Wednesday 5 September 2007

Blessed Pierre Toussaint, the voluntary slave who confounded the worldly...

Venerable Pierre Toussaint was a Catholic black slave born in Haiti in 1766. His parents raised him as a Catholic and his master, Jean Berard, taught him to read and write. In 1787 his master moved to New York City to escape the social unrest among the Haitian slaves after the French Revolution. He thought that Pierre should have a profession in New York so he apprenticed him to a hairdresser. Pierre became a very successful hairdresser for the beau monde of New York and made a good living from it, although he remained a slave.

Toussaint was also appreciated for his quiet wit and discretion. These qualities led his clients to confide in him and seek his advice. Pierre heard all of these women’s problems of errant husbands and children, sickness and financial problems. When people tried to pry some gossip from him, he said, “Toussaint dresses hair; he is no news journal”. He frequently quoted the Beatitudes and The Imitation of Christ in the spiritual guidance that he gave to his clients and he encouraged them to pray and patiently trust in God. In turn, they also supported Pierre in his charitable works. For 60 years, he attended daily Mass at six in the morning at the same church where Mother Elizabeth Seton later worshipped. Later he co-operated with her new order and established one of the first orphanages in New York.

Pierre’s master died and a slave rebellion on Haiti destroyed his widow’s support and left her in a deep depression. Pierre then supported the Berard household while still their slave. He refused to let the widow Berard lose her dignity or be burdened with the concerns of running a household so he took over all the household expenses. He bought his sister's freedom but - with heroic virtue - decided to remain a slave himself so that he could care for Madame Berard. Often he put on great parties for Madame, paid for everything yet dressed as a butler and served the guests. He even postponed his own wedding to care for Madame. When his sister criticized him for supporting Madame while still her slave, Pierre answered, "He never felt enslaved but felt compassion for a lonely woman who was considered his owner".

Madame Berard finally gave Pierre his freedom on her deathbed. Pierre “thanked God he was able to keep this woman from knowing want and thanked God for giving her the courage to set him free".

At last, at the age of 41, Pierre was legally free. He bought the freedom of his sister, Rosalie, and her best friend Juliette whom he married. Together, they continued the charitable works that Pierre had begun. They helped refugees find jobs, cared for orphans and opened a school to teach black children a trade. They also provided financial help to the Oblate Sisters of Providence. When a plague struck the city, Pierre personally cared for the victims. When Pierre's sister Rosalie died leaving a young daughter, Pierre and Juliette welcomed her into their home. They had no children of their own but took abandoned boys into their home, educated them and found them employment.

When New York was hit with the plague, Pierre risked his life and nursed the sick and dying without regard to his own safety. His sister Rosalie said, "You think of everyone but yourself. Now that you are free, you are still acting like a white man's slave".

Pierre answered, "I have never felt I am a slave to any man or woman but I am a servant of the Almighty God who made us all. When one of His children is in need, I am glad to be His slave".

O great Toussaint! How you so exactly captured the essence of our God - the God who humbled Himself to become a slave for our sake.

Pierre walked to his hair appointments with his rheumatic knee rather than invite any trouble through the discrimination that was practised on public transport. He kept on working and gave a substantial part of his considerable income to the poor, telling a friend who urged him to retire, "I have enough for myself, but if I stop working I have not enough for others".

Pierre’s wife died in 1851 and two years later he died on June 30, 1853 at age 87. His last words were “God is with me” and then, when asked if he wanted anything, “Nothing on earth". General Schuyler said of him, "I have known Christians who were not gentlemen or gentlemen who were not Christians, but one man I know who is both, and that man is black ”.

At Pierre’s funeral Mass, attended by an overflowing crowd, he was eulogized from the pulpit by the pastor, Father William Quinn, saying "A stranger would not have suspected that a black man of his humble calling lay in the midst of us. Though no relative was left to mourn him, yet many present would feel they had lost one who always had wise counsel for the rich, words of encouragement for the poor, and all would be grateful for having known him. There are few left among the clergy superior in devotion and zeal for the Church and the glory of God, among laymen, none".

Pope John Paul II visited St Patrick’s Cathedral where Pierre is buried in October 1995, and said, "Beneath the high altar of this Cathedral, together with the former Cardinals and archbishops of New York there is buried the Servant of God, Pierre Toussaint, a married man, a one-time slave from Haiti. What is so extraordinary about this man? He radiated a most serene and joyful faith, nourished daily by the Eucharist and visits to the Blessed Sacrament. In the face of constant, painful discrimination he understood, as few have understood, the meaning of the words, 'Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing' ”. Pope John Paul II made Pierre "venerable" on March 22, 1998.

The story of Toussaint confounds the worldly who, seeing that he could have gained his freedom, cannot understand why he would want to serve as a slave to the widow of his master whilst at the same time maintaining her out of his own pocket. To the worldly this is foolishness.

But to God, Himself a servant king, it is holy. Indeed, those who do not understand Toussaint cannot understand God.

Venerable Pierre Toussaint, pray for us!


Ttony said...


Tribunus said...

Thank you and thank dear, saintly Toussaint!

Anonymous said...

Venerable Pierre Toussaint has not yet been beatified. He was made Venerable in 1996. Please continue to pray for his beatification. The world need the holy example of Pierre's humility and generosity! We love Pierre Toussaint!

Here are some sources:

Tribunus said...

Thanks, anonymous. Amendments made.

Unknown said...

I would like to pray for Pierre Toussaint's beatification.
Does anyone have any official prayers for this or for his canonization. Please post them for me or let me know where I can find these prayers.
Thank you.

Sharon Murphy

Tribunus said...

Not sure! Anyone know?