It is fitting that a man who was once denied entrance to a great cathedral because of his race would one day be buried in that same cathedral with the honor befitting his heroic virtue.

Pierre Toussaint was born a slave in the French colony of St. Domingue – present-day Haiti – in 1766. His master, Jean Berard, made the young man a house slave and took the very unusual step of also allowing him to learn to read and write.

When political unrest began to roil St. Domingue in the 1780s, Berard moved his family and some of his slaves, including Pierre, to New York City where they would be able to live more safely. There, he apprenticed Pierre to one of the city’s leading hairdressers in order for him to learn one of the few trades open to blacks at the time.

Toussaint excelled at his work and was soon in demand by some of the wealthiest and most notable women in New York City. His cheerful personality and ability to give wise counsel led them to call him “our St. Pierre.”

When Berard died and the family fell on hard times, Pierre quietly began to support them all on his earnings. He continued to do so until Berard’s widow formally emancipated him just prior to her death in 1807. He later was able to purchase the freedom of both his sister, Rosalie, and another refugee from St. Domingue, Mary Rose Noel. He later married Mary Rose at St. Peter Church on Barclay Street, where he had been a communicant for many years.

Pierre and his wife continued to support other refugees, orphans and victims of a yellow fever epidemic; they also adopted Pierre’s orphaned niece, Eugenie, who tragically died at the age of 14. Despite the difficulties he sometimes faced because of his race and the anti-Catholic sentiment that was prevalent in New York at the time, Pierre continued to practice his faith openly and use his earnings to help others. He made substantial donations to aid in the construction of the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street; ironically, when he attempted to enter the building to celebrate its dedication, one of the ushers denied him admittance because he was black. Luckily, another usher at the door recognized him and quickly escorted him to a place of honor.

Pierre’s wife died in 1851 and he died two years later. Pierre, Mary and Eugenie were all buried in the cemetery of the cathedral where he had once been denied entrance; however, in 1990, Cardinal John O’Connor, who was then the archbishop of New York, had Pierre’s grave exhumed and his remains reinterred in the crypt just below the altar in the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. In this place of honor, where only cardinals and archbishops had been buried, Pierre Toussaint became the first and only lay person to join them.

Because of his heroic sanctity, he was declared venerable in 1996.

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