Black Catholic Americans…great contributions to our faith.

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is always a favorite destination for Catholics and other visitors to New York City. Most of the time, people spend their time in prayer and admiration of the various works of art that adorn the ornate Gothic Cathedral. Catholic are familiar with the tradition that deceased Bishops and Archbishops of New York are entombed in the crypt beneath the Cathedral’s great altar. However, many are shocked to know there is a deceased hairdresser of the colonial era that is also entombed with the former prelates that once led the Archdiocese of New York.
The Haitian-American hairdresser is Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853). Toussaint came to New York from Haiti in 1787 and quickly became a sought after apprentice in the hairdressing industry of the period. Pierre Toussaint was quite talented when it came to working in the often tedious and financially rewarding art of coiffure. Because hairdressing in colonial America was a complex and often lengthy process it was also financially very rewarding. Pierre Toussaint through his talents and expertise in this sought after service became quite wealthy and prominent in 18th century New York City.
Pierre Toussaint was a generous man and used his earnings to assist people of all colors and beliefs to survive in economically difficult times. Frequently, he purchased freedom for slaves and gifted many others with financial gifts so they might feed the poor, establish schools and provide for orphans. Pierre Toussaint was proud of his Haitian and African heritage and he readily assisted others not as fortunate as himself. He helped establish Catholic organizations specifically to help black people that had been freed from slavery. The Sisters of Providence was a religious order of black women that were based in Baltimore. They were established through the generous grant and assistance of Pierre Toussaint.
In addition to the religious community of women he helped found, he established the first Catholic school in New York for the education of African-Americans and the only orphanage, Saint Vincent de Paul on Canal Street. Later in his life Pierre Toussaint was perhaps the wealthiest black American of his era, yet he continued to work and assist peoples of all races with monetary assistance and spiritual directions. Pierre died in June of 1853 and was initially buried in the Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral Cemetery.
Over the years, many African-American Catholics began to pray near his presumed grave. The exact location of his grave was discovered in 1940. From then, faithful Catholics began to seek Pierre Toussaint’s intercession for God’s Divine Intervention. In 1990, John Cardinal O’Connor had his body exhumed and reinterred beneath the altar with the bishops of New York. That same year his cause for canonization was introduced by the late Cardinal O’Connor.
Pierre Toussaint was declared Venerable by Pope John-Paul II. It is the second step towards becoming a saint in the Catholic Church. His cause continues to pick up attention and many Catholics are praying for his ultimate declaration as Blessed and finally a Saint.
In February, the United States designates the month towards a deeper understanding of black Americans that have contributed much too American society. Venerable Pierre Toussaint admirably fits this description as a great Haitian-American that contributed to his Church and American Society. It is appropriate that we learn his story and remember his personal courage during Black History Month in the United States.

Hugh J.McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist writing on Catholic topics and issues. He attended Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, where he studied both philosophy and theology. He writes frequently at http://verbumcarofactumest.blogspot.com & http://nothing-left-unsaid.blogspot.com . Hugh writes about his Irish Catholic upbringing and educational experiences at http://graysferrygrapevine.blogspot.com . He has contributed works to Catholic News Agency, Catholic Online, The Irish Catholic, Dublin, the British Broadcasting Company, London and the Philadelphia Bulletin, Catholic Exchange, Pewsitter.com, Blogger News Network & The Catholic Business Journal and CatholicMom.com. Comments are always welcome at hjmn4566@gmail.com.

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