The Venerable Pierre Toussaint: an ebony slave and gentleman

  Born on the Haitian plantation of Jean Berard June 27, 1766, Pierre Toussaint, a slave, was early taught to read and write by his grand-mother, herself a slave. Monsieur Berard, noticing how intelligent the youngster was, encouraged Pierre to study, and opened his fine library to him.

   By Berard’s orders the boy’s duties were re-stricted to the Great House, where he would not encounter the hardship of a slave in the fields. Equally ready to entertain by singing and dancing, or to take on any household chore, lively little Pierre was soon a general favorite. He was treated by the Berards almost as one of the family.Pierre Toussaint pic.jpg

   Pleasant though his own situation remained, for Jean Berard was considerate of his slaves, by the time Pierre reached his teens he was well aware of how slaves were sometimes treated on other plantations by sadistic owners and over-seers. Misconduct there could merit rigorous punishment.

   Some nights, in the safety of the mansion, Pierre would waken to the eerie beat of native drums in the forests of nearby plantations. He would shudder at the thought of the bloodbath that to him seemed inevitable.

   Jean Berard, too, feared that a slave insurrec-tion might be brewing, and decided to go abroad for a while. Not foreseeing the extent of the havoc that was to desolate Haiti, he left his considerable fortune in the hands of his banker and turned his plantation and Great House over to trusted overseers.

   Then, with a small company of relatives and retainers, he set out for New York City in 1787, to join a group of aristocratic French refugees there. At his side was his recent bride, Marie, the beautiful sensitive Frenchwoman whom he idolized. Slaves brought along to serve in the new home included Pierre Toussaint, then a tall, fine-looking youth of twenty-one, and his sister Rosalie in her early teens.

   The New York apartment was small in com-parison with the spacious mansion in Haiti, and Pierre found that he had little to do. His mis-tress, unwilling to have him waste his talents, suggested to her husband that they apprentice Pierre to a professional hairdresser she had just employed. He readily agreed that their favorite should have an opportunity to learn that trade. He could not have guessed how providential the arrangement would prove.

   The exiles’ first days in the States were delightful. Soon, however, travelers from the Caribbean brought news of trouble in Haiti, and somber shadows fell over the lively parties that had made the New York French Quarter seem so much like home. Anxious about his property, Jean Berard returned to Haiti in 1791. He found the entire island given over to unspeakable horrors. Nothing remained of his estates or his fortune.

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   Madame Berard, meanwhile, was sick with worry about her husband. At last a ship’s cap-tain brought word that Jean had died in Haiti. The young widow, left with little funds in a strange land, fell into deep depression. Pierre and his sister devoted themselves to her but it was soon obvious that, for the time being at least, she could not cope with her new responsibilities.

   To Pierre, his future seemed suddenly marked out for him: charity demanded that he care for the mistress who had been so kind to him and whose need was now so great. Fortu-nately, hairdressing was already proving a lu-crative profession. Pierre had real talent for designing the elaborate coiffures then in style. He easily secured the patronage of the city’s wealthiest ladies, many of whom spent as much as a thousand dollars a year on their tresses.

   Before very long Pierre had sufficient funds to purchase his own freedom and Rosalie’s, He bought his sister’s manumission papers, but opted to remain a slave himself, understanding that Madame Berard would be more comfort-able accepting his services that way. He did not know how much that decision, made in his mid-twenties, was to cost him.

   He explained to Madame, with the delicacy so characteristic of him, that if she would per-mit, he would be responsible for the household and expenses. Helpless, she agreed, leaving everything in his hands.

   Pierre and Rosalie watched sadly as Madam Berard’s depression deepened, trying to com-bat it with respectful little attentions. Once the formal mourning period was over, Pierre arranged parties for his mistress, remembering how she had loved gaiety in Haiti.

   For a time, Madame seemed to respond. She even married again, a Monsieur Gabriel Nicolas who, like the Berards, had lost his fortune in Haiti. Gabriel soon became another dependent for Pierre to support, but Madame seemed a bit happier, so Pierre did not complain.

   In 1807, his mistress’s health took a final turn for the worse. On her deathbed, no longer able to speak, Madame wrote out directives that Pierre be freed. Holding his hands in hers, she tried over and over to thank him. Gently, he reassured her, and she died peacefully, fortified by the last sacraments.

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   Pierre, a free man at last, was forty-one. He had quietly sacrificed the most precious years of his life in what he saw as his Christian duty. In that interval, he had not only managed the Berard-Nicolas estate, and run his own flour-ishing hairdressing business, he had become an amazing one-man Saint Vincent de Paul Society.

   While still a slave, he could have been one of the city’s wealthiest men – had he not given away everything he earned to the poor and to institutions that cared for them. More remark-able than his many charities, however, was the influence he had on people. Many of New York’s “first families” vied with each other in claiming the dignified, gentle black man as their counselor, one in whom they could safely con-fide and whose advice they gladly followed. Many called him “Our Saint Pierre”. This relationship was unprecedented in post-Revolutionary America, when racial and religious prejudices ran high.

   Mrs. Hannah Lee, Pierre’s first biographer and his friend and client for decades, stated: “Toussaint, for his deportment, discretion, common sense, and entire trustworthiness and fidelity, might have discharged creditably all the functions of a Courtier or Privy Counci-lor”. Yet Pierre had received no formal schooling.

   He did attend the early Mass each day at Saint Peter’s on Barclay Street, New York. The old church was, perhaps, the “university” where the Berard slave, gifted even as a child, learned the gentleness and fortitude, the generosity and prudence that made him the man he was.

   After settling the Berard-Nicolas estate, Pie-rre married Juliette Noel, a Haitian girl he had known for years. She proved a perfect help-mate: happy, fun loving, kindness itself. She was as interested in Pierre’s charities as he was. Together they made a home for orphaned Negro children in the big house Pierre pur-chased, setting up a school for them and arrang-ing for them to be taught a trade. They secured freedom papers for dozens of slaves, procured employment for impoverished French widows, and made secret gifts to aristocratic refugees who would be too proud to accept charity. Of his Juliette, Pierre said, “1 would not change her for all the ladies in the world! She is beautiful in my eyes”.

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   When Pierre’s sister, Rosalie, died of tuber-culosis, the Toussaints, childless themselves, adopted Rosalie’s sickly infant Euphemia. They heaped their love and care on Euphemia, who blossomed into a charming little girl, the joy of their home. She was enrolled in the school for Negro children that Pierre had set up. He himself instructed her in music and French. For her “homework” she was required to write to her uncle regularly in French and English.

   Among Toussaint’s papers, preserved in New York’s public library, are four hundred of the delightful letters in which the youngster described things she had seen and done. The collection gives New Yorkers their only child’s-eye view of life in the big city in the early 1800s.

   When Euphemia died of tuberculosis at 14, Pierre and Juliette were heartbroken. Time eventually healed the hurt, but they long treasured memories of the adopted daughter they had loved so much.

   Juliette died in 1851. Pierre, too feeble to make the daily trip to Mass, lived for two more lonely years, dying at eighty-seven. Mourning New Yorkers, white and black, rich and poor, crowded St. Peter’s for his funeral. Philip Schuyler, descendant of Alexander Hamilton and of General Schuyler of Revolutionary War fame, spoke for scores of Pierre’s influential friends when he said, “I have known Christians who were not gentlemen, and gentlemen who were not Christians, but one man I know who was both – and that man was black”.

   The pastor of St. Peter’s, who delivered the eulogy, did not refer either to Pierre’s race or his station in life. He dwelt instead on his remarkable qualities of mind and heart and on his incredible charity. “We can all be grateful for having known him” he concluded. What a fitting tribute for a man whom one admirer has called “God’s reflection in ebony”.

   In 1968 Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York introduced the Cause of Pierre Toussaint in Rome. Thousands are praying that this saintly Negro of old New York will soon be Canonized.

   On December 18, 1996 Pope John Paul II declared Pierre Toussaint VENERABLE

(From article by Sr. Marie Emmanuel in IMMACUIATA magazine published by Franciscan Friars, Libertyville, Illinois 60048)

From Toussaint Academy

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