A Tale of Two Toussaints: A Catholic Legacy of Haiti

Haiti. What does the average American know of Haiti? We hear about this fellow Western Hemisphere nation when there is a disaster – a terrible earthquake; a direct hit from a tropical hurricane; the lingering aftermath to her suffering people because of lack of infrastructure and their inability to deal with such calamities, including scarcity of food, water and medicines. It seems a million miles away. Then Haiti, in her continuing misery, fades from the headlines and is forgotten — until the next catastrophe comes along.

Lying just southeast of Cuba in the Greater Antilles, the open Atlantic to the north, the Caribbean Sea to the south, Haiti occupies about one third of the island of Hispaniola. Just to its east, the Dominican Republic occupies the other two thirds of the island. Hispaniola was named by Columbus himself on December 5, 1492. (The name is Latin for “Spanish” or “of Spain”) It was so named by the Admiral for the country which financed his expedition. From early colonial times, Spanish was the official language of the island. Sadly, as we know, the natives Columbus encountered fell in great numbers to European diseases such as smallpox, having no natural immunity against them, and soon became nearly extinct. Now, however, this small part of Hispaniola has French as its official language. How did this come to be?

Western European countries all vied for control of the newly- discovered lands, hoping for riches, and, for some, new converts to the Faith. During the colonial period, French buccaneers (who were pirates) began to seek safe harbor on this western part of the island where they could easily prey upon the Spanish ships bringing Mexican silver back to the mother country. They encouraged other French-speakers to settle and make their homes here. The island was a gold mine of sugar cane — as all of the Caribbean is — and eventually about forty thousand French settlers made Sainte Domingue (as it was called by them) their home. [The capital of Dominican Republic is Santo Domingo; both the French and the Spanish mean “Holy Sunday” referring to Easter Sunday.] The buildup of the African slave trade during this time brought thousands of workers for the sugar and indigo plantations. By the time of the French Revolution in 1789, African slaves outnumbered their French masters by ten to one, a situation that was bound to lead to unfortunate consequences. Besides that, there were generations of gens de couleur, offspring of the planters and their slaves, who formed a whole different class, creating even more tension. It is said that the Haitian plantation system was one of the most brutal of the Americas. True, some plantation owners treated their slaves benevolently; most did not, however, and the mere system of slave labor and — worse — the slave trade itself, was horrific and inhumane. Many died before they even left the slave ships.

Unrest and Revolt

Although the French planters gave their African slaves a veneer of Catholicism with Baptism and a smattering of basic Catholic teaching — some good Catholics gave more than those who were interested only in enriching their coffers — the Africans mostly retained the animist and voodoo beliefs that they brought from the home countries. Often during the night the white planters could hear the drums speaking to each other through the distant mountains and dense forests, through which no white man would dare venture. Most of the slaves bore a vengeful hatred toward their white masters and seethed with anger, waiting for a leader to help them throw off the yoke of slavery. Several among them on various plantations were leaders and promised revolt. Needless to say, rumors wild and half-true spread in whispers and by drumbeat. Among those hoped-for leaders, the name most often heard was that of our first, and more famous, Toussaint, known to history as Toussaint L’Oeuverture.

Our First Toussaint

Of Toussaint’s early life not much is certain. He was probably born in or around 1743 and became attached to the Plantation of Breda; hence his name appears sometimes as Toussaint Breda, the slaves often adopting the name of their home plantation as their last names. It is obvious from his writings that he received some sort of education by his masters who probably recognized his level of intelligence. His interesting first name indicates that he was likely born on the feast day of All Saints, November 1. We do know that he was a free man by 1776. If we look at what was happening in the mother country during these years, we know that it was the time of revolt and shouts of “liberte, egalite, fraternite.” Revolution was astir and the revolutionaries were determined to overthrow altar and throne (Church and monarchy). Of course, this news traveled to France’s New World colonies, Sainte Domingue included. The spirit of “freedom” took hold of the slaves above all others in that small colony. The planters were for the most part against the revolutionary spirit. If only the thousands of slaves had a leader who would organize their people to revolt against their white French oppressors, they, too, could achieve freedom. Several names were whispered about, the most prominent of them being that of Toussaint.

Interestingly, this leader of the slave revolt had some battle experience in the British colonies to the North when they were fighting for their freedom from the Crown. He fought with the American colonists at the Battle of Savannah and showed leadership qualities and military prowess there, thus gaining for himself experience in battle and a reputation as a seasoned soldier.

By the time of the Haitian revolution, Toussaint had accumulated some wealth and property, had married and fathered children, and was the owner of a few slaves himself. He always considered himself a good Catholic, although there seems to be evidence that he joined the Freemasons. Perhaps this was to ingratiate himself with the leaders of Revolutionary France.

At any rate, Toussaint became a leading voice for the slaves with their French masters. At first, he bargained for an easing of the use of the whip and other harsh measures against his fellow Blacks. He still retained loyalty to the French government. In time, however, he pushed for full freedom for the slaves, with total abolition of the system in Sainte Domingue. Eventually, as many of the planters left the island in fear for their lives, he fought for the status of a free republic under the French government. It was during these years that he adopted the name L’Oeuverture (although he spelled it without the apostrophe). The word means “opening.” Perhaps it was because it was said of him that he could find an opening in any battle for his troops to move into. Or perhaps it was simply because he had an opening between his two front teeth!

When all-out rebellion and war began, those planters who remained in hope that the French government would send troops to quell the troubles were slaughtered and their homes and crops burned to the ground. Toussaint knew that the economy of the island depended on the sugar cane crops and he tried to stop the pillage, but the damage had been done. Most of the planters who had fled to France, New Orleans, New York, and other cities of the north never saw their homes and land again.

By the time Napoleon had taken over the mess that was revolutionary France, Toussaint had led the successful revolt which created the first republic formed by a slave rebellion. His plan was to retain the ties to France, but have Haiti, as it was now called (reverting to the name it was called by the aboriginal natives), function independently. Napoleon, with his dreams of empire would have none of this republic business, and under false pretenses, had his brother-in-law,General Leclerc, arrange to have Toussaint arrested in 1802 and sent to France where he died in the prison of Fort-de-Joux on April 7, 1803. The cause of his death was a combination of malnutrition, exhaustion, pneumonia and possibly tuberculosis. He was only sixty years old.

Toussaint L’Oeuverture was a true hero to Haiti. He is often referred to as “the Black Napoleon.” During his time of leadership, he made Catholicism the official religion of the republic and tried to quash the Haitians’ belief in voodoo. He realized the importance of a sound economy, education of the populace, and a fair government. He did assume dictatorial powers, but how does one instantly turn rebellious slaves into a peaceful and functioning republic? There was no transition period where the populace could have been guided by sensible Frenchmen, for these were lacking in France as well.

Sadly, Haiti seems to lurch from one bad leader to another. Recall the horror of the Duvaliers during the 1950’s and 1960’s, Papa Doc and Baby Doc, cruel and vicious dictators who wantonly killed their own people through the use of the paramilitary terror squad, the Tonton Macoutes, named for the bogey man who supposedly punished bad children. Then there was the former priest, Jean Bertrand Aristide, a liberation theologian (read “Marxist”) propped up by our own government and then eliminated by it. Natural disasters have played a large part in the confusion and instability of the Haitian government, and it still ranks as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The Other Toussaint

Our second Toussaint was born more than twenty years later and lived a much longer life than our first. This man was also born into slavery on the island of Haiti, which he knew as Sainte Domingue. He had the good fortune to serve a very Catholic and loving French planter family who realized his gentility and intelligence at a young age and saw to it that he had an education. He was a “house slave” rather than a field worker as his brother and his father — and countless other Africans — were on the plantation. His grandmother, Zenobie, his mother, Ursule, and sister, Rosalie, also did their duties in the house. This man carried Toussaint as a surname; his first name was Pierre.

Pierre Toussaint was a blessing to all whom he touched, and he touched thousands of persons, the great and the small, throughout his long life. He was musical of nature, playing the violin as entertainment for the planter families who were friends of the Berards, owners of L’Artibonite, the plantation where he lived. He dressed elegantly as butler and server in the highest of the French gentlemen’s fashions. His “owners” were devout Catholics who treated their slaves with compassion and fairness (if slavery can ever be fair). He was truly loved by the Berards and their children, which put him in a bit of an uncomfortable position with the field slaves, including his father and brother.

As the jungle drums spoke in the distant mountains late at night, Pierre feared for himself, his family and the Berards, for he knew that resentment and hatred were building to a fever pitch. One late night he ventured out into the thick tropical forest with a couple of the field workers with whom he was friendly. His own family (the white ones and the black ones) would have been horrified. He witnessed for himself the voodoo rituals where the slaves worked themselves into a frenzy from potions and wild dancing. Talk of rebellion was everywhere and he was very frightened, for the slaves spoke of slaughtering their white masters and burning everything to the ground. Here he heard of another Toussaint, who they said would lead the slaves in rebellion when he was ready. Much of the good fortune of this slave family was due to old Zenobie, Pierre’s grandmother, who had been with the family for years and was the bedrock of both her own family and the Berards. She had painstakingly taught the young Pierre to read and write while his master allowed him access to his large library.

Pierre was born in 1766; so, by the time of his young adulthood, the Revolution in France was in full swing. News of the end of the monarchy and the persecution of the Church was not received gladly at L’Artibonite. Troubles in the home country and troubles in the colony were bad news for the landowners. Many hoped to return to France for fear of a slave uprising, but that seemed as dangerous as remaining in Sainte Domingue. Many planter families escaped their island home for cities in the new United States, such as New Orleans, still a French possession at the time. Some families were separated. Among these was the Berard family with the founding generation returning to France and the young couple and the new master’s sisters traveling to New York City with a retinue of house servants, which included Pierre, his sister, mother, and grandmother.

Although Pierre was reticent in telling his family of the master’s plan, he knew in his heart it was the only way to safety. He knew that the white planters could not remain much longer in Sainte Domingue and feared that when the leader, Toussaint L’Oeuverture, gave the word, no white would survive. The two families, the white Berards and their faithful house slaves, the Toussaints, left their island home for New York City in 1787. Pierre was twenty-one, a tall, handsome man with regal bearing. He could not realize then what an amazing life lay ahead of him in the new nation of the United States of America.

The intention, of course, was that the stay in New York would only be temporary; so Monsieur Berard rented a comfortable house in the new city. It was nothing as sumptuous as the huge plantation home on the island, but it would do for the short while they expected to be there. Soon the young master returned to L’Artibonite to oversee care of the house and business, leaving Pierre virtually in charge of the family affairs in New York. He was never to see his beautiful young wife again. Shortly, word arrived that the young monsieur fell ill and died of pleurisy at his beloved L’Artibonite. Madame Berard, already frail, allowed Pierre to take over completely, so deep was her trust in him and so lacking was her desire to live without her beloved husband.

A New Profession for Pierre

Before the young master left for his island home, he thought that circumstances might require Pierre to be trained in a lucrative profession. There were fewer household duties at the smaller house in New York, and less social life to demand his time serving and playing his violin. So the man who looked to the future apprenticed young Pierre to New York City’s most famous hairdresser, Mr. Merchant. Now, these were the days of extremely fancy and complex ladies’ hair fashions — large curls piled high on the head and other complicated contortions of the long hair. “Do’s” took a very long time to arrange and cost quite a bit of money. It is said that of a successful businessman’s annual income of $10,000, his wife would spend $1,000 yearly on having her hair arranged for balls and parties. Pierre became very adept at his profession and soon was in greater demand than his teacher, Mr. Merchant. His gentility and winning personality and his kindness to everyone he met was a distinct advantage in his profession.

Pierre was busy from morning to night caring for his families at the New York house and walking all over the city to hairdressing jobs, shopping for good food for the house and listening down at the waterfront for news from Haiti. (The revolutionaries reverted to the aboriginal name for the country after the overthrow of the French.) He was eager for news of L’Artibonite and other plantations in the area. Were there survivors of the bloodbath? What had happened to his own family who had stayed behind — his father and brother? What of the other planters who had stayed behind? Pierre did all of his travel on foot because, in the late eighteenth century, Negroes were not allowed to use public transportation.

Never a day began for Pierre that did not start with Holy Mass at Saint Peter’s Church, the parish church of his new home. His income as a hairdresser actually was the support and salvation of the Berard family. And when, some time later, Madame Berard married young M. Nicholas, who made his living playing music for the theater, Pierre had to support him as well. Why was this? Well, when certain zealous Methodists were elected to municipal positions in the city they closed all the theaters and live musical performances considering such entertainments sinful!

Freedom and Marriage

Through his early years in New York, Pierre saved much of his earnings as a hairdresser with the intention of purchasing the freedom of his sister Rosalie. Time and again, he was called upon by the needy to help with one project or another. In his charity, he helped collect funds to build the original Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in the City. So Rosalie’s freedom was always postponed. He did eventually purchase his beloved sister’s freedom from Madame Berard-Nicholas.

For many years, Pierre had caught the eye of a much younger Haitian girl, Juliette Noel, who knew from the moment she met him that she would like to have this good man has her husband. To Pierre, as long as he remained a slave and was responsible for the household, he felt that he should not marry. Eventually, the young mistress’s sadness and burdens led to her early death at the age of thirty-five. On her deathbed, she held Pierre’s hand in hers, thanking him for his faithful service and awarded him his freedom. He was in his early forties when he finally (in Juliette’s eyes) asked her to marry him. She was fifteen years his junior, but could not have felt more blessed to have so good and Catholic a husband. They married at their parish church, Saint Peter’s.

Unfortunately, Rosalie fell in love with Juliette’s brother, not a worthy or reliable fellow. They married, but even before their little daughter, Euphemia (whom Pierre named for the saint of the day) was born, he disappeared and never supported his wife and baby. Little Euphemia was a delicate child whom the Toussaints loved deeply, and when her mother died at an early age of tuberculosis, they raised her as their own. Pierre taught her to read and write both French and English. Her sweet letters to him are still kept with Pierre’s papers at the New York Library.

Charity From The Heart

Pierre could have been one of the richest men in New York, even as a slave. Most of his income from his hairdressing skills went to the support of the New York house and his many charities. He took in homeless black boys off the streets, brought them home to live in the basement of the house and taught them skills that would make them useful and employable citizens. He opened a school for black children and another for poor white children (There was no racial mixing in those days!) The school for black children was in his own home, and it was here that little Euphemia learned to read and write. Unbeknownst to him, his dear wife, Juliette, was also learning the same skills as he taught them to the children.

Euphemia was the light of their life; so when she showed symptoms of the same disease that killed her mother, the Toussaints were devastated. They did everything they could for her, but there was no cure for this wasting illness at that time. Their little princess died at the age of fourteen; they were inconsolable. Pierre placed flowers on her grave regularly when he brought donations he had collected to the sisters who ran the Catholic orphanage just across the street from the church and cemetery.

The extent of Pierre’s charitable work was astounding. Amazingly, he had “friends in high places,” as the saying goes, even as a slave. Many of his American customers were wives and daughters of wealthy and famous men, all of them Protestants. The Hamiltons (as in Alexander), the Schuylers, the Crugers, and the Churches were among them. The wives of exiled French planters from Sainte Domingue preferred his services as well. The fact that he was a slave, a Black and a Catholic did not lessen their respect of his opinion when he was asked by them for advice, nor did it lessen the value they placed on his friendship.

Pierre’s dear Juliette preceded him in death in 1851. It was two years later, when Pierre was eighty-seven, that he died quietly, just as he had lived, with great dignity, and with the Sacraments of the Catholic Church. He never knew in this life the fate of his father and brother on the home island, or of their many friends there, both white and black, after he left. He was buried in the cemetery of old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the church he worked so hard to help build. He lived the greater part of his life in a foreign country and as a slave. What a great Catholic man he was, a paragon of charity and humility.

On The Way To Sainthood

Terrence Cardinal Cooke of New York City introduced Pierre Toussaint’s cause for sainthood in 1968. On December 18, 1996, Pope John Paul II declared Pierre Toussaint Venerable.

Perhaps the most telling description of this holy man was given by one of his Protestant friends. General Schuyler, victorious at the Battle of Saratoga during the Revolutionary War, said of him, “I have known Christians who were not gentlemen, gentlemen who were not Christians. One man I know who is both, and that man is black.”

Now you have read about the two Toussaints, contemporaries who never met and whose lives never really intersected, except that Venerable Pierre knew about L’Oeuverture’s upcoming slave rebellion and feared for the future of Sainte Domingue. Although the rebellion was successful in that it overthrew the French and ended the slave system, Haiti has never climbed out of its extreme poverty and its continuing political problems. Perhaps the prayers of Venerable Pierre will see that his country faces a better future.

Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Pray for Haiti; pray for us.