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#4957: Pierre Toussaint
ierre Toussaint,a slave, society hairdresser, philanthropist,
may become nation?s first black saint
By ARTHUR JONES
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
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 ?mie,? the last four letters of the
name of his adopted daughter, Euphmie.
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
From 1938, skip forward another 62 years, to February
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
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
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 Brard 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 Franois (now Cap
Haitien). In the 1780s and ?90s, Haiti was in upheaval.
The French Revolution had created tremendous
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 Franois 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,
Brard apprenticed Toussaint to a local hairdresser.
Then, worried about his Artibonite plantation,
Brard returned to Haiti. He died there of pleurisy.
Local New York businessmen with whom Brard had invested
his money soon informed Madame
Brard 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 Brard -- 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 Euphmie, 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, Euphmie, 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 Benign
Bossuet and Jean Baptiste Massillon, and
from Thomas 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
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?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
?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 Euphmie?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
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
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 Brard, and other French friends
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000