While watching the recent BBC adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women, I was struck by one of the minor characters. A telegram informs the March family that Mr. March, away from home serving as a military chaplain during the Civil War, is severely ill. His daughter Jo is desperate to help raise the funds for her mother to travel to be with him. She enters a hairdressing establishment hoping to sell her abundant hair—“her one beauty”—for a wig. The proprietor, a black gentleman, greets her in French. After some persuasion, the hairdresser buys Jo’s hair—even though it is a “sadly unfashionable color”—for the generous amount of $25.
Venerable Pierre Toussaint
This gentleman immediately recalled to my mind Pierre Toussaint, who died 165 years ago today, on June 30, 1853. Born in modern-day Haiti and brought to New York City as a slave, Pierre died a free man, a renowned hairdresser, and one of New York City’s most respected Catholics.
In 1996, Pope John Paul II bestowed the title of Venerable on Pierre Toussaint, advancing him in the canonization process. The title Venerable means the person lived a heroically virtuous life, and pursued holiness while here on earth. If two miracles are attributed to his intercession, Pierre may one day become the first Haitian-born saint.
“I no longer call you slave; I have called you friend”
Pierre worked as a house slave in the household of plantation owner Jean Bérard, a devout Catholic. He had Pierre taught to read and write by the family’s tutors, which was very unusual for the time. Fleeing political unrest on their island, the Bérards brought Pierre (then in his early 20s) and his younger sister Rosalie with them to New York City.
Apprenticed to a local hairdresser, Pierre learned the trade quickly and worked very successfully in the homes of rich women. At that time, wealthy women would spend $1,000 a year on their coiffures. Toussaint was able to earn a significant income. But what he did with his money is more extraordinary.
“Love one another”
Pierre Toussaint became one of the leading black Catholic New Yorkers of his day:
- When his master died, Pierre supported himself, his master’s widow, and the other house slaves through his work as a hairdresser. The widow freed Pierre shortly before her death in 1807, when he was 41.
- Afterwards, Pierre bought his future wife’s freedom and helped many other slaves to buy theirs. He and his wife opened their home to orphans and educated them. The couple also nursed abandoned people who were suffering from yellow fever.
- Pierre donated to various charities, generously assisting blacks and whites in need. People urged him to retire and enjoy the wealth he had accumulated. Pierre responded, “I have enough for myself, but if I stop working I have not enough for others.”
In addition to helping others with the money he made, he helped finance the construction of the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street. According to one story, on the day it was dedicated, Pierre went to the cathedral for the celebration. Because he was black, an usher would not allow him to enter. Pierre, who had paid for so much of the cathedral’s building, apologized and turned to leave. But another usher recognized him and immediately brought him to a seat of honor.
“Go and bear fruit that will remain”
Pierre Toussaint lived in an era when people not only held freed slaves in disdain, but anti-Catholicism was also severe in New York. It did not stop Pierre from professing his Catholic faith. He attended Mass every day for more than 60 years and had a strong devotion to the Rosary. He could explain the church’s teachings simply and well, and lead others to grasp and hold on to the truth.
Upon Pierre’s death in 1853, New York City mourned him, and the papers eulogized him. Revolutionary leader General Philip Schuyler said of him, “I have known Christians who were not gentlemen or gentlemen who were not Christians—but one man I know who is both—and that man is Black.”
Pierre was originally buried outside Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where he was once refused entrance because of his race. For his sanctity and the popular devotion to him, Cardinal O’Connor caused his body to be moved to its present location in 1989. His resting place is in the crypt inside the current St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, where only cardinals and archbishops are buried. Pierre Toussaint is the only layperson to be so honored.
“Remain in my love”
Former slave, society hairdresser, philanthropist, and potential future saint—Pierre Toussaint was interiorly free long before he was legally free. Refusing to become bitter, he daily chose to cooperate with God’s grace, and transform himself into a compelling sign of God’s abundantly generous love.
In the original novel, Little Women never indicates the race of the hairdresser who buys Jo’s hair. The BBC adaptation takes artistic license in portraying him as a black gentleman. While it may not have been intentionally based on Pierre Toussaint, it is nevertheless a reminder of this generous man.
During a recent stay in New York City, I visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral as usual. But on this occasion, I made it a special point to pray at Venerable Pierre Toussaint’s tomb. Let us pray for miracles wrought by his intercession as a sign of God’s will for Pierre’s canonization as a saint.
© 2018 Maria Vickroy-Peralta. Image: Maria Vickroy-Peralta.