The rags-to-respect story of a Haitian-born slave whose emigration to NYC unfolded a lifetime of good works in the name of faith that now prompt proposals to make him the first black American Catholic saint.
Not all Haitian slaves were even baptized, National Catholic Reporter editor Jones reports, since France sent only four priests to minister to tens of thousands in the colony then called Saint Domingue. Fleeing British invaders, a slave revolt, and yellow fever, the Bérard family left their plantation and moved to New York in 1797, bringing with them a contingent of slaves that included the teenaged Pierre Toussaint. Practicing Catholics had been banned from New York until the mid–18th century, and Protestant bias was still rampant, the author reminds us, so Toussaint had a “fourth strike” to overcome in addition to his race, slave status, and inability to speak English. (Jones does not, however, gloss over the fact that Mother Church turned a blind eye to slavery.) Pierre was apprenticed to a hairdresser and in short order became known among some of the city’s best families as an expert coiffeur who was also well mannered and discreet. Income flowed; Toussaint bought his sister’s freedom and helped liberate other blacks, although he remained a slave himself until manumitted by his owner’s widow on her deathbed in 1807. He married, adopted an orphaned niece, and became active in raising funds for New York City’s first orphanage and first cathedral. The Great Fire of 1835 wiped out a small fortune that personal industry and judicious investments had garnered, ending Toussaint’s plan to retire in Paris, Jones surmises. But he remained active in charities and black causes for the rest of his life. Focusing on his subject’s activities, the author gives only peripheral mention to the ongoing process of Toussaint’s canonization.
An engaging picture of a life that was, in itself, a miracle.