10 fascinating facts about Pierre Toussaint, a former slave on the road to sainthood

By CNA Staff

Venerable Pierre Toussaint. / National Catholic Register Files.

Denver Newsroom, Jun 27, 2021 / 05:15 am (CNA).

June 30 marks the 168th anniversary of the death of one of the most fascinating characters of American Catholicism: Pierre Toussaint, who was born a slave in Haiti, became a free man in New York, and died as the city’s most beloved man of his day because of his exemplary Catholic life. He is now a Venerable, on the road of sainthood. June 27 is also the anniversary of his birth.

  • Toussaint was brought to New York from Haiti as a slave by his masters, the Bérard family. After the death of Mr. Bérard, Toussaint supported Mrs. Bérard financially out of Christian charity until she remarried.
  • He became a hairdresser at about the age of 20, while still enslaved by the Bérard family. Once in New York, he became the hairdresser of preference—and thus the confidante, of NY’s high society.
  • He was highly regarded for his professional abilities, but more importantly, because he would always listen to the problems of his clients with profound empathy and with a supernatural perspective.
  • He was highly regarded for honoring the trust put in him and would boldly refrain from gossip, especially when someone would try to elicit it in him. “The man is a hairdresser. He is no news journal,” he once responded to a gossipy client.
  • At his parish, St. Peter’s Church in Lower Manhattan, he joined the Blessed Sacrament Society and the Benevolence Society. He donated generously and personally visited the sick and poor.
  • He and his wife Juliette—who had her own business—accomplished significant wealth, but also gave generously, especially to Catholic ministries related to orphans. He was one of the main fundraisers for Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s orphanage in New York…even though it only served white children.
  • Toussaint was also a generous donor to the Oblate Sisters of Providence—the first community of black religious—and supported their orphanage.
  • In 1991, Cardinal John O’Connor began the official process for his beatification and had Toussaint’s body exhumed and reinterred in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He became the first layman to be buried in the crypt below the main altar, an enormous honor.
  • In 1996, Toussaint was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II.

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