|Boniface Hanley, O.F.M.
|It was a
cool autumn evening in New York. The sun had set an hour earlier. A shower of
bright, gentle light cascaded from a harvest moon that hung, a luminous white
disc, in the blue-black skies that arched overhead. The lamplighter, moving
steadily on his rounds, touched his wand to the gas lamps that now added a soft,
subtle glow to the city streets.
Only the "clop-clop" of horses' footfalls, the creaking of carriages on the unpaved avenues and the greetings that neighbors called to one another broke the quiet of the evening.
Along a narrow street called Reade, a tall, lithe man, clad in a greatcoat and a three-cornered hat, walked rapidly through the night. Entering a three-story home on the street, he mounted the stairs and halted at the second floor. He tapped gently on the door.
"Madame," he asked in French, "may I come in?"
"Yes," the voice from inside responded. It was a tired voice.
Entering and throwing off his coat, the man sat for a moment in a chair. Then he bent over and lighted the small oil lamp on a table near a chair in which Madame was resting. The glow of the lamp illumined her face and figure. She was in her middle 30s. Her features, delicate and refined, hinted accurately at her aristocratic origins. Her eyes, lifeless, apprehensive, mirrored the tragedy that haunted her. Life had struck this formerly gay young lady one cruel blow after another. Twice widowed at 30, she had experienced exile, financial ruin and mental shock. Now her physical health was failing. There are people who grow strong under suffering. Madame Marie Elisabeth Nicolas was not one of these.
The tall gentleman offered the lady a package.
"Please, Madame, try one of these bonbons. They are good, and you will enjoy them." His voice was musical, gentle. The amber glow from the oil lamp washed over his face. It was a face full of kindness. His dark eyes and fine mouth manifested force of character. He was a black man, a hairdresser by trade, and his name was Pierre Toussaint. Pierre's story begins in Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) in 1766, a decade before the American Revolution. In those days Haiti, France's wealthiest Caribbean colony, produced sugar, coffee, indigo, tobacco and fruit in such profusion and abundance that two-thirds of all French commerce was conducted with the island. Any enterprising Frenchman who invested heavily in a Haitian plantation could earn a huge fortune in as few as three years.
French plantation owners, relatively few in number, formed the top of a pyramid of wealth that rested on the bent backs of thousands of African slaves. Seven hundred thousand blacks toiling under a merciless Caribbean sun provided wealth beyond imagination for their French masters. Owners kept the slaves under control by merciless discipline. Rebellious or even disorderly slaves were brutalized. Beaten to death in the fields, burned at the stake, crucified, drowned, mutilated, slashed and scourged, blacks were kept in terror of their owners. The whip crack, it was said, was Haiti's characteristic sound.
Although the French king had established policies to safeguard basic justice for blacks, in practice colonial administrators combined with the wealthy French planters to oppress the slaves. French planters who treated slaves with even minimal Christian respect were considered by their peers to be threats to the security of the island.
There were a few planters, nevertheless, who refused to bow under the pressure of their fellow plantation owners. One was a certain Monsieur Jean Berard, owner of a large plantation in northern Haiti. Berard treated his slaves with genuine respect. One of them, a young black named Pierre Toussaint, he encouraged to read and write and to explore the treasures of the extensive Berard library.
French planters, gorged with wealth, were unable or unwilling to sense the winds of deadly fury gathering about Haiti. At night, voodoo drums beat their deadly rhythms. Slaves slipped from plantations into the island's dark glens and hidden grottoes to join in the secret rituals.
Participating in animal sacrifice and drinking a potent brew of animal blood mixed with rum and gunpowder, the worshipers chanted this prayer:
The God who created the sun, which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us.
He beholds the misdeeds of the whites.
The white man's god inspires him with crime; our God calls upon us to do good works.
But, though our God is merciful, he wishes us to be avenged.
He will direct our arms and aid us.
Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites, that god who gloats over our suffering, and listen to the voice of liberty, which finds an echo in our hearts.
As they-prayed, the devotees danced and whipped themselves into a religious frenzy. With exhaustion came peace. With waiting came new resolves to destroy their tormentors. If Pierre Toussaint as a youth knew of these secret rites, and most likely he did, we have no record of his joining in them. His grandmother and mother were devout Catholics, as was his master, Monsieur Berard. Pierre, intelligent and cheerful, was deeply rooted in the Catholic faith. He grew tall, slim, and graceful in mind and manner. Berard assigned him to work in the plantation's great house. Thus, Toussaint was spared the harsher life of the field hand and the bitterness it engendered.
In the mid-1780's, Jean Berard, himself a widower, married a young widow, Marie Elisabeth Bossard Roudanes, an aristocratic daughter of a wealthy French planter. Jean had a premonition that the hurricane of black retaliation, so long forming, was about to burst over Haiti. He decided to move his new wife, his two sisters, a retinue of servants and himself to New York City to wait out the storm. In the Berard party were Pierre and Pierre's sister, Rosalie. By the late 1780's, New York was the capital of the new American nation. The city hosted George Washington's inauguration as first President of the United States. The father of our country lived at No. 3 Cherry Street. Most of New York's 30,000 citizens dwelt near the waterfront. Some adventurous families lived on the northern rim of the city in a suburb called Greenwich Village. The Jays, the Washingtons, and other New York first families carried on an active social life.
Americans, still basking in the glow of their victory over the British and their newly won independence, were full of confidence in their future. Yankee gratitude flowed readily to the French, who had dramatically and effectively assisted Washington in his decisive defeat of General Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781. New Yorkers welcomed and respected the members of the small French colony who had settled among them. It was this group of Frenchmen that Monsieur Berard and his family joined.
Before leaving Haiti, Berard had arranged to rent a home on New York's Reade Street. Soon after settling in the house, his master enlisted Pierre as an apprentice to a Mr. Merchant, one of the city's leading hairdressers. The young slave, intelligent and deft, made rapid progress under Merchant's careful training. Pierre had genuine talent for the complicated art of coiffure. The day's hair styles were most elaborate; hairdressers' fees were substantial. It was not unusual for a lady of fashion to spend $1,000 yearly on the care and dressing of her hair. It was no small amount when we remember that a man who had an income of $10,000 a year was considered wealthy.
Pierre brought both skill and a unique personality to his work. Courteous, kind, and cheerful, Pierre attracted people. His quiet wit and gaiety lifted the spirits of those about him. It was not long before he had many customers.
Members of the Berard household took it for granted that, as soon as the troubles in Haiti were over, the family would return. Jean Berard brought only enough funds to maintain his family comfortably for a year in New York.
News from Haiti, however, was scarce in coming. What little did leak through was all bad. Premonitions of serious trouble grew among New York's Frenchmen, many of whom had family and financial interests in Haiti. Rumors and uncertainty grew too much for Jean Berard. He decided to return to Haiti to look to his plantation.
Haiti's bloody ferment was coming to a boil as Monsieur Berard returned. The terror, fear and mutual hatred that infected all levels of the island's society exploded in an orgy of vicious crime and reprisal. Blacks had discovered a new weapon which they wielded with ease. Haiti's great sugar fields were often devastated by invasions of the dreaded sugar ant. To protect their sugar crops, French planters used arsenic as a poison. Negro slaves soon learned to use the arsenic to destroy their owners' crops, cattle, wives, children and, of course, their cruel masters as well.
Runaway slaves hid in the countryside and formed ravaging bands which attacked the unwary; they burned, pillaged and raped. Violence on the part of blacks and whites escalated to barbarian intensity.
Jean Berard wrote to his anxious family in New York: "As for our property, I fear we will be unable to control its destiny. We must wait to see what will be spared from destruction."
Streams of Frenchmen poured into New York from Haiti. In the city they joined other French aristocrats and royalty fleeing from their native land, which had been racked by the terror of the French Revolution.
A letter from Monsieur Du Petit-Thouars, a nobleman refugee in America, echoes the terror with which these people lived. Petit-Thouars writes to his sister:
Great God, with what horror I learned the list of those guillotined. My sisters, my poor sisters! What with yearning in my impatience, I have become almost stupid. I smoke mechanically. I chatter sillily.
O my sister, you are not here to console me, and it is more than a year since you and our other sisters should have known me to be here. I have not received a word from you.
After Jean's worrisome letter arrived, the Berard household awaited his return to New York. Whenever Pierre heard of a ship arriving from Haiti, he would hasten to dockside to make inquiries concerning Monsieur Berard. As each transport arrived bearing Haitian refugees, the political news worsened. One day a ship's captain gave Pierre a letter for Madame Berard. Toussaint rushed home with the note and Madame read it. It was a terse announcement that Jean Berard had died of pleurisy on the plantation.
One night in August, 1797, shortly after Berard's death, when the island was lashed by a tropical storm, bands of slaves swept across its northern portion, burning, looting, and murdering. Hardly a white man, woman or child escaped the awful vengeance. Haiti erupted into a holocaust.
Within two months, well over 1,000 plantations ceased to exist. Clouds of smoke, from which fiery tongues were leaping, hung over the mountains, giving them the appearance of erupting volcanoes.
"The most striking feature of the terrible spectacle," writes an eyewitness named Carteau, "was a rain of fire composed of burning cane straw, which whirled thickly before the blast, like flakes of snow and which the wind carried, now toward the harbor and shipping, now over the houses of the city."
During this time the Berard plantation was wiped out. Although French arms ultimately put down this rebellion, the white man's day in Haiti was over.
Madame Berard had not yet recovered from the announcement of her husband's death when news arrived of the Berard plantation's destruction. To add to the poor woman's woes, Monsieur Berard's substantial investments in a New York City business were wiped out when the firm collapsed. Madame Berard and her little household were now without resources. Creditors pressed. One day Madame requested Pierre to sell some of her jewelry to pay a long-overdue $40 debt. A few days later the hairdresser returned the jewels.
"Madame, please take these."
"I thought you were to sell those," Marie said.
"It was not necessary, Madame. I had some money left over from my work. Also, I did not spend the generous New Year's present you gave me."
As delicately as possible, Pierre pressed the jewelry on Marie. "My work is going very well," Pierre explained, "and I would like to arrange to provide a certain sum each week for household expenses until these financial difficulties pass."
French exiles in New York felt it was only a matter of time until French armies and fleets would restore order to Haiti. Madame Berard, nourished by the illusion that her West Indian properties would soon be settled, accepted Pierre's assistance. She planned to repay Toussaint as soon as possible. Like most of her compatriots, Marie Berard badly underestimated black leadership in Haiti. Toussaint L'Ouverture (no relative of Pierre Toussaint), a man of genius and discipline, channeled the volcanic power of the black revolution and welded a superb military force. He secured domination of the island and laid the groundwork for history's first successful slave revolution. After the United States' rebellion against Britain, Haiti's blacks accomplished the Western hemisphere's second successful revolution against a mother country.
L'Ouverture, an intensely practical man, realized that Haiti would need the French planters' expertise if it was to maintain a sound economy. Thus, he invited some planters to return and reclaim their estates. Jean Berard's sisters returned to Haiti to take advantage of L'Ouverture's invitation. Marie Bouquement, a black servant who was Pierre's aunt, returned with the two sisters.
The two women made a fatal mistake. The revolution had utterly destroyed their aristocratic world. Haiti, their beautiful island, lay ravaged, wounded and blasted by the bloodletting, burning, and fighting.
Bryan Edwards, who arrived in northern Haiti in September, 1791, writes:
We arrived in the harbor of LeCap.... The first sight which arrested our attention as we approached was a dreadful scene of devastation by fire. The noble plain adjoining LeCap was covered with ashes, and the surrounding hills, as far as the eye could reach, everywhere presented to us ruins still smoking and houses and plantations at that moment in flames.
The Berard sisters gave Marie Bouquement her freedom and, shortly after, both sisters died. Marie returned to New York City.
Pierre continued his quiet, tactful support of the Berard household in New York. Sensitive to Madame's need to maintain appearances, he chose to continue as her slave when he had every right to be free. His income was quite substantial; his appointment list grew, and soon he was on call to the wealthiest residents of the city. Among his clients Pierre numbered Mrs. Peter Cruger, granddaughter of General Philip Schuyler, who had defeated the British in the Revolution at Saratoga; Eliza Hamilton, the granddaughter of the ill-fated Alexander; Mrs. Mary Anne Schuyler, the daughter-in-law of General Schuyler; the La Farges, the Livingstons, the Hosacks, and the Binsses. A man of discipline, the hairdresser kept careful accounts of income and expenses. He left no bills unpaid, spent not one penny on himself until all necessities and little luxuries for the Berard household were obtained.
He enjoyed writing letters. The New York Public Library houses five file boxes of Pierre's letters, documents and announcements. The Schuylers had kept them as a family treasure for almost a century. The letters reveal what tradition has maintained—that Toussaint lived for others.
Madame Berard was his first concern, and never in any way did he take advantage of her cruel situation. To outward appearances, Pierre remained a faithful family retainer. Few realized that it was his money that sustained the household.
From his earliest years, Toussaint was a devout man. He began each day by attending six o'clock Mass at St. Peter's Church on Barclay Street. Built in 1785 by a group of 23 Catholics, St. Peter's was New York's first Catholic church. Mass and other prayers finished, Pierre would stop in the city markets. He would always find some little treat for Madame Berard. With this completed, he would return to the Reade Street house for breakfast and begin the day's round of work. Carrying a little bag containing his hairdresser's implements, Pierre made his way on foot from client to client. As a black, he was not allowed to ride the horsecars, but Pierre harbored no resentment. He enjoyed walking, and his lithe, graceful frame and pleasant face cut a joyous figure on the city streets.
An anonymous lady has left us a word picture of Pierre, the hair stylist. She described Toussaint entering the house of a lady of fashion.
Alice is seated before her glass; a fashionable hairdresser had been sent for, and the illustrious Toussaint, with his good-tempered face, small earrings and white teeth, entered the room, his tall figure arrayed in a spotless apron.
The curling tongs were heated and there was the perfume of scorched paper as Toussaint commenced operations. Oh, those cruel scissors, they had no mercy upon the beautiful hair. Toussaint's sable face was a most refreshing sight as he went about his work. Soon the elaborate coiffure was completed and Toussaint enchanted with his work....
Toussaint was on his feet 16 hours each day, either working or walking. When he returned he would visit Madame Berard and bring her some little treat, a sweet or confection. Melancholy was gradually enshrouding the once gay Marie. Drawing the curtains of grief about her mind and heart, she was sealing herself off from any pleasurable contact with the outside world.
Pierre tried to cheer her up and some of his happiest moments came when he could set her hair and dress it in the very latest fashion. He overlooked nothing in his fight to drive back the waves of despondency that flowed about poor Madame Berard. He would bring her flowers, encourage her to visit friends, and promote little parties at the Reade Street home. Pierre himself, after his long day's work, would deliver party invitations by hand. The night of the party, Toussaint would set aside his hairdresser's apron, don a red jacket and spotless shirt, and serve as waiter, usher and musician. New York's French exiles finally heard good news. A French expeditionary force, supported by Spanish, Dutch, and British elements, had sailed for Haiti. Napoleon had assembled the largest invasion fleet and army that history had ever known and put it under the command of his brilliant young general, Charles Leclerc. War plans called for 20,000 French troops to make the first landing against Toussaint L'Ouverture's ragged black army. Immediately following the initial landings, 20,000 more French troops were to enter combat.
L'Ouverture's black soldiers fought valiantly and quite effectively against this large French force. Both sides sustained enormous casualties. Eventually Toussaint L'Ouverture was betrayed by his own and was delivered into Napoleon's hands. The French then made the fatal mistake of restoring slavery to Haiti. Fighting broke out afresh, but now a new ally joined the blacks. It was yellow fever. The disease struck and struck again. More than 30,000 French soldiers and sailors died. The blacks kept up the military pressure. Eventually the French could fight no longer. Napoleon's armed forces suffered the first defeat they had ever experienced. The brilliant Leclerc, just 30 years of age, died on Haitian soil, cursing his fate. Fewer than 200 of the original French invaders survived.
The defeat plunged New York's French refugees into new depths of gloom. There was now no hope.
A year after the French debacle in the Caribbean, Monsieur Gabriel Nicolas, a refugee French planter, sought and won Marie Berard's hand. Nicolas, a trained musician, made a fair living playing in New York's theaters. Theatergoing had become more popular and New York boasted a number of new playhouses.
For a time, the new marriage lifted Marie from her despondency. But inevitably the old melancholy returned, and she began to lose interest in daily life more and more. Once again, bad luck dogged Marie. Sobersided religious reformers managed to promote and pass legislation closing many New York theaters. Nicolas' main source of income disappeared. The newly married couple once more found themselves in dire financial straits. And once more Pierre came quickly to the rescue.
Someone once described Pierre Toussaint as God's reflection in ebony. If God is a merciful and kind father, one who loves the afflicted, then certainly Toussaint mirrored him. White and black, in need of money to survive, to keep warm, to purchase freedom from slavery, all found a generous and openhearted friend in Pierre. The black hairdresser not only provided funds but manifested genuine care and concern for the afflicted. Despite his busy schedule and careful husbanding of time, Toussaint was always ready to share the sorrow or burden of another human being. The following appeal is typical of letters found among Toussaint's correspondence:
My dear Toussaint,
It is to you who are the consoler of the unfortunate that I appeal. I beg you, plead with you to come and see me in this place. I have written to some persons, but in vain. Take a carriage. I will pay the fare. God will repay you for this kindness which I ask of you. I have many things to tell you. I beg you, do not fail me. I await you today or tomorrow or even later.
Your unhappy friend,
Toussaint did not manifest mercy without immense personal cost to himself. He was in love with a young black Haitian girl, Juliette Noel. But Toussaint felt that he could not marry Juliette while he bore responsibilities for the Nicolas household.
Marie Nicolas had practically lost her voice and now communicated with Pierre by writing. Madame spent most of her time in her room, her health worsening day by day. Death was not far from her. Marie had one last deed to do before she died.
Summoning Pierre to her room, Madame painfully and slowly whispered to him the news that he was free. An aristocrat to the end, Marie followed the formalities established by the French government. A legal document states: I, Marie Elisabeth Bossard, wife of Monsieur Gabriel Nicolas, declare with the consent of Mr. Nicolas, my husband, that my intention is that Pierre Toussaint, my slave, shall be and live free of all servitude, and I consent that he enjoy liberty like any other freedman, that this present act be given all the public authenticity it may have. Made at New York, July 2, 1807.
Shortly thereafter, Marie Bossard Nicolas, who had known so much suffering, sorrow and defeat, died. Pierre was with her until the end and summoned a priest before she closed her eyes. He had given his life for her comfort, and now he could rest assured within his own conscience that he had served his mistress well. Few people have experienced such Christian love as Marie Bossard Nicolas.
Now 41 and free of obligations, Toussaint asked Juliette to be his wife. A delightful person, Juliette possessed a joyous spirit and carefree gaiety.
"I would not exchange my Juliette for all the ladies in the world," Pierre exclaimed. "She is beautiful in my eyes."
Juliette and Pierre occupied the third floor of the Reade Street house. Monsieur Nicolas, his cook and the nurse, Marie Bouquement, occupied the first two floors. Pierre continued to serve Monsieur Nicolas in whatever way he could. The Reade Street house became a center of warmth and hospitality. The small apartment was Pierre's credit bureau and employment agency, a shelter for orphans, poor refugee priests and assorted poverty-stricken travelers. Many a French widow or abandoned lady staved off poverty and starvation because Pierre found employment for her, tutoring the children of his wealthy clients.
During the early 19th century, New York public sanitation was primitive. Plagues frequently swept the city, leaving orphans in their wake. Catholics, concerned about the orphans, planned to establish a Catholic orphanage. Pierre, through his clients, both Catholic and Protestant, raised a large amount of money to fund this project. Mother Elizabeth Seton sent three of her Sisters of Charity to begin the work. In August, 1817, the first orphans moved into a little house on Prince Street. Through four decades, Pierre remained a constant support to the orphanage. Toussaint's concern for plague victims extended beyond mere almsgiving. In those years, yellow fever would strike very often during the month of August in New York. On more than one occasion, Toussaint went fearlessly into the quarantined sections of the city to look for those who might be abandoned in the houses from which people had fled in panic. He was an excellent nurse and was often summoned to watch beside the sick at night. He served the poor, of course, without pay. On one occasion, he found a journeying priest ill with ship fever. He took the priest to his own home and nursed him until his health returned.
One orphan was to have profound influence on Pierre and Juliette's lives. She was Euphemia, the daughter of Pierre's sister, Rosalie, who had died of tuberculosis in 1815. Euphemia could hardly have had a more difficult start in life. Shortly after she was born, her father had abandoned her and her mother.
Euphemia loved to dance and sing and Pierre provided musical training for her. Toussaint himself taught her to read and write in both French and English. At her uncle's orders, Euphemia wrote him each week one letter in French and one in English. It was a difficult and valuable exercise; nearly 500 of Euphemia's letters survive among Toussaint's effects. Nothing escaped the joyous curiosity of the little girl, who was a born reporter. One letter speaks of the first lady balloonist, who soared into the air above Castle Garden and floated eastward across the city. Ungallantly, the balloon dumped the intrepid female into a distant Long Island pond. Euphemia writes: "Did you see the balloon that went up on Thursday afternoon at four o'clock, Uncle? Poor Mrs. Joseph could not see at all.... She is in pain with her eyes." Another letter: "I heard that the Italian opera singers have arrived, and you said that when they came, you would go to the theatre. I hope I shall be able to go and see them.... I have heard that they cannot speak any other language than Italian." And still another letter: "Have you seen the new Bishop? (Bishop John Dubois) I have not seen him yet. I will go to see him someday at church."
With childish terror she reports what must be one of the earliest predictions of New York's doom. "I heard that an angel appeared to a watchman and told him that the city of New York was to be destroyed by an earthquake on the 15th of the month. Some people say the angel appeared with music, but I do not believe it."
On January 1, 1829, when Euphemia was 14 years old, she wrote to her uncle:
Will you be pleased to accept my most respectful compliments on the close of the old and the commencement of the new year. Give me leave, dear Uncle, to tell you as well as my poor mind can express itself how truly sensible I am of all your favors. I will try by my conduct to merit the continuance of them.
As it has pleased God to give you good health during the course of the last year, I beseech him to grant you the same to the end of the present and many more. My prayers are morning and night offered up to Heaven for your preservation. Nor are you ever in the day absent from my thoughts.
I remain your dutiful niece, Euphemia Toussaint
By May the tuberculosis that had plagued Euphemia since infancy claimed her.
Pierre almost broke under the sorrow. When God took her, his faith, so strong, so enduring, so powerful, almost crumbled. Juliette, exhausted by months of nursing Euphemia during this final cruel illness, now had an added burden. She feared for Toussaint's death.
Friends rallied to Pierre and Juliette and did their best to share the burden by their prayers and expressions of sympathy.
Mrs. Cruger, a lifelong friend, wrote as follows: "My heart and soul follow you in your last cares for this cherished child, to whom you have ever been the best, the most tender of fathers.... But I could not weep for her, I wept for you...."
Pierre's sense of discipline now sustained him. He kept his hairdressing appointments faithfully, continued to collect for the Catholic orphanage, and manifested his care and concern for all who were in need of his aid or counsel. Although his heart was broken, he refused to withdraw from life. If anything, suffering had deepened him even more. "I go to a great many places," someone recalls Pierre saying; "I go to one house and they cry, cry, cry, cry—somebody dead. I go into another and it is all laughter—they are happy and glad. I go into another and it is all shut up, dark; they move very softly. They speak in a whisper. Somebody very sick. I go to another and it's all dancing, singing, flowers and wedding dresses. I say nothing, but it makes me think a great deal."
Mary Ann Schuyler, a friend of Pierre's for some 30 years, referred to him as "her saint." The term indicates the good reputation Toussaint enjoyed among his clientele. He could easily have exploited his entree into the homes of the wealthy to become a fertile source of gossip. Instead, his customers deeply respected and admired Toussaint for his discretion and ability to keep a confidence. To women who would press him for information or gossip, he would simply reply: "Toussaint, Madame, is a hairdresser. He does not gather news."
The widely respected Toussaint did much to lift the clouds of religious and racial prejudice that hung over New York society. As Mrs. Emma Cary, descendant of a famous New York family and convert to Catholicism, writes: "His life was so perfect, and he explained the teaching of the Church with a simplicity so intelligent and courageous that everyone honored him as a Catholic. He would explain the devotion to the Mother of God with the utmost clearness, or show the union of natural and supernatural gifts in the priest.... When I was young, I used to hear Protestants speak with reverence of two men—the great Fenelon and the humble Pierre Toussaint!"
Proud to be a black, Toussaint generously assisted his black brothers and sisters in any way he could. Believing education to be a key to a better life, he worked zealously to support the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a religious order of black women established in 1829. Pierre and Juliette were also benefactors of the first New York City Catholic school for black children, St. Vincent de Paul on Canal Street.
Although a member of a black benevolent society, Toussaint refused to be drawn into the slavery debate then raging. Only once, as far as we know, did he ever comment on the matter. And this, in response to fiery abolitionists who advocated violence as the means of solving the slavery question: "They have not seen what I have seen." The Haitian bloodbath memories were still too vivid and painful.
"Toussaint," a lady advised in later years, "you are the richest man I know. Why not stop working?"
"Then, Madame," he replied, "I should not have enough for others." In 1851, when Pierre was 85, Juliette died. Toussaint never recovered from her death. He continued working, but gradually his strength failed. He went to Mass every morning, but his step grew slower and more uncertain. Spring came to the city. Toussaint fell ill. Mrs. George Lee, another lifetime friend, writes to her son of her last visit to Pierre:
He was feeble, but sitting in an armchair in his dressing gown and supported by pillows. A more perfect representation of a gentleman I have seldom seen.... He was overcome when he saw me, and tears fell from his eyes. "It is so changed! So lonely," he said.
Another of his friends, Mrs. Schuyler, asked him, "Pierre, is there anything you want?"
"No," he replied with a serene smile, "nothing on earth." Pierre died June 30, 1853. He was 87.
Toussaint had appointed the Schuyler brothers, George Lee and Robert Lee, as executors of his will. The document was a final expression of his kindness and generosity. Among his final effects, George and Robert found Pierre's last collection for the orphans. It was methodically noted and every penny accounted for.
The brothers removed his metal crucifix from the wall. On the back a hand had written on a little slip of paper: "To Toussaint-from a grateful priest!"
Newspapers carried a full description of his passing and his funeral. The New York Home Journal wrote:
Pierre was respected and beloved by widely different classes of the city. He moved among them in a way peculiarly his own. He possessed a sense of the appropriate, a self respect, and a uniformity of demeanor which amounted to genius. The New York Post recounted his charities: "Toussaint is spoken of by all who knew him as a man of the warmest and most active benevolence."
Father Quinn, who preached his funeral eulogy, said: "All would be grateful for having known Pierre. . .; there are few left among the clergy superior to him in zeal and devotion to the Church and for the glory of God; among laymen, not one."
Toussaint was buried alongside Juliette and Euphemia in Old St. Patrick's Cemetery, on Mott Street. As the years passed, his grave was all but forgotten until a young seminarian, now Father Charles McTague, searched out and established the grave site in 1941.
Authorities are presently gathering material with the hope of presenting his cause for beatification.
Revolutionary General Philip Schuyler said it best: "I have known Christians who were not gentlemen, gentlemen who were not Christians. One man I know who is both and that man is black."
Taken from "Ten Christians" by Boniface Hanley, O.F.M. published by Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556.
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