As January comes to a close and February draws near, with it comes the national observance of Black History Month – a celebration which is a fitting occasion to recognize the great contributions many Black Catholic Americans have made to their communities and to the Church. One Catholic deserving of recognition is Pierre Toussaint, a former slave on the path to be the first African American man from the United States canonized as a saint.

Pierre Toussaint was born a slave on June 27, 1766 in the former French colony of Saint-Domingue, modern-day Haiti. Pierre spent his early life as a slave on the Artibonite plantation owned by Jean Bérard. He was educated by the Bérard family’s tutors and brought up Catholic. In 1787 during the Haitian Revolution, Jean Bérard and his wife left for New York City and took five of their slaves with them, including Pierre.

In New York City, Pierre was apprenticed with one of New York’s leading hairdressers. Pierre quickly became a skillful hairdresser desired by many members of New York’s high society. He kept his own wages and took care of Madame Bérard when they fell on hard times. In return, Madame Bérard promised to free him when she died, and when she passed in 1807 Pierre Toussaint was a freeman at the age of 41.

Continuing to do well as a hairdresser among the wealthy of New York, Pierre purchased the freedom of another slave, Juliette Noel, and the two married. From the beginning, the couple was always conscious of the needs of the poor and less fortunate. They began a career of charity, starting with giving food and money to the nearby Orphan Asylum. Later on, he started an orphanage and fostered many children, helping them attain an education and learn a trade.

Pierre and his wife were known for many other great acts of charity. Together the two opened an employment agency, a credit bureau, a hostel for traveling priests and the poor, and arranged for the monetary support of new incoming Haitian immigrants. Pierre also garnered a reputation for crossing quarantine barricades to nurse ill patients during cholera outbreaks in New York.

In addition to helping others, he gave a great deal of money to help fund the construction of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan. One tradition says that on the day of the church’s dedication, Pierre was told by an usher he could not enter because he was black. He began to leave before another usher noticed who he was, and he was promptly allowed inside to a seat of honor.

At the time of his death in 1853, Pierre had been attending daily Mass for 66 years at Saint Peters’s Church. He was buried alongside his wife in the cemetery of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral. However, in 1990 the cardinal of New York had his remains moved to the crypt of the cathedral, the first layperson to be given an honor usually reserved for cardinals and archbishops. A year later in 1991, his formal case for canonization was approved and he was named a Servant of God. In 1996, he was declared venerable by Pope Saint John Paul II.

Throughout his 87 years on Earth, Venerable Pierre Toussaint led a pious and selfless life dedicated to the service of others, always giving to the poor and less fortunate. You can honor his legacy and follow in his footsteps of charitable giving through a donation with MISSIO, and help provide critical aid to those who need it most.

Launched by Pope Francis himself, MISSIO is a new and innovative Catholic crowd-funding platform that allows you to directly provide aid and assistance to the poorest areas around the world.

With MISSIO you can directly support the works of Catholic missionaries in the poorest and most desperate areas of the world. Some of the giving opportunities on MISSIO include helping to start a small primary school in Haitiprovide books and lunch for tribal children in Thailandprotect abandoned children in one small town in Ugandareach out to help those affected by famine in South Sudan, or send general support for the Pope’s missions around the world.

Choose one of these missions of Pope Francis knowing that 100% of your donation will go directly to that cause. Share the mission on social media so others can support the projects also.

MISSIO is powered by The Pontifical Mission Societies, the Catholic Church’s official support organization for overseas missions since 1822, providing for a global network of people who are making a difference for communities in need around the globe.

Start your new year off right by helping the missions of Pope Francis around the world with MISSIO!

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