Pierre Toussaint: Hairdresser, philanthropist, and former slave

The heroic virtue of this former slave turned philanthropist shines bright even among the saints.

Pierre Toussaint, who was declared venerable in 1997, is pictured in an undated file photo. Toussaint died June 30, 1853, at age 87. (CNS file photo) (March 7, 2008)

While we believe in the holiness of the Church in her divine constitution, she remains as St. Augustine said, a “corpus permixtum,” a mixed body of saints and sinners. Professing Catholics bolstered by the graces of the sacraments are still subject to the effects of original sin. The sin of racism and prejudice can certainly exist within the Church. Such a scandal is all the worse when it becomes a stumbling block that drives people away.

It was a scandal to a young black boy named Garland White. In 1938 he was preparing for his first holy Communion at St. Peter Claver’s Mission in Montclair, New Jersey. He challenged his catechist in class one day saying, “You can’t name me one black Catholic white people respected.” The catechist was an 18-year-old student at Seton Hall Prep named Charles McTague, who was hoping to enter the seminary after graduation. McTague was troubled by the assertion but even more so by his inability to muster a quick rebuttal.

As class ended, he promised to find an answer for the young Garland White.

Soon after, McTague attended a meeting of the Catholic Interracial Council held at Fordham University where he met its founder, Fr. John LaFarge, a Jesuit deeply impacted by his 15 years of ministry among African-American communities. LaFarge began to speak out against racism, segregation and the conditions under which African-Americans were forced to live and later became an editor of America magazine and founded the Catholic Interracial Council of New York in 1934. At the meeting, LaFarge assisted McTague on his quest by introducing him to the story of Pierre Toussaint, a prominent black Catholic philanthropist who made his fortune as a hairdresser in early nineteenth century New York. LaFarge knew Toussaint’s story well. He learned it from his own grandmother. Early in life, she had her hair done by Toussaint. She would tell her grandson of his extraordinary virtue, an admiration she shared with many of the most wealthy and prominent New York families of the day.

When Toussaint died, his life and legacy were lauded by newspapers across the city. Within six months, Hannah Sawyer Lee, a prominent novelist and relative of Alexander Hamilton, published a biography of him.

This was certainly a black Catholic white people respected—and more!

His story begins in the French colony Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti. Pierre was born there as a slave in, according to earliest accounts of his life, 1766. Later research has shown however, that the year of his birth is more likely to be 1781. In this piece, the dates used are based on the research of journalist Arthur Jones in his 2003 book Pierre Toussaint: A Biography.

While most slaves were forced to work in brutal conditions under the scorching sun of the sugar fields, Pierre was trained as a house-slave and taught how to read and write. It was a Catholic household and the young Pierre learned French by reading books of sermons from the plantation library.

The Haitian revolution began in 1791 as an insurrection of self-liberated slaves against French colonial rule. It ended with Haiti’s independence in 1804—the only slave uprising that led to the founding of a state. In the midst of the unrest, Pierre’s master, Jean Jacques Bérard, decided to leave Saint-Domingue with his wife for New York City in 1797. He took with him five slaves which included Pierre and his sister.

Not too long after their arrival, Bérard felt compelled to return to Saint-Domingue as his plantation was at risk. Before leaving he apprenticed Pierre to a local hairdresser, training him to be a coiffeurs. It was common at the time for women to wear elaborate hairdos to several social engagements a week. Pierre quickly learned and excelled at the trade. Word of his skill spread and his services became highly sought after among the upperclass women of the city. Pierre would make his rounds across lower Manhattan by foot, appointment after appointment, earning good income.

Jean Bérard died of sickness soon after arriving in Saint-Domingue. His plantation was destroyed in the revolution and at the same time back in New York, his business collapsed leaving his wife Marie, a penniless widow.

Pierre was making enough money to purchase his own freedom but with his master dead, he took pity upon his suffering widow and remained in her service out of a Christian duty to care for her. He remained a slave using his own well-earned funds as a hairdresser to keep her from destitution, even allowing her to host parties where he would serve to spare her any embarrassment or shame. He not only served the household but paid all the bills too. He even supported Madame Bérard when she became Madame Nicolas, marrying another exile from the plantation class of Saint-Domingue who was a skilled musician struggling to get his career started in New York.

Madame Nicolas sank further into despair, bearing no children and developing what was probably throat cancer. Pierre worked by day and would come home in the evening to serve at table and nurse her illness. Just before Marie’s death in 1807, Pierre was granted freedom.

At roughly 26 years-old he was now a free man and chose Toussaint for his surname in honor Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian revolution. He kept working, putting in 12-hour days and taking appointment after appointment styling the hair of New York’s wealthiest women. Among his clients were Alexander Hamilton’s wife and daughter.

He was appreciated for more than his skill. To his mostly Protestant clients he was also a trusted friend and counselor. In their conversations while he was dressing their hair, he would often quote from memory long passages of Scripture, sermons of celebrated French preachers like Jacques Benign Bossuet and Jean Baptiste Massillon and from Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. One prominent socialite, Mary Anna Sawyer Schuyler, became a close friend. She referred to him in letters as “my Saint Pierre.”

With his growing wealth he purchased the freedom of his sister, Rosalie, and Juliet Noel, a women he loved who was also brought from Saint-Domingue as a slave. Pierre and Juliet were married in 1811 in St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street, the only Catholic parish in the state of New York at the time. Toussaint attended Mass there each day at six in the morning for 60 years.

Pierre and Juliette’s home became a refuge for persons in need. Using his growing wealth and connections with the city’s elite, Toussaint was able to procure the freedom of many slaves. They would continually take in others who had been orphaned or abandoned and slaves whose freedoms they purchased. Each would be housed and assisted in learning a useful trade and finding work before being sent off on their own. Toussaint’s sister Rosalie had delicate health and was abandoned by her husband while she was pregnant. Not long after giving birth she died and Toussaint and Juliet adopted their niece named Euphémie. Not able to bear children of their own, they raised and loved her as their own daughter.

Euphémie sadly died of tuberculosis at the young age of 14.

Recurring outbreaks of disease like yellow fever would leave neighborhoods abandoned and the stricken left behind with no one to care for them. Any fear he may have had was not as strong as the charity within him. Toussaint cared for the sickest at the risk of his own life, visiting their own homes, performing the duties of a nurse just as he did when his former “owner” was nearing the end of her life.

He and Juliet became great philanthropists. When asked why he did not retire as he got older, Toussaint replied, “Madam, I have enough for myself, but if I stop work, I have not enough for others.”

When St. Peter’s on Barclay Street burned down, he was a major contributor to its reconstruction. The couple also gave generously to St. Vincent de Paul Parish–the first parish in New York for French speakers–and its school, which was the first for black children. They also helped build New York’s first cathedral, now known as the Basilica of Old St. Patrick’s on Mulberry Street. They were generous patrons of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious order for black women in the United States. He helped these sisters build a school for black children in Baltimore. Toussaint also collaborated with Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American canonized a saint. Together, they built an orphanage in New York.

Toussaint’s generosity won him great admiration, especially within his spiritual home, the Catholic Church, which was the primary beneficiary of his charity. Throughout his life, however, he still remained a victim of periodic bigotry within the Church. He lived at a time when not just presidents and governors, but also bishops and religious orders, were slave holders.

One day when he and his wife entered the cathedral he helped build, an usher barred their entry saying there were no pews set aside for black people. When the cathedral’s board of trustees learned of the incident they composed a letter of apology to their benefactor, but the hurt was done. It was a hurt that never turned to bitterness, however. In the face of such indignities, Toussaint stated: “I am a Catholic. I receive the Eucharist. I receive the Divine Lord. I am not bitter toward anyone. I recognize what has been done to me. I recognize how I am treated here. But that is not enough to make me bitter any more than Christ was bitter on the cross. Indeed it was Christ who cried out, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’”

Pierre Toussaint died on June 30, 1853. The funeral at his beloved St. Peter’s was packed with Protestant New York aristocrats as well as the many poor, orphaned, widowed and abandoned people he helped. He was buried next to his wife and niece in the cemetery of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. His funeral at St. Peter’s was well attended and newspaper articles abounded recounting his charitable deeds.

Toussaint’s extraordinary life would likely have faded into obscurity were it not for the efforts of a prominent novelist of the time named Hannah Sawyer Lee, who knew him personally. Using her memory and the written correspondence her sister Mary Anna Schuyler had with Toussaint, she was able to piece together the inspiring details of his life and publish them less than six months after his death in a work called Memoirs of Pierre Toussaint, Born a Slave in St. Domingo.

Despite these efforts, Toussaint still remained a little known figure until the young Garland White’s challenge 90 years after Toussaint’s death. This was the catalyst that led to the movement of Toussaint’s open cause for canonization. Charles McTague took up the challenge to find one black Catholic who had been respected by white people and in doing so, discovered the story of Pierre Toussaint. McTague was even able to locate his gravestone which had been lost.

Time and weather had left the inscriptions on many of the headstones in the cemetery of Old St. Patrick’s faded and impossible to read. Records from the era were scant. At this time, McTeague was a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Newark, and he enlisted the help of his mother in finding Toussaint’s headstone. When they came upon a likely candidate, he angled a mirror and took a photograph when the shadow from the sun was just right. Holding the negative of the photo to a bright light he was able to decipher “…saint” from Toussaint and “…emia” from Euphémie, and the date 1829, which was the year of Euphémie’s death.

The discovery of Toussaint’s final resting place renewed interest in his life and legacy. Fr. Charles McTague would spend the rest of his life promoting his cause for canonization.

In 1989, John Cardinal O’Connor had Toussaint’s remains brought to the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Ave where they are now interred beneath the high altar—the only layman granted this honor. In 1997, Pope St. John Paul II declared Pierre Toussaint as “venerable.”

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About Father Seán Connolly 64 Articles
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. Ordained in 2015, he has an undergraduate degree in the Classics from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts as well as a Bachelor of Sacred Theology, Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Theology from Saint Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York. In addition to his parochial duties, he writes for The Catholic World Report, The National Catholic Register and The Wanderer.


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