whatever their race. He overcame every adversity in his life through his complete embrace of the commandment of Christ, “Love one another”.