Venerable Pierre Toussaint
Pierre Toussaint was born into slavery in Haiti on June 27, 1766 on the plantation of Monsieur Jean Berard.
In the mid-1780’s, Jean Berard, a widower, married a young widow, Marie Elisabeth Bossard Roudanes, and decided to move his wife, his sisters and a retinue of servants and himself to New York City to escape the uneasiness in Haiti. In the retinue were Pierre and his younger sister, Rosalie and two other house slaves. Upon arriving in New York, Monsieur Berard had arranged for Pierre to be an apprentice to Mr. Merchant, one of the city’s leading hairdressers. This was one of the few occupations open to Blacks .
Pierre had a genuine talent for the complicated art of coiffure, bringing skills and a unique personality to his work. His quiet wit and gaiety along with being courteous, kind and cheerful attracted many customers. As a Black man in New York City, Pierre could not ride the horse cars to the homes of his wealthy clients, so he walked to and from the homes of his clients to ply his trade. Pierre’s reputation as a hairdresser to the city’s elite grew and came to include Mrs. Peter Cruger, the granddaughter of General Philip Schuyler – the general who had defeated the British in the Revolutionary War and his daughter-in-law, Mrs. Mary Anne Schuyler; Elizabeth Hamilton, the granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton and many other New York notables and elite. Pierre was not only a hairdresser to the rich, but also a counselor to many of the rich who referred to him as “our Saint Pierre”. He was noted for his charity, giving away most of his earnings to the poor of the city.
Pierre attended 6:00 am mass in Saint Peter’s church where he was a pew holder for many years. He was also a benefactor of the Church of Saint Vincent de Paul, New York’s first French Catholic Church, established in 1840 and its school which was New York City’s first Catholic school for Black children. His favorite charity was St. Patrick’s Orphan Asylum where he was reported to have visited often.
Monsieur Berard’s main fortune had remained in Haiti with the plantation. With the growing unrest there, Monsieur Berard felt it wise for him to return to Haiti to protect the plantation, leaving his family in New York City. Monsieur Berard returned to Haiti and died there of pleurisy shortly after he had returned there. The plantation was in ruins from the turmoil occurring in Haiti, leaving his family destitute in New York.
With incredible charity, Pierre decided to discreetly financially support the widowed and impoverished Madame Berard by ensuring that all expenses associated with the household were paid. Although he was able to purchase his freedom, he chose not to for fear that Madame Berard would then not allow him to support her.
Despite the long hours worked, Pierre returned to the home on Read St. every night with a treat for Madame Berard in an attempt to aid in her grieving. To outward appearances, Pierre remained a faithful family servant. Few realized that it was his money that sustained the household. Pierre would attempt to get Madame Berard to socialize in an effort to try to make her escape her grief by promoting little parties at the Read Street home. He would deliver the invitations by hand and then the night of the party, coif Madame Berard, set aside his apron, don a red jacket and white shirt in order to serve as a waiter, usher and musician.
Madame Berard married again to a young refugee French planter and trained musician from Haiti, Gabriel Nicolas, who made a fair living playing in New York’s theatre houses. This lasted for a brief time as religious reformers passed legislation to close many of the theatres, thereby driving Monsieur Nicolas out of work. Quietly, Pierre stood by the family continuing to support and care not only for the family but many others who were in need.
Shortly before her death, Madame Nicolas and her husband formally emancipated Toussaint in a ceremony at the French consulate in New York on July 2, 1807.
After 41 years of slavery, Pierre purchased freedom for his sister, Rosalie and another refugee from Haiti, Mary Rose Juliette Noel whom he married in St. Peter’s Church in 1811. As a couple they continued Pierre’s charitable works of aiding refugees in finding jobs, caring for orphans, providing help to the Oblate Sisters of Providence and aiding victims of the yellow fever epidemic.
In 1851, Pierre’s beloved wife, Juliette died. Having inspired a generation of New Yorkers by his life of service, charity and philanthropy, Pierre died two years later on June 30, 1853 at age 57. He was buried alongside his wife and niece who he adopted, Euphemia, in Old St. Patrick’s Church.
In 1990 , John Cardinal O’Connor, then Archbishop of New York, had Toussaint’s grave exhumed and reinterred in the crypt below the altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Ave.