I have enough for myself, but if I stop working I have not enough for others!
Like many immigrants, when 21 year-old Pierre Toussaint arrived in New York in 1787, he had few possessions and even fewer prospects. He came to the city with a wave of wealthy French landowners and their families fleeing an incipient slave revolt in Haiti. Though lacking personal wealth, he was well educated and had a more than ample supply of charisma. By lucky chance, he found himself apprenticed to one of New York’s leading hairdressers. He learned quickly and excelled at creating the elaborate hair styles of the day. Soon he had established his own flourishing business and was catering to the city’s elite. He was more, however, than simply a skilled artisan with the scissors and comb. Records of the day reveal that his charm and education made him a much sought after confidante and counselor to the ladies who paid upwards of $1000 a year to have their hair styled. The women collectively dubbed him, “our Saint Pierre.” His success brought riches and Toussaint became one of the wealthiest men in New York City. That is, he would have been one of the wealthiest men in New York if he hadn’t given most of his money away.
In addition to being a superb stylist, Toussaint was a committed philanthropist. A devout Catholic, his commitment to serving others was deeply rooted in his faith. As a boy, he read and studied the classic works of Catholicism. He was also a serious churchman and attended Mass every morning. He contributed to the building of the first St Patrick’s Cathedral, supported a group of nuns and assisted Mother Elizabeth Seton (later to become United States’ first native-born saint) establish an orphanage. But his charitable works went far beyond the church. When the planter he’d accompanied to New York died, plunging his wife into poverty, Toussaint assumed all her financial obligations, managed her household and when she remarried, cared for her similarly destitute new husband. But he did more. He and his wife fostered a succession of boys. He purchased the freedom of dozens of slaves. He organized a credit bureau, an employment agency, a refuge for destitute travelers and a shelter for priests. During epidemics, he crossed the quarantine barricades and nursed the sick and dying.
Toussaint was a remarkable man made more so by the fact that he was a slave. The planter’s widow that he lovingly cared for was technically his owner and while he had more than enough money to buy his freedom, he remained a slave to care for her. Freed upon her death, his charitable efforts simply became more expansive and were never limited by considerations of race, religion or ethnicity. Inspired by his faith he was motivated by a respect for the dignity of every human and by a profound sense of kindness. Toussaint took the needs of others personally. Whether the need was for guidance, relieving hunger or nursing the sick, he saw it not as a community obligation, but as his obligation as a member of the community. Today the Catholic Church has designated Toussaint as Venerable—the second step on the journey to sainthood—and he’s the only layman buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. While the rest of us aren’t making that particular journey, we can take a lesson from Toussaint. Our community is only as strong as the individuals in it. To make our world a better place, we need to take things personally. We need to help one another and not rely on the hope that someone else will take care of things. When we see a need—great or small—we should respond. And we should respond personally and with kindness. —Ebert