To the grande dames of New York society whom he served as hairdresser and confidant in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Pierre Toussaint was the closest thing on Earth to a saint--and not just because of the wonders he worked with their hair.
Through their grapevine, they knew better than most other New Yorkers the endless acts of charity and benevolence performed by this humble, self-effacing man who began each day by attending 6 a.m. Mass at St. Peter's Catholic Church.
At a time when organized social services for the city's poor, homeless and sick were few and far between, Toussaint was a one-man Catholic Charities. He took in orphans and penniless priests. He donated money lavishly to build churches and orphanages, including New York's first Catholic cathedral. He braved death to nurse victims of yellow fever and cholera plagues in quarantined sections of town.
Born in what is now Haiti and a slave for much of his life, he purchased the freedom of dozens of other slaves and--in an act of altruism that the upper crust of old New York never tired of recounting--he even supported the impoverished widow of his former master in style until the day she died.
"If he isn't a saint," one of his wealthy patrons once proclaimed, "I don't know what a saint is."
Now, almost 1 1/2 centuries after his death, the Roman Catholic Church is beginning to agree with those society matrons and countless others from that era who looked on Toussaint as "God's image carved in ebony," as one contemporary memoirist described him.
As part of a growing movement to give wider recognition to the contributions of black Catholics to the church in this country, a campaign has been launched to win canonization for Toussaint as the first black American saint.
"It's certainly timely," says Walter Hubbard, executive director of the National Office of Black Catholics in Washington. "This whole push to grant wider recognition to African Americans as Catholics is just now coming into fruition."
The ex-slave's bones have been exhumed from the cemetery in Manhattan's Little Italy, where they have lain since 1853, and reinterred at St. Patrick's Cathedral. They rest in the same crypt beneath the high altar that contains the earthly remains of such princes of the church as Cardinals Francis Spellman and Terence Cooke.
And although canonization is a process that may take decades, even centuries, some church leaders in New York believe that Toussaint's cause may receive a high priority.
Pope John Paul II "seems to be of the mind that more role models should be put up by the church for various areas and should be put up closer to the time in which they lived," says Msgr. Robert O'Connell, pastor of the church in lower Manhattan where Toussaint practiced his faith for more than 65 years.
The New York metropolitan area is home to one of the largest concentrations of black Catholics in the nation, including the largest colony of Catholics of Haitian descent outside of Miami.
Only four U.S. citizens have ever been added to the roll of Catholic saints. They are, in the order of their canonization: Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart; Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, founder of the Sisters of Charity; Bishop John Neumann, a Philadelphia prelate, and Sister Rose Philippine Duchesne, who founded the first free school west of the Mississippi. Of the four, only Mother Seton was a native-born American.
Although efforts to promote sainthood for Toussaint date to the early 1940s in the New York archdiocese, it was not until December, 1989, that a formal request was finally submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome by New York's Cardinal John O'Connor at Msgr. O'Connell's urging.
O'Connell, who came to St. Peter's as pastor in 1981, says Cardinal Cooke reportedly had made the request before he died in 1983.
"But we don't know whom he gave the documents to," says O'Connell, who is in charge of Toussaint's case. "The Congregation for the Causes of Saints said that they had no records of the case ever being formally presented."
The New York archdiocese, besides making the request to Rome, also is taking on the task of educating the faithful nationwide about Toussaint. Oddly enough, outside of New York and Miami, Toussaint is little known--even among black Catholics.
And, at first blush, Toussaint is not always an easy person to understand and accept. Blacks especially have difficulty comprehending how Toussaint could continue supporting his impoverished mistress from his earnings as a hairdresser, even though she did not grant him his freedom until she was on her deathbed.
When she gave a party, Toussaint often would not only shop for the food and pay all the bills, but he also would don a red-jacketed valet's uniform and serve. After dinner, he would pick up the violin he had learned to play as a young man and entertain the guests.
In one of her weekly articles for New York Newsday, African-American columnist Cheryl McCarthy says that when she first learned of the efforts to make Toussaint a saint, her reaction was: "What? . . . Why would they want to canonize this guy? What saintly feats had he performed? Did he invent the first Jheri curl?"
When she learned how he supported his mistress, she says, "I still wasn't impressed. The man must have been a fool, I thought."
But, like many others who have found Toussaint a puzzle at first encounter, she discovered that the more she learned about him, the more impressed she was.
Ellen Tarry, an 84-year-old author who lives in Harlem and spent almost a decade working on a biography titled "The Other Toussaint," recalls that she had had Toussaint "crammed down her throat" by one of her white instructors at the convent school for black girls in Virginia that she attended in the early 1920s.
But "not until I got inside his head while I was researching my book could I come to accept him," she says. After that, she adds, "He had me."
Toussaint was born in 1766 on a plantation in Saint Domingue, that part of the West Indian island of Hispaniola that gained its independence from France in 1804 and was renamed Haiti by its black liberators.
By his own account, he led a pampered and sheltered existence as a young slave. He was put in charge of dusting and restacking books in his master's high-ceilinged library and also was permitted to learn to read and write.
His master, unlike many other plantation owners, tried to keep his slave families together, insisted that all the blacks who belonged to him be baptized and allowed them to practice their faith and to be married as Christians.
In 1787, fearing the onslaught of a slave uprising, his master moved to New York with his wife, his two sisters-in-law, Pierre and Pierre's sister and aunt. They lived in a rented three-story house near the northern edge of the city.
Pierre was almost immediately apprenticed to a hairdresser and permitted to keep much of his earnings.
Two years later his master returned to Saint Domingue, hoping to reclaim his property, but died of pleurisy. His investments in the United States went sour and his widow soon found herself facing poverty.
She begged Toussaint to pawn her engagement rings and some other pieces of jewelry, but he refused. Instead, he gave her the money she needed and from then on supported her in the fashion to which she had been accustomed--even after she married a second time.
Not until 1807, as she was nearing death, did she grant him his freedom. However, he never complained.
"He always felt she treated him like a friend or a member of the family, not as a slave, and he was determined to remain as loyal to her as he felt she had been to him," Tarry said.
Toussaint's charity toward others became legendary. He seemed to feel that whatever advantages he enjoyed in life should be put to help those less fortunate than he.
Among the dozens of slaves whose freedom he purchased were his sister, Rosalie, and the woman who later became his wife, Juliette Noel. He and his wife also took in Rosalie's daughter, Euphemia, after the death of her mother and later adopted her.
He built the first orphanage for black youngsters in the city and raised funds to build the original St. Patrick's Cathedral and St. Vincent de Paul Church, which served New York's sizeable French-speaking community.
He brought countless black boys to his home, providing them with food and shelter until they could find work and make it on their own.
Many also were the destitute whites who came to him with pleas for money to buy food for their tables or firewood to heat their homes during winter. He also helped pay passage for several French emigres to return to the land they had fled during the French Revolution.
Even among his wealthy white hairdressing clientele, he often gave spiritual solace and guidance. According to Tarry's biography, one society matron said that whenever she asked Toussaint to pray for her husband's health during an illness, her husband always seemed to get better.
"Wherever he saw the need, he tried to help," says Msgr. O'Connell. "He did not say to himself, 'Well, this is not a slave or another black person.' Even when he got older and was making pretty good money, somebody asked him why he didn't retire and give up the pace he was maintaining. But he said, 'If I retired, I wouldn't have enough money to give to others.' "
Toussaint knew the sting of racial discrimination. During most of his lifetime, for example, New York City prohibited blacks from using public transportation. Even though he suffered from rheumatism later in life, he always walked to spare himself the humiliation. Even when the ban was finally lifted, blacks were restricted to segregated coaches.
In one of the most ironic cases of racial injustice, an usher once barred Toussaint and his family from sitting in the pews of a church he had helped raise funds to build.
Still, he never dwelt on such moments or caused them to deter him from what he saw as his life's mission.
When he died in 1853 at the age of 87, he was given a grand funeral Mass at St. Peter's. Crowds packed the sanctuary and flowed into the surrounding streets. One woman who attended the funeral later wrote: "The priest . . . did not allude to his color, and scarcely to his station; it seemed as if his virtues as a man and a Christian had absorbed all other thoughts."
As part of the canonization process, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is looking for proof that Toussaint lived a life of "heroic virtue."
Phyllis Gangel-Jacob, the state Supreme Court justice who granted the church permission to exhume his grave last fall, might well vouch for that. In what was in most ways just a routine court action, she was moved to the verge of tears as she recounted how he risked death to nurse plague victims back to health or to help those beyond hope to die with dignity.
"In those times, the only consolation (for plague victims) may have been the miracles of faith and trust," she said, her voice becoming overpowered by emotion. "Indeed, for the thousands of victims of the scourge of AIDS, Alzheimer's disease . . . and other incurable diseases, the same may be true today."
Beatification is the big hurdle toward sainthood. That requires proof that a miracle was performed through him--either by him or through prayer for his intercession--and would permit him to be addressed as "Blessed Pierre Toussaint." A second miracle is required for canonization.
O'Connell said one miracle already has been attributed to Toussaint: the recovery in 1966 of a young Haitian with cancer who refused medical care and relied solely on prayers to Toussaint.
The Rev. Charles McTague, the 71-year-old chaplain at Ports Newark and Elizabeth in New Jersey, says he has another.
While serving as chaplain aboard an aging, rusty radio ship, the Voice of Peace, the vessel ran into an epic winter storm in the North Atlantic and soon lost its position, recalls McTague, who became fascinated by Toussaint's life while a seminarian. The only sextant aboard was smashed, and the radio went out.
For six days and six nights, the ship battled hurricane-like winds and mountainous seas.
"I thought the devil himself was trying to sink us," McTague says.
Suddenly, he continued, he had an idea. A small tin canister in his cabin contained dirt from Toussaint's grave. McTague had brought it along on the voyage in hopes of sprinkling it on the shores of West Africa in a symbolic gesture honoring Toussaint's ancestral homeland.
He directed a steward to retrieve the can and dump the contents overboard. Then he prayed.
Within minutes, a tiny pinpoint of light appeared in the distance, shining faintly through the dark night and raging storm. It turned out to be a navigational light on the Bermuda coast. The ship headed for it and soon pulled safely into port.
"We couldn't have lasted another day," McTague says.