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Lives of Saints

Venerable Pierre Toussaint

Born: Spring 1766     Died: 06/30/1853
Feast Day: June 30th

What he said

"Jesus can give you nothing so precious as himself, as his own mind. Do not think that any faith in him can do you good if you do not try to be pure and true like him."

What the world was like

The American Revolution had just ended when Pierre Toussaint came to the United States. The Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified. Not everyone living in American enjoyed the rights protected by these documents. Slavery was a shameful part of United States history.

The United States was a rapidly expanding country. The Erie Canal was constructed, connecting the Great Lakes with the Hudson River. This made travel and trade between the east coast and the midwest much easier. Before long, people were travelling even further west along the Oregon Trail.

Other parts of the world were experiencing rapid changes as well. The French Revolution began. Napoleon Buonaparte came to power in France after the Revolution. Several Latin American countries were beginning their own struggles for independence. A long and bloody slave revolution in Haiti caused Pierre Toussaint to come to the United States.

The daguerrotype, an early form of the photograph, was invented. Thanks to that invention, we have a picture of Pierre Toussaint! The smallpox vaccine, the sewing machine, the battery, and Morse code were also developed.

Who he was

Pierre Toussaint was born into slavery on the island of Haiti, a French colony. Unlike many slaves, Pierre was taught to read and write. His master, Jean Berard, noticed Pierre's interest in learning and allowed him access to the family's extensive library. The Berards were Catholics, so Pierre was baptized and educated in the faith as well.

The harsh treatment of slaves in Haiti was beginning to cause violent conflict between the slaves and their masters. Sensing the growing danger, Monsieur Berard moved his family to New York City. Pierre and his sister were among the slaves who accompanied the family. Once in New York, Pierre was apprenticed to a hairdresser. The fashion in women's hairstyles was very elaborate at the time, and women spent large sums of money to have hairdressers come to their houses. It was soon apparent that Pierre had a talent for this trade. Some of the wealthiest and most influential families of the city became his clients.

His day began early in the morning, as he attended 6 am Mass every day of the week. He then had to walk to his appointments because he was not allowed to ride on the street cars. He gained the courage to face this racial discrimination through prayer and devotion to the Eucharist. The example of Christ inspired Pierre to show kindness despite the injustices he suffered. He was well-read and knowledgeable about many subjects. He refused to listen to or pass on gossip, which encouraged many of his clients to confide in him and seek his advice.

Tragedy soon struck the Berard family. Slave revolts in Haiti brought terrible destruction and bloodshed. Monsieur Berard returned to the island to check on the family's plantation. He found the plantation destroyed, and he soon fell sick and died. Madame Berard was devastated by the loss of her husband, and was now also penniless in a foreign country. Pierre assumed responsibility for the entire household. His business was successful, but he used most of his income to provide for Madame Berard.

In addition to caring for Madame Berard, Pierre was involved in charitable work throughout the city. Although others could not see past the color of his skin, Pierre did not discriminate when caring for others. He helped to open the first Catholic orphanage in New York City, opened schools for African-Americans, and raised money to buy the freedom of slaves. He cared for the sick and comforted their families. Pierre wanted everyone to experience the love of God through his kindness.

Just before Madame Berard died, she gave Pierre his freedom. He married Juliette Noel, a former slave whose freedom he had bought. Juiliette shared Pierre's generosity and desire to help others. They had no children of their own, but raised Pierre's niece Euphemia.

Pierre Toussaint died at the age of 87.

What he means for us

Pierre Toussaint was able to look past differences in order to see every person as a child of God. Pope John Paul II said of Pierre: "He radiated a most serene and joyful faith, nourished daily by the Eucharist and visits to the Blessed Sacrament. In the face of constant, painful discrimination he understood, as few have understood, the meaning of the words, 'Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.' No treasure is as uplifting and transforming as the light of faith."

Pierre Toussaint shows us that to truly love our neighbor, we must be able to forgive.

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