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Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Fund honors legacy of extraordinary virtue and giving

“In Pierre we see that true freedom is to love as Christ does, to give without counting the cost,” says Fr. Kareem Smith, chaplain to the many scholars in the Fund’s formation program.

Undated painting of Venerable Pierre Toussaint, by Anthony Meucci. (Wiki Commons)

June 30th marked the anniversary of the death of one of the most inspiring figures in history of the Church in the United States. When Pierre Toussaint died on June 30, 1853, newspaper articles recounted the goodness of his character and his many charitable deeds. His requiem Mass at St. Peter’s on Barclay Street in lower Manhattan was filled with the most prominent families of the local aristocracy seated next to the many poor, orphaned, widowed, and abandoned he had helped.

What makes his story extraordinary is unlike most prominent philanthropists in New York history, Toussaint wasn’t a white financier or Protestant industrialist, but a black Catholic who was born a slave. After being freed, Toussaint amassed his wealth by working long days as a hairdresser. He had to travel to all of his appointments by foot as blacks were not allowed to ride the horsecars.

Long before most government safety nets began, and even before the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York was formally incorporated in 1917, the self-sacrificing generosity of this individual layman was, for many, the charitable arm of the local Church. When asked why he did not retire as he got older, especially considering his wealth, Toussaint replied, “Madam, I have enough for myself, but if I stop work, I have not enough for others.”

The legacy of his charitable giving continues today under the direction of the Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Fund of the Archdiocese of New York’s Office of Black Ministry. Leah Dixon is the associate director of the Scholarship Fund and Fr. Kareem Smith serves as chaplain to the many scholars in its formation program. They recently spoke with Catholic World Report about this important work.

CWR: What is the Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Fund?

Fr. Kareem Smith: The PTSF is a ministry of the Archdiocese of New York that provides scholarships to graduating high school seniors of diverse backgrounds seeking a higher education in college. This is done in honor of the extraordinary charity of Venerable Pierre Toussaint and to continue the legacy of his generous giving.

More than just easing the financial burdens of selected scholars, however, our program seeks to form the entire person of our scholars into faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. To that end, we take seriously the three criteria for membership: academic excellence, charitable works, and the regular practice of our Catholic faith. These criteria are expected to have been met at the time of the student’s application and are further fostered during their time in the program and beyond.

On any day you can find our dedicated team seeking out assistance for students who seek to advance their academic ability, scholars who are involved in any number of charitable initiatives both locally and abroad, as well as scholars who help meet the needs of their local parish community.

As the Chaplin of the program, I am tasked with providing pastoral care for the over 80 students currently in the program. Formally, this is accomplished through my participation in the annual winter workshop and scholar’s summer retreat. In addition to these responsibilities, I am tasked with being a spiritual resource to the scholars. I keep in touch with them through regularly scheduled meetings or occasional phone calls, always trying to be available to them to help nurture their Catholic faith.

Leah Dixon: The PTSF is unique because, in addition to the financial support given to our college student leaders that we refer to as “Scholars,” we make sure to also provide ongoing mentorship and advisement that is spiritual (from our chaplain Fr. Smith) and practical regarding their education and career opportunities.

In the spirit of our patron, we emphasize charitable service. Each year on June 30th, the memorial of Pierre Toussaint’s death, our program has its “Day of Service” where our scholars volunteer at a local agency of Catholic Charities. Additionally, we plan service programs during the Thanksgiving holiday and on the MLK National Day of Service.

Scholars have been afforded the opportunity to travel for a global learning cultural experience as we’ve participated in the World Youth Days held in Spain, Poland and Panama and are currently preparing for the World Youth Day in Portugal in 2023. We’ve visited the secondary school that our program supports, College Pierre Toussaint, in Sassier, Haiti; we’ve traveled to Cuba, and West Africa—Ghana, Benin, Togo and Nigeria. Here is the United States, we participate in different conferences and organize trips to local neighborhoods for missionary and charitable work.

We also host a weekend long retreat program and a winter workshop annually, that all of our scholars are required to participate in.  However, opportunities vary throughout the year, as I do wellness checks at the schools they have been accepted into throughout the year. I visited students at Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern University, WPI, College of the Holy Cross, Binghamton University, Lemoyne College, Syracuse University, Georgetown University, Catholic University of America, and Howard University last year. I also meet with scholars for lunch/dinner at their request when they are home for breaks.

CWR: What are the different ways you raise funds for the scholarship?

Leah Dixon: The Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Fund/Program is generously supported by the Black & Indian Mission Fund of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Archdiocese of New York’s Cardinal’s Annual Stewardship Appeal, Catholic Charities and grants received from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation and the Daniel Rudd Fund of the National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC).

We also hold our annual fundraising dinner—The Venerable Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Fund Awards Dinner—every fall and have a number of generous individual donors and benefactors. We’ve had a student run scholar fundraiser for the past two years and contributions can be made year round via PayPal through our website.

CWR: Why is Pierre Toussaint an important model and guide for these young scholars, especially today?

Fr. Kareem Smith: It is common for young people to have an inward focus, almost exclusively on achieving their own ambitions. The temptation to indifference to the sincere needs of others is real. Pierre’s saintly example stands as a direct contradiction. I believe the story of his life can truly inspire the next generation.

In Pierre we see that true freedom is to love as Christ does, to give without counting the cost. The youth of today need an example of someone who pursued the true, the good and the beautiful over material gain. Pierre Toussaint’s life is a reminder that true power grows only when it is given away.

CWR: Why is Pierre Toussaint a saint?

Leah Dixon: Pierre Toussaint is a saint because he worked tirelessly to help others; oftentimes putting his own self and health at risk, and helping others that would not have assisted, acknowledged or even welcomed him because of the color of his skin.

Fr. Kareem Smith: The extraordinary virtues which Venerable Pierre Toussaint embodied in life are reason enough to believe that he should be declared a saint. It would be appreciated as ordinary virtue if Pierre Toussaint simply responded to the needs of those less fortunate than himself; Pierre did not simply provide for the needs of the poor but was moved by his own deep faith despite his own reality, often providing for those who had more rights as a person than he did. In the order of charity, the impoverished are, of course, to take precedence; God calls us all to exercise Christian charity to everyone we encounter.

Venerable Pierre Toussaint understood this in an extraordinary way. While Pierre had to deal with the question of his own personhood, his love of God caused him to love even his persecutor and those who had enslaved him; it is for these reasons that I believe he is a saint.

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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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