Pierre Toussaint: from slavery to sainthood

Born in Haiti, the Venerable Pierre Toussaint is on the way to becoming the first Caribbean saint. James Ferguson tells his story.

Illustration by Darren Cheewah

The search for the Caribbean’s first saint began 70 years ago, in December 1941, in a dark and overgrown New York churchyard. Leading the search was Charles McTague, a merchant seaman turned Catholic seminarian who had established close links with New York City’s Afro-Caribbean community. The object of the search was a long-dead slave turned hairdresser by the name of Pierre Toussaint, whose body was thought to lie in the grounds of Old St Patrick’s Cathedral in Lower Manhattan. The story that brings the young seminarian and the slave together is not only extraordinary but is also as yet unfinished.

Charles McTague’s curiosity about Toussaint was fired by a group of black students he was teaching, who asked him to name a black Catholic who was respected by white society. Further discussions led to Toussaint, whose life was only half remembered and sketchily recorded, but whose reputation as a saintly figure remained alive in New York’s black Catholic circles. Hearing that Toussaint was reportedly buried in the Old Cathedral churchyard, McTague painstakingly looked among the brambles and weathered headstones, but found little trace. Eventually, however, with the help of mirrors placed at angles to accentuate the smallest trace of lettering, he was able to make out five faint letters on a crumbling tombstone: SAINT.

The tomb’s position matched records and was duly confirmed by the church authorities. Pierre Toussaint had been re-found. But more importantly, the search had also helped to unearth the unique life story of the man buried there 88 years earlier.

Pierre Toussaint was born in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue in 1766, in the period of unrest and upheaval that would eventually lead, in 1791, to revolutionary war, foreign intervention, and the birth of independent Haiti. Toussaint, like almost all blacks in the colony, was a slave, owned by the wealthy French Bérard family. But he was no field worker, and instead was employed as a house servant and even educated by the family’s tutor. By the standards of the day, his was an unusually privileged position, and his relationship with his master was equally untypical.

Fearful of the deteriorating situation in Saint-Domingue, M Bérard sent his wife to the safety of New York in 1787, accompanied by the young Toussaint, his sister Rosalie, and a few other loyal slaves. There Toussaint was apprenticed as a hairdresser, while remaining a slave and the property of the Bérards.

But then disaster struck. Jean Bérard, who had returned to Saint-Domingue in 1791 as news reached New York of the violent insurrection there, died suddenly. The family fortune – plantation and slaves – had been swept away; the widowed Marie Bérard was effectively penniless and in exile. She sank into depression, dependent on Toussaint and Rosalie.

Now, paradoxically, the master-slave relationship was fundamentally reversed. For in the four years that Toussaint had worked as a hairdresser, he had developed a formidable reputation among the wealthy ladies of upper-crust New York society. His elaborate coiffures brought in a steady flow of money, and as his name spread he was able to command ever higher fees for his services. Doubtless the novelty of being a black hairdresser helped, but in any case Toussaint was quickly becoming a wealthy man.

With this wealth he bought his sister’s freedom, paying for her manumission papers. Yet oddly, he chose not to pay for his own release from slavery. Perhaps even more oddly, he became the breadwinner for Mme Bérard, paying the bills and running the household while still, in law at least, her slave. When Mme Bérard remarried (another bankrupt Saint-Domingue planter), Toussaint simply took charge of the new husband’s affairs as well.

So it remained until 1807, when Marie Bérard died. On her deathbed she made her second husband promise that he would free Toussaint – which he did. Aged 41, Pierre Toussaint, the celebrated society hairstylist, was finally a free man. For the previous 16 years he had selflessly worked to care for the ailing Mme Bérard, seemingly willing to sacrifice his own liberty to repay the kindness he had been shown as a boy.

Not that his altruism stopped there. He soon married another former slave from Saint-Domingue, Juliette Noel, whose freedom he had bought. Together they opened their home to orphans, offered sanctuary to the poor and destitute, and donated large sums of money to St Patrick’s Cathedral and to institutions working with black women and children in New York. When not making money from his profession, Toussaint was a regular worshipper at St Peter’s Church.  His kindness became proverbial – when his sister died he adopted her sickly daughter Euphemia, until she too died. His biographers report that he was loved and respected by his wealthy clientele as well as by those he helped. As historian Norman Darden pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, like every good hairdresser, he was also a good listener.

In 1853 Pierre Toussaint died, two years after Juliette. A huge crowd, of both rich and poor, attended his funeral, after which he was buried in Old St Patrick’s alongside Juliette and Euphemia.

Full of self-sacrifice and humility, this story appears alien to many today, who see Toussaint as the opposite of his more famous Haitian namesake, as an “Uncle Tom” figure who embraced the cause of his oppressors. The very idea of the “loyal slave” is a controversial one, and Toussaint has not been universally admired. If the leaders of the Haitian Revolution have been admired by modern historians, the other Toussaint has been ignored or disparaged.

Yet the Catholic Church has embraced the figure of Pierre Toussaint, especially since the discovery of his resting place. In 1968 a New York Cardinal introduced the Cause of Toussaint (ie the first step towards sainthood) in Rome. In 1996 Pope John Paul II declared him Venerable (the next step). His body, meanwhile, was transferred from Old St Patrick’s to a crypt in the newer St Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. Then, in 2000, there was a reported miracle: a five-year-old boy from Maryland was cured of a curved spine after his mother prayed to the Venerable Pierre Toussaint. He is now a candidate for beatification, one step before canonisation, or sainthood. Another proven miracle is required to make him a saint.

As for Charles McTague, aka “Father Charlie”, he had a long and active career as a priest and peace activist, dying in 2007. He would doubtless approve of the ex-slave’s trajectory from obscurity towards sainthood.