The Archdiocese of New Orleans gives us gives us this lovely portrait of Venerable Pierre Toussaint, whose cause for sainthood has been languishing for too long.I recall telling my son, when he was in the third grade, that Toussaint might “soon be a saint.”
My son is 35 years old now, and we are still waiting for further investigation into this great layman and philanthropist — whose heart seemed to understand a great deal more about the brokenness of humanity and who might well be credited as the creator of what we now think of as Catholic Charities. I suspect that issues of money and perhaps the times are getting in the way — that perhaps some might have a problem with the peaceful way he worked within the unjust, short-sighted systems of his time to create real change.
But that’s the thing. Pierre Toussaint did forment real, lasting change in the lives of the people around him, and also in the society which first tried to degrade him, and then often treated him with deep injustice.
Toussaint’s body is interred in the underground crypt at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in New York City — the only lay person so honored — by order of mighty John Cardinal O’ Connor. As historian Dr. Pat McNamara tells:
As Pierre’s clientele grew, he became one of New York’s foremost black entrepreneurs. He bought a house in downtown Manhattan, and invested in real estate and banks. Although comfortably set, he still worked well into old age. “I have enough for myself,” he said, “but not enough for others.” Helping others, regardless of ethnicity, was a constant theme in his long life.
A devout Catholic, for some 60 years Pierre attended the morning Mass at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street. … A benefactor of the Catholic Orphan Asylum, he and his wife raised several homeless African-American children. In several cases, he purchased freedom for slaves (including his own relatives). During one of the city’s numerous epidemics, a biographer writes:
. . . when the yellow fever prevailed in New York, by degrees Maiden Lane was almost wholly deserted, and almost every house in it closed. One poor woman, prostrated by the terrible disorder, remained there with little or no attendance, till Toussaint day by day came through the lone street, crossed the barricades, entered the deserted house where she lay, and performed the nameless offices of a nurse, fearlessly exposing himself to the contagion.
Toussaint was one of New York’s most respected citizens, and contemporaries recalled his “innate sense of personal dignity,” “his exquisite charity and consideration for others,” and “his tender compassion for all.” One woman stated:
I saw how uncommon, how noble, was his character. It is the whole which strikes me when thinking of him; his perfect Christian benevolence, displaying itself not alone in words, but in daily deeds; his entire faith, love, and charity; his remarkable tact, and refinement of feeling; his just appreciation of those around him; his perfect good taste in dress and furniture—he did not like anything gaudy and understood the relative fitness of things.
Nevertheless, Toussaint was no stranger to racism. Even in old age, he walked to clients’ homes, since he was banned from riding the horse-cars. Neither were churches immune from prejudice. On one occasion, an usher refused him a seat at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street (the present cathedral was completed in 1879). White Catholics, unintentionally patronizing, meant to praise him by calling him a “Catholic Uncle Tom.”
You can read the rest, here.
I cannot help but wonder how great it might be if the Archdiocese of New York City would bring Toussaint’s casket up for a 24 hour prayer vigil; they could set up a live stream for Catholics across the country to come together to venerate, and to plead for his intercessory prayers.
Absent that, I am going to do this: Three times a day asking Pierre Toussaint to prayfully intercede for us —
- for an end to the violence that has come to us due to our abiding sin of racism;
- for hearts full of understanding and our conversion.
- For the salvation and conversion of the nation and for all of our politicians, none of whom seem able to lead.
This is a very childlike prayer, I make (because Jesus said I should…) as I am willing to believe that if our terrible, nearly impotent leadership could embrace salvation, they will then be helped to do the right things.
So, yeah… I am going to ask the prayers of Pierre Toussaint, especially in this month of June, this month in which we place all things, in a special way, into the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
In this moment — during this month, this year, so full of trouble and so laden with the weight of our sins — will you pray with me?
Venerable Pierre Toussaint, you were a man who managed to transcend the unjust realities of your time in order to become a channel of peace and a model of charity and selfless action. As our nation is roiled by the same sin of racism that existed in your day, please pray for us — especially for the people of color who remain oppressed in an era that knows material wealth but much spiritual poverty. Pray for our leadership, that they may humble themselves before heaven, that they may find the grace to correct themselves and resolve all of the sinful mistakes and misdirections that have maintained a terrible status quo for too long. Pray for our law enforcement people that wisdom guides their actions away from unjust and inhumane methods, and for the communities they are meant to serve, and who have real reasons to distrust them.
Pray for all of us, that we may be granted hearts made new with understanding, able to discern what is true in a noisy world of fast images offering up too many strange gods placed between us and the Christ you served so faithfully. Ora pro nobis, Pierre Toussaint.