Pierre Toussaint
Born(1766-06-27)27 June 1766
Saint-Marc, Artibonite, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti)
Died30 June 1853(1853-06-30) (aged 87)
New York City, U.S.
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church
Major shrineSt. Patrick's Cathedral
(m. 1811⁠–⁠1851)

Pierre Toussaint (born Pierre; 27 June 1766 – June 30, 1853) was a Haitian-American hairdresser, philanthropist, and former slave brought to New York City by his owners in 1787. Freed in 1807 after the death of his mistress, Pierre took the surname of "Toussaint" in honor of the hero of the Haitian Revolution. In 1996, he was declared "Venerable" by Pope John Paul II.

After his marriage in 1811 to Juliette Noel, Toussaint and his wife opened their home as an orphanage, employment bureau, and a refuge for travelers. He also contributed funds and helped raise money to build Saint Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street. He was considered "one of the leading black New Yorkers of his day."[1] His ghostwritten memoir, Memoir of Pierre Toussaint, was published in 1854.[2]

Toussaint is the first layperson to be buried in the crypt below the main altar of Saint Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, generally reserved for bishops of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.


Early life

Pierre was born into slavery on June 27, 1766, in what is now known as Haiti.[3] He was the son of Ursule, and resided on the Artibonite plantation owned by the Bérard family. The plantation was located on the Artibonite River near Saint-Marc on the colony's west coast.[4] His father's name is not known. He was known to have a sister Rosalie. His maternal grandmother, Zenobe Julien, was also a slave and was later freed by the Bérards for her family service.[4] His maternal great-grandmother, Tonette, had been born in Africa, where she was sold into slavery and brought to Saint-Domingue. He was raised as a Catholic.[5]

Pierre was educated as a child by the Bérard family's tutors and was trained as a house slave. The senior Bérards returned to France, taking Zenobe Julien with them, and their son Jean Bérard took over the plantation. As the tensions rose, which would lead to Haitian slaves and free people of color rising in rebellion, in 1787 Bérard and his second wife left the island for New York City, taking five of their slaves with them,[4] including Pierre and Rosalie.[6]

New York

Upon their arrival in New York, Bérard had Pierre apprenticed to one of New York's leading hairdressers. The master returned to Saint-Domingue to see to his property. After Jean Bérard died in St. Domingue of pleurisy,[4] Pierre, who was becoming increasingly successful as a hairdresser in New York, voluntarily took on the support of Madame Bérard. His master had allowed him to keep much of his earnings from being hired out. (Pierre's kindness to his mistress was noted by one of her friends, Philip Jeremiah Schuyler's second wife Mary Schuyler, whose notes were a source for the 1854 memoir of Toussaint.)[4] Madame Bérard eventually remarried, to Monsieur Nicolas, also from Saint-Domingue. On her deathbed, she made her husband promise to free Pierre from slavery.

As a very popular hairdresser among New York society's upper echelon, Toussaint earned a good living. He saved his money and paid for his sister Rosalie's freedom. They both still lived in what was then the Nicolas house. He was freed at age 45.

Catherine ("Kitty") Church Cruger, two years older than Toussaint, would become one of his key clients and friends. She was the daughter of John Barker Church (who would give the pistols to Hamilton for the duel in Weehawken) and Angelica Schuyler, the muse and confidante of Hamilton and Jefferson.

Due to connections among the French emigrant community in New York, Toussaint met people who knew the Bérards in Paris. He began a correspondence with them that lasted for some decades, particularly with Aurora Bérard, his godmother. The Bérards had lost their fortune in the French Revolution, during which Aurora's father died in prison and her mother soon after. Her other siblings had married in France.[4] Toussaint also corresponded with friends in Haiti; his collected correspondence filled 15 bound volumes, as part of the documentation submitted by the Archdiocese of New York to the Holy See to support canonization.[1]

Marriage and family

On August 5, 1811, Toussaint married Juliette Noel, a slave 20 years younger than he, after purchasing her freedom. For four years, they continued to board at the Nicolas house. They adopted Euphemia, the daughter of his late sister Rosalie who had died of tuberculosis, raising the girl as their own. They provided for her education and music classes. In 1815, Nicolas and his wife moved to the American South.[4] Together, the Toussaints began a career of charity among the poor of New York City, often taking baked goods to the children of the Orphan Asylum and donating money to its operations.


Toussaint attended daily Mass for 66 years at St. Peter's in New York.[1] He owned a house on Franklin Street, where the Toussaints sheltered orphans and fostered numerous boys in succession. Toussaint supported them in getting an education and learning a trade; he sometimes helped them get their first jobs through his connections in the city.[4]

They also organized a credit bureau, an employment agency, and a refuge for priests and needy travelers. Many Haitian refugees went to New York, and because Toussaint spoke both French and English, he frequently helped the new immigrants. He often arranged sales of goods so they could raise money to live on. He was "renowned for crossing barricades to nurse quarantined cholera patients" during an epidemic in New York.[1]

Toussaint also helped raise money to build a new Roman Catholic church in New York, which became Old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street. He was a benefactor of the first New York City Catholic school for Black children at St. Vincent de Paul on Canal Street.[7]

As Toussaint aged, he continued his charity. At his death, his papers included records of his many charitable gifts to Catholic and other institutions; friends and acquaintances lauded his character.[4] He was "one of the leading black New Yorkers of his day," but his story became lost to history.[1]

Later years

Euphemia died before her adoptive parents, of tuberculosis, like her mother.[4] Juliette died on May 14, 1851. Two years later, Pierre Toussaint died on June 30, 1853, at the age of 87. He was buried alongside his wife and Euphemia in the cemetery of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral on Mott Street.


After the formal approval by the Holy See of the cause for Toussaint's canonization, his grave was located and identified in the cemetery where he had been buried. His remains were transferred to the crypt of St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, which serves as the seat of the Archbishop of New York.[8]


Canonization process

  1. In the 1950s, the John Boyle O'Reilly Committee for Interracial Justice, an Irish-American group devoted to social justice for blacks, began researching and publicizing Toussaint's life story.[1]
  2. Because of Toussaint's reputation of great charity, Cardinal Terence Cooke, then Archbishop of New York, authorized the formation of a canonization committee to study further. Based on their findings, in 1991, his successor, Cardinal John O'Connor, strongly supported Toussaint for sainthood and began the official process, according to him the title of Servant of God. O'Connor sent the needed documentation to the Vatican for this process. As part of it, the cardinal had Toussaint's body exhumed and examined. He was reinterred in the main cathedral.[1]
  3. Toussaint was the first layman to be honored by burial in the crypt below the main altar of St Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. The crypt is normally reserved for bishops of the Archdiocese of New York.[1]
  4. In 1996, Toussaint was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II, the second step toward sainthood.[1]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Deborah Sontag, "Canonizing a Slave: Saint or Uncle Tom?", New York Times, 23 February 1992, accessed 18 February 2012
  2. ^ "Memoir of Pierre Toussaint: Born a Slave in St. Domingo". National Museum of African American History and Culture. Retrieved 2021-04-28.
  3. ^ Recent sources give his birth year as 1781; see discussion in Jones, Arthur. Pierre Toussaint: A Biography (Doubleday, 2003; Capparoe Books, 2020).
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Hannah Farnham Sawyer Lee, Memoir of Pierre Toussaint, Born a Slave in St. Domingo, Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Company, 1854; Documents of the American South, University of North Carolina
  5. ^ Couve de Murville, M.N.L., Slave from Haïti: A Saint for New York?, London: Catholic Truth Society
  6. ^ Recent sources state the Bérards and their slaves arrived in New York City in 1797 - see Jones, Arthur. Pierre Toussaint: A Biography (Doubleday, 2003; Capparoe Books, 2020).
  7. ^ "Boniface Hanley, O.F.M." www.ewtn.com. Retrieved 2017-12-24.
  8. ^ "Search Results - Venerable Pierre Toussaint". St. Patrick's Cathedral. Retrieved 2017-12-24.
  9. ^ "Church Ave Renamed in Honor of Haitian Leader Pierre Toussaint". BK Reader. 2021-04-27. Retrieved 2021-04-28.