By Larry Peterson
There have been many great Black Americans who have stood tall to help make America the proud nation it is today. Rev.Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Frederick Douglas, Rosa Parks, Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and the list goes on.
Included, among those are also Black Catholic Americans *(Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is Catholic). The names of these people are not so recognizable as the aforementioned. Such people as Father Augustus Tolton, born a slave he was the first African American to be ordained a priest in the United States.
Others include: Henriette Delille, the founder of The Sisters of the Holy Family; Mother Mathilda Beasley who became known as “The Idol of the Poor”; Daniel Rudd, a black Catholic journalist who founded the National Black Catholic Congress and Elizabeth Mary Lang. Born a slave she became the co-foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
Another person who is part of the legacy that Black Catholic Americans left for all of us is Venerable Pierre Touissant.
Tensions were rising among the slave population in Haiti and the senior Berard returned to France. He left his son, Jean Berard, with the plantation. However, the pressure was building among the slaves over conditions and Jean decided it was time to leave. In 1787, he and his wife took five of his slaves with him including Pierre and his sister, Rosalie, and moved to New York City.
Jean Berard’s decision to leave Haiti proved to be a good one. In 1793, the slaves in Haiti revolted and Monsieur Berard heard that his plantation had been burned to the ground. He was so distraught that he passed away, probably from heart failure. Madame Berard was left without anything or anyone to help her, except, of course, Pierre.
When they arrived in New York several years earlier, Jean Berard had managed to get Pierre into an apprenticeship hairdresser program. The young man turned out to be an artist at hair styling. It was during a time when the wealthy women had their hair stacked high with layers of curls and ribbons flowing down. Hair styling was time consuming and demanding and soon Pierre had more business than he could handle.
Pierre supported Madame Berard and was working almost 16 hours a day. She eventually married a man named Monsieur Nicolas, also from Haiti. She made him promise that if anything happened to her he would make sure that Pierre was given his freedom. She passed away and Pierre was given his freedom. He had earned enough money to pay for the freedom of his fiancee, Juliette, and marry her. He also earned enough money to pay for Rosalie’s freedom. By this time Pierre was almost 45.
Pierre constantly spoke of the love of God and the beauty of the Catholic faith. He loved being Catholic and had no qualms about talking about it with his many customers. It did not matter to him that most were not Catholic and, for the most part, did not even like Catholics. He just wanted others to experience the joy he had in knowing his Catholic faith helped fill him with God’s love and they could have the same by embracing that same faith..
Pierre Toussaint was dedicated to the theological virtue of Charity (aka) Love. He cared for the sick and even brought them into his home nursing them back to health. He visited areas infected with disease and plague bringing food and clothing to the suffering. He even went to those who had been abandoned by their own families. He helped Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton (who had an orphanage in the city) by raising money from his rich customers and giving the future saint his own money.
This was a Black Catholic man living during a time when being Catholic was even dangerous for white folks. He attended daily Mass every day for 66 years. He sheltered orphans, provided foster care for children, helped them get into school and even helped some of them get their first jobs. During a cholera epidemic he crossed over the quarantine lines to help the sick without regard for his own well being.
Pierre Toussaint’s crowning achievement may have been his helping the Catholic Church raise the funds to build the first St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry St. He also provided and raised funding for the First Catholic School for Black children at St. Vincent de Paul in lower Manhattan.
Pierre Toussaint died on June 30, 1857. He was 87 years old. In 1991, based on documents and investigations into his life, Pierre was declared a Servant of God. In 1996 he was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II reaching the second step on the journey to canonization. In addition, he was the first layman honored by having his remains moved to the present St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan.
Venerable Pierre Toussaint we thank you for your Love and ask for your continued prayers.
*This article first appeared in Aleteia on February 10, 2017
©Copyright Larry Peterson 2017 (©reprinted and updated Larry Peterson 2020)