He Walked with God in New York Cityby Bishop Norbert Dorsey, C.P. D.D.
To the casual observer, there wasn’t anything particularly notable about him. He was a middle-aged black man simply but neatly dressed. He usually carried a bundle. You couldn’t tell, but inside the bundle was the equipment he needed as a hairdresser for wealthy ladies. But there was more. He also carried food and clothing for the poor. Pierre Toussaint was his name. The rest of his small family included his wife, Juliette, and their young adopted daughter.
At the time of Pierre’s birth, probably around 1778, Haiti was a colony of France. He was born on an estate that belonged to the Jean-Jacques Berard family. Their property was located on the west central coast of the colony, near the city of Saint Marc and the L’Artibonite River.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Haiti contained an estimated 800 sugar plantations and 2000 coffee plantations. African slaves did the brutal farm work in the tropical heat day after day, while the owners sent their earnings to their families back in France.
Some slaves, however, were selected and educated at an early age as servants in the large Berard family mansion. For example, Pierre Toussaint’s grandmother, Zenobe Toussaint, had been the nurse-maid and teacher to the Berard children. Five times, she had made the transatlantic journey bringing the children to school in France. This evident familial trust in Zenobe extended beyond the intimate circle of the Berard children. Later, she became the manager of the house and eventually the whole plantation. Her grandson Pierre benefited from this. He was taught to read and write, to serve at table, and even to play the violin. In time, Pierre also would become a trusted aid to the members of the family.
The revolution in France in 1789, followed by a slave revolt in Haiti, drastically changed life at the Berard homestead. By 1797, Jean-Jacques Berard fled to New York City to provide safety for his young wife, Marie Elizabeth, her two sisters and five servants. Thus, Pierre was abruptly transported away from the only home he had known, as difficult as it had been.
The fashionable customs of New York society at that time brought a great timely benefit to the expatriate Berard family. Pierre was apprenticed out to learn the lucrative hair dressing trade for wealthy women. His steady work contributed significantly to the financial stability of the Berard household.
Then disaster struck. Now in his middle age, Monsieur Berard decided to return to Haiti in order to assess the situation and plan for the future. Unfortunately, Jean-Jacques became ill with pleurisy and tuberculosis, which led to a premature death. On top of this, the New York firm in which the family money was invested went bankrupt. Overnight, Madame Marie Elizabeth Berard became penniless.
Now Pierre was the sole confidant and total financial support of this gentle, sickly woman. Through his gracious personality and ability to adapt his talents to the now flamboyant hair styles of the day, he managed to keep the struggling Berard household together. In gratitude, Marie Elizabeth gave Pierre freedom as a citizen by an official act executed at the French Consulate in New York City on July 2, 1807. Shortly afterward, having received the last sacraments, she died at the young age of thirty-two.
By this time, not only was Pierre respected as a talented coiffeur, but even more as a wise and discrete counselor to many of his clients, neighbors, and especially other exiles from Haiti. He married Juliette Gaston, who also had been a slave in Haiti before coming to New York. Unable to have children themselves, they adopted Juliette’s niece, Euphemia. Although Pierre had initially become well known for his trustworthy character and personality, he used this opportunity to share his Catholic faith and its teachings eagerly with his neighbors and acquaintances.
Pierre attended 6:00 AM Mass each morning for over sixty years at St. Peter’s Church on the southern end of Manhattan Island, near the present-day Battery Park terminal of the Staten Island Ferry. Some might find it hard to believe but, at that time, the parish of St. Peter actually belonged to the diocese of Baltimore, Maryland. The city of New York itself was not made a separate diocese until 1808.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was actually a co-parishioner with Pierre. However, on Sunday morning, she and her children would have found seats in the front and main body of the church. Pierre and the other black Catholics had pews in the back rows. This striking discord of Christian life not so long ago remains for us today a sad testimony to the times in which both these saintly people worshiped in the same church building.
Today, Elizabeth Ann Seton and Pierre Toussaint still share something in common besides the holiness which graced their care for the poor in that tumultuous era of immigration. The body of Pierre lies in a crypt under the main altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Not far away, in one of the side chapels of the nave, stands a beautiful statue of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton sheltering some children.
As Pierre Toussaint walked with God in the streets of New York City, may each of us walk with God in our daily lives, cities, parishes and homes.