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Was This Good Samaritan a Saint? : Religion: An ex-slave is being considered for canonization as the first African-American saint. The move coincides with church efforts to widen support among blacks.

March 25, 1991|DAVID TREADWELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — 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.

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