Monday, November 25, 2013

National Black Catholic History Month: Venerable Pierre Toussaint

The formerly enslaved hairdresser, philanthropist and devoted Catholic Pierre Toussaint could one day soon be named a saint.

Toussaint was born into slavery in Haiti in the 18th century. By the time he was in his early 20s, he'd moved with his owner's family to New York City, where his owner, who had been trying to escape the Haitian Revolution, apprenticed him to a hairdresser.

He picked up the trade quickly and soon was hairdresser to some of the city's elite. He was allowed to keep much of his earnings for himself and became a wealthy man, though still technically enslaved. When his owner died, leaving a destitute widow, Toussaint used his considerable fortune to help support the devastated woman. Although he bought the freedom of his sister and several other enslaved blacks -- including the woman who would become his wife -- Toussaint never actually purchased his own freedom.

When his owner's wife died about 1807, she freed Toussaint in her will. As a free man, he continued to practice his trade and fed many destitute families and cared for orphans, including his niece, Euphemia, whom he and his wife raised as their own child.

He was said to have attended Mass at 6 a.m. daily for decades at St. Peter's Church on Barclay Street (he was not allowed to enter St. Patrick's Old Cathedral because he was black).

He is considered by many to be one of the founders of what would become Catholic Charities.

Toussaint died June 30, 1853. His body was moved to the new St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City in 1990, about the same time that the cause for his canonization was opened. He was declared venerable -- the step before canonization -- in 1996.

Follow my National Black Catholic History Month tag for more information on black Catholic notables.

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