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Venerable Pierre Toussaint

Pierre Toussaint was born on June 27th, 1766, in Saint Dominigue (now the country of Haiti). He was born into slavery and lived on the Artibonite plantation on the west coast of the colony. His maternal great-grandmother had been born in Africa before being enslaved. As a child, Pierre grew up Catholic and was trained as a house slave for the Berard family. As the rebellion of Haitian slaves grew in strength the Berard family left Haiti or New York City - bringing with them Pierre, his sister Rosalie and three others.

Now in New York City, Pierre was ordered by the Berard family to apprentice under one of the leading hairdressers of New York at the time and caught on quickly to the skill. Soon after their arrival, Jean Berard died of pleurisy and Pierre began to assist Madame Berard. The two became close friends (despite still being enslaved) and Madame Berard began to allow Pierre to keep whatever earnings he made when he was hired out. Madame Berard remarried but soon fell ill. On her death bed she made her husband swear to free Pierre.

Pierre's success with hairdressing took the city by storm and he found himself in constant want by the city's upper class. By the age of 45 he had saved enough money to pay for both his and his sister's freedom. Pierre chose the last name Toussaint in honor of the Haitian revolution. He remained extremely popular with the upper class and began to correspond with New Yorkers that had known the Berard family, including his godmother, Aurora Berard that still lived in France. Their letters, as well as letters Pierre wrote to friends in Haiti, filled 15 bound volumes and were submitted by the Archdiocese of New York during the cause for his canonization.

From the day he arrived until the day he died, Pierre attended daily Mass at Saint Peter's in New York. After purchasing her freedom, Pierre married Juliette Noel and adopted Euphemia, the daughter of his late sister Rosalie (who had died of tuberculosis). The family began a deep devotion to caring for the poor of New York City, including sheltering orphans, fostering many boys and baking bread and other foods or the Orphan Asylum. Because he could speak both English and French, Pierre frequently helped new immigrants from Haiti settle into the city. During a cholera epidemic, he could frequently be seen crossing over the quarantine barricades to help those suffering from the illness.

As a family they organized an employment agency, credit bureau and refuge for priests. They raised money to build a new Catholic Church - Old Saint Patrick's Cathedral and was a major benefactor of the first New York City Catholic school for Black children (Saint Vincent de Paul on Canal Street). On May 14th, 1851, Euphemia tragically died of tuberculosis.

Two years later, at the age of 87, Pierre Toussaint died on June 30th, 1858. He was buried alongside his wife and Euphemia at the cemetery of the Cathedral he helped raise funds for. During the opening of his canonization process, Pierre's remains were transferred to the crypt of Saint Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue.

The Pierre Toussaint Haitian-Catholic center in Miami is named after him as is the Toussaint Academy San Diego , a residential secondary school for homeless 14-18 year old youth. Over 1100 students have graduated from this school.

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