By Ellen Tarry
Printed in USA by Daughters of St. Paul
50 St. Paul's Ave. Boston, Mass. 02130
ISBN 0-8198-5401-8 (pbk.)
Book Review -
By Tom Block
" An extraordinary Catholic lay man--born in slavery in Haiti--outstanding for his care of the poor,...a shining example of charity and brotherhood." This quotation is from the prayer card, published by the Pierre Toussaint Guild, 1011 First Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022, which is promoting Pierre Toussaint's cause for sainthood.
At Pierre Toussaint's Solemn Requiem High Mass, attended by an overflowing crowd, Pierre was eulogized from the pulpit by the pastor, Father William Quinn,
"A stranger would not have suspected that a black man of his humble calling lay in the midst of us. Though no relative was left to mourn him, yet many present would feel they had lost one who always had wise counsel for the rich, words of encouragement for the poor, and all would be grateful for having known him. There are few left among the clergy superior in devotion and zeal for the Church and the glory of God, among laymen, none."
Ellen Tarry, author of THE OTHER TOUSSAINT, is an author/lecturer, and is well known for her work in civil rights circles. She has worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and is on the Commission team in the Office of Black Ministry in the Archdiocese of New York. Cardinal Terrence Cooke had encouraged Ms. Tarry to write this book several years before he died. At Cooke's urgings to inform a greater public and to promote Toussaint's cause for sainthood, Ms. Tarry began her research on Toussaint's life. She read all the previously published biographies on Toussaint, but one thing kept disturbing Tarry in her research. She could not accept a version of Pierre's life that had been passed on by writers, "who had no blood ties to the Africa from which Pierre's and my ancestors had been torn."
Her book is dedicated to Arthur Sheehan, another biographer of Toussaint. Ms. Tarry is grateful though, that she never had to say to Arthur Sheehan, "Art, you have been writing about a saintly white man with a black face. Pierre was black and if I write about him, I have to know he thought like a man with African blood who rose above racial considerations in pursuit of his sanctification."
Ellen Tarry has in this "modern biography", captured the essence of Pierre's black roots. She expresses vividly, Pierre's human dignity, his innermost thoughts, desires, and prayers which I hope to illustrate in these following excerpts from her biography of THE OTHER TOUSSAINT.
Pierre Toussaint had an exceptionally kind and sensitive master, Jean Berard. But one day Pierre met two brothers from another plantation, Maurice and Roberto, who suffered extreme cruelty at the hands of their master. After Pierre's exposure to the other side of slavery," he spent nights tossing and turning with his conscience. He prayed to God that he would not lose his temper and accuse the Berard guests, who he served, of being human scavengers and parasites."
We are given a glimpse into Pierre's human desires as he sits around a campfire and watches in awe a beautiful woman dancer at a Voodoo ceremony. Pierre hopes one day that he will marry and have a family.
Pierre continued to be troubled by thoughts of which side he would take when the slaves finally revolted, "Would he lay down his life defending the Berards against his own people?" But God interceded when the young Berard, Jean Jacques, who took over the plantation for his father, decided to move to New York and take Pierre with him to run his household.
The young Berard thought Pierre should have a profession so he apprenticed Pierre to a coiffeur. When the young Berard went back to Haiti to rescue what he could of his investments, he left Pierre in charge. Pierre felt such loyalty and love towards the Berards that after news of the young Berard's death from pleurisy and the loss of their holdings, Pierre refused to let the widow Berard lose her dignity or be burdened with concerns she was unaccustomed to, so Pierre took over all the household expenses at 105 Reade Street.
As a matter of routine, Pierre would bring into their home on Reade St. black orphan boys, feed them, clean them up, and give them a place to stay until he could find them a position with one of his wealthy patrons whose hair he styled.
There were two things Pierre wanted most in life, to buy his sister Rosalie's freedom and to marry his sister's best friend, Juliette. But these needs would have to wait because Pierre always put the needs of others before his own. When criticized by his sister, Rosalie for supporting the white woman, Madame Berard, who would not even set him free, Pierre answered, "that he never felt enslaved but felt compassion for a lonely woman who was considered his owner."
On her deathbed, Madame Berard finally gave Pierre his freedom. Pierre went to his back room and "thanked God he was able to keep this woman from knowing want and thanked God for giving her the courage to set him free."
Every August, New York was hit with the plague. Pierre nursed the sick and dying without regards to his own safety and over the objections of his family. Rosalie would say to him, "You think of everyone but yourself. Now that you are free, you are still acting like a white man's slave." (The plague affected mostly the white population.) Pierre would reply, "I have never felt I am a slave to any man or woman but I am a servant of the Almighty God who made us all. When one of His children is in need, I am glad to be His slave."
Finally, Pierre was able to purchase Rosalie's freedom and marry his Juliette. He was now 45 years old but was at last going to start the family he had dreamed about for so many years.
His sister Rosalie married a distant cousin of Juliette who later abandoned her, pregnant and in the advanced stages of tuberculosis. Rosalie gave birth to a little girl she named Euphemia. Out of compassion, Pierre and Juliette took the critically ill Rosalie and her sickly new born into their home on Reade Street.
The elder brother watched in prayerful vigilance at his sister's bedside for months as she seemed to cling to her own life, only until she was sure her baby would live. A few months later Rosalie died and Pierre took Euphemia to raise as his own daughter. Pierre never displayed anger towards Rosalie's husband for abandoning her but, "thanked God that a lazy shiftless man had now given him the child he always wanted."
Step-father and step-child grew together in God's wisdom and grace. Pierre taught Euphemia to read and write from an old copy book his grandmother, Zenobie, had given him back in Haiti. They would take long walks together along the wharf and Pierre would tell stories of his childhood in Haiti. To practice writing, Euphemia would write daily letters to Pierre and he would answer them with pride and glee. Their bonding was as tight as any father's and daughter's could be; but that too was soon to be loosed.
Euphemia became very ill with the same disease that killed her mother. Pierre refused to give up hope and prayed till "his knees were worn smooth." Euphemia died on May 11, 1829 with Pierre at her bedside. Pierre in his grief prayed, "God gave Euphemia to me and if it pleases Him to take her back, I must accept His will."
Pierre in his period of silent grieving intensified his charitable works of bringing home street boys and raising money for churches and orphanages.
One Sunday, at the time Jim Crow laws were in place, Pierre and Juliette were refused admittance to St. Patrick's Cathedral, the Cathedral Pierre helped raise funds for construction. Pierre never lost his violent temper which he had to struggle to control all of his life. He simply walked away and thanked God, "that Euphemia would never know this humiliation."
In 1851 Pierre's wife Juliette died from cancer and was buried next to Euphemiay's Toussaint reminded me of St. Therese, The Little Flower,- no big things, just everything for God, an ordinary man doing extraordinary things through the grace of God.
Ms. Tarry's descriptive narrative style allows us to empathize with Pierre without One of these children asked Pierre on her last visit, just prior to his death, "Is there anything you need." He replied, "Nothing on this earth."
I enjoyed reading Ms. Tarry's book very much. My thoughts and behavior were influenced throughout the day while reading her biography of this saintly man. I believe Ms. Tarry succeeded in writing an informative and moving account of Pierre Toussaint from a black perspective which she had indicated was one of her intents in the forward of this book.
Tarry's Toussaint reminded me of St. Therese, The Little Flower,- no big things, just everything for God, an ordinary man doing extraordinary things through the grace of God.
Ms. Tarry's descriptive narrative style allows us to empathize with Pierre without her coming right out and telling us how he felt in every scene. For example, it is very obvious how Pierre feels while walking to his hair appointments, especially with his rheumatic knee, rather than taking an assigned seat for blacks on the city trams.
Tarry, also, takes us inside Pierre's mind, at times, which a traditional biography could not do. In watching Maurice take off through the woods, Pierre thought, "Here is a hunted animal yet a man."
The beginning of this book up to the time Jean Berard takes Pierre to New York moves rapidly and as Pierre's inner conflicts are heightened we are anxious to find out how Pierre will synthesize all of his input. "Will he discover who Pierre Toussaint really is?" Once in New York the story slows a bit as the author gives the background and setting of New York within the context of the founding of a new nation. History buffs will love it, though.
I felt chapter 13 got bogged down with too many details of Euphemia's daily tasks and chapter 15 contained too many letters from Euphemia to Pierre which, in my opinion, stalled the character development of Pierre Toussaint.
Because my real preference was the character development of Toussaint I didn't enjoy as much wading through some of the details and minor characters of New York Society but the swim was worth it because I really did get hooked on Toussaint. He has become a friend and an intercessor for me and one to whom I wouldn't hesitate to pray. As far as this reviewer is concerned Ellen Tarry has succeeded in advancing the cause of Pierre Toussaint for sainthood.
In conclusion then, I would strongly recommend this book. This biography is well written, well conceived, and captures the essence of this singularly holy black man. Pierre Toussaint is not for blacks only but truly a 20th century, "Man for all seasons."
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