Pierre Toussaint was a former slave from the French colony of Saint-Domingue who was brought to New York City by his owners in 1787. There he eventually gained his freedom and became a noted philanthropist to the poor of the city. Freed in 1807 after the death of his mistress, Pierre took the surname of “Toussaint” in honor of the hero of the Haitian Revolution which established that nation.
After his marriage in 1811 to Juliette Noel, Toussaint and his wife performed many charitable works. Among those works included opening their home as an orphanage, employment bureau, and a refuge for travelers. He contributed funds and helped raise money to build Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street. He was considered “one of the leading black New Yorkers of his day.” His ghostwritten memoir was published in 1854.
Due to his devout and exemplary life, the Roman Catholic Church has been investigating his life for possible canonization and in 1996 he was declared “Venerable” by Pope John Paul II, the second step in the process. Toussaint is the first layperson to be buried in the crypt below the main altar of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, normally reserved for bishops of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.