By Jessica Easthope
He was a former slave, a Haitian immigrant and a hairdresser, but considered himself first and foremost a Catholic.
“Pierre Toussaint said none of those labels matter, what matters is that every person is created in the image and likeness of God and we are called to see Jesus Christ in every person,” said Father Brian Graebe, the pastor of the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Lower Manhattan.
June 30 marks 168 years since Toussaint’s death, but the impact he made on New York City and church history is still relevant in his journey to sainthood.
“An example of immigrants and what an immigrant can do to build up the kingdom of God,” said Father Alonzo Cox.
Pierre Toussaint was born into slavery in Haiti and later was taken to New York City by his owners in 1787. While still enslaved he began working and earning money as a hairdresser.
“He became one of the most sought after hairdressers in New York City, all the society women would seek out his services,” Father Graebe said.
“In those days French women had very extravagant hairdos so Pierre excelled in this trade and rapidly obtained a large clientele,” said retired Auxiliary Bishop Guy Sansaricq.
With his money, Toussaint opened orphanages, schools and employment offices and instead of buying his own freedom – he purchased it for others.
“He got the freedom for many, many other men and women,” said Father Rony Mendes the head of the Brooklyn Chapter of the Cause for Pierre Toussaint.
“He just wasn’t worried about his own self, worried about his family, about others,” said Father Cox.
Toussaint was the main financial contributor in building the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Lower Manhattan. He was buried there until 1991 when he was transferred to the new St. Patrick’s. He’s the only lay person ever buried beneath the main altar.
He was venerated by Saint John Paul II in 1997, if canonized Toussaint will become the first Haitian saint.
“We encourage everybody to pray and ask God for miracles in honor of Pierre Toussaint,” said Father Mendes.
For Catholics living in New York City, Pierre Toussaint brings the worlds of faith and history together.