Pierre Toussaint

By Jones, Arthur | National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000 | Go to article overview

Pierre Toussaint


Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter


A slave, society hairdresser, philanthropist, may become nation's first saint

This is the story of four Catholic boys, one of whom is on the way to becoming the nation's first official black Catholic saint and three others who played a role in making it happen.

The prospective saint is Pierre Toussaint, whose childhood was spent as a slave in 18th-century Haiti. Then called Saint Domingue, it was the wealthiest colony the world had ever seen.

Since the 1980s, a devoted group of advocates has collected around Toussaint, who was brought to the United States by his owner and became a hairdresser for 19th-century New York society. Four years ago, Pope John Paul II, eager to declare more modern role models saints, declared Toussaint "venerable," the first formal stage in the canonization process.

If the cure of a 5-year-old American boy last February is declared miraculous by the Vatican, Toussaint could move to stage two, beatification. A second approved miracle would make him an official saint.

And that, said Ellen Tarry of Harlem, N.Y., a biographer of Toussaint, "would be a very big thing. It would be the first time we've had an African-American from North America declared a saint. We have every reason to be excited."

Toussaint and his wife, Juliette, nursed the sick, raised orphans and housed refugees after Toussaint was granted freedom by his owner's widow, a white woman whom he supported after her first husband's death. Toussaint, who arrived in the United States in the 1770s, inspired a generation of New Yorkers by his life of service, charity and philanthropy.

Skip forward 150 years.

In 1938, Garland White, the second boy in the story, was a precocious 9-year-old living in Montclair, N.J. One of a group of black youngsters at St. Peter Claver Mission preparing for first Communion, White challenged his young teacher. He told 18-year-old Charles McTague, a white Seton Prep student headed for seminary, "You can't name me one black Catholic white people respected."

McTague admitted he did not mow one. He said he'd find one, though. He wasn't sure how.

That same month McTague attended a Catholic Interracial Council meeting at Fordham University and there picked up a copy of the Interracial Review. It carried an article on Toussaint.

He fixed Grandmother's hair

McTague subsequently met Jesuit Fr. John LaFarge, a major force behind the Interracial Council and the Review, who told McTague that Toussaint had dressed Grandmother LaFarge's hair. LaFarge said his grandmother had spoken glowingly of the saintly Christian, a man much admired from about 1810 through the 1850s.

With the Interracial Review article in mind, McTague was able to report to Garland White that he'd indeed found a black Catholic layman, a married man, a successful businessman whom white people respected. He was also able to report that the black Catholic's biography had been published in 1854.

But McTague didn't stop there.

That winter, in Old St. Patrick's Cathedral churchyard on Mulberry Street, McTague located a weathered headstone he believed to mark Toussaint's grave. It took considerable searching to find it. McTague's allies in these excursions were often his mother and Bill Cannady, another young member of St. Peter Claver who is the fourth boy in our story.

No lettering on the stone was apparent to the naked eye. Tracing and rubbing produced nothing. The innovative McTague, an aficionado of Nick Carter detective stories, soon had his graveyard assistants maneuvering a large mirror, bought at a nearby junkshop, to cast sunlight across the headstone's surface, thus revealing any indentations, while he photographed it from every angle.

The prints revealed no lettering, but the negatives showed the last five letters of Toussaint's name -- saint -- as well as "emie," the last four letters of the name of his adopted daughter, Euphemie. …

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