Group hopes to honor Downtown Haitian hero


By Leslie Picker

James Sullivan told fellow historical theology enthusiasts to meet on the corner of Barclay and Church Sts. to commence a walking tour of Pierre Toussaint’s life last weekend. Toussaint, well known for being on the path toward sainthood, came to New York in the late 18th century as a slave from Saint-Domingue, or present-day Haiti. But in plain view from that first street corner, Sullivan could point out two major commemorations of Toussaint’s life that were factually incorrect.

The first was a plaque on the outside of St. Peter’s Church, which based Toussaint’s birthday year — 1766 — off a biography written by Hannah Sawyer Lee during the 19th century. According to Sullivan, recent records show that Toussaint was actually born around 1781. The second was the street sign, named after Toussaint, spelled without the “i” — “Pierre Toussant Sq.”

These mistakes are probably just a signal of uncertainty, but a group called the Haitian Memorial Foundation is working tirelessly ensure that the true facts of Pierre Toussaint are never forgotten. It is hoping to erect a monumental plaza in Lower Manhattan to honor New York’s most prominent black Catholic philanthropist — Toussaint.

“Toussaint was just a remarkable figure on a lot of levels,” said Dowoti Désir, the Haitian Memorial Foundation vice president, who accompanied Sullivan on the tour. “He was able to transcend issues of color and to some extent, issues of class, because he understood the human condition.”

His charitable acts consisted of using money earned from hairdressing, a lucrative line of work in 18th century high society New York City, and donating it to the poor, according to Sullivan. He gave money that would purchase the freedom for slaves. He was the main contributor for the building of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1807 and St. Vincent de Paul Parish on Canal St. He was also a benefactor to the Roman Catholic Orphanage.

Throughout Toussaint’s life, he served as a spiritual counselor. Those who were touched by him often wrote letters, which are housed in the New York Public Library.

Because of his religious and charitable work, Desir said that Toussaint is currently on the path toward sainthood through the Vatican, at a stage known as “venerable.”

“He exemplifies how an ordinary person can do extraordinary things,” Father Kevin Madigan of St. Peter’s said a few days later. “He lived a wonderful life.”

After St. Peter’s Church, the tour ventured on to two Episcopal churches where Toussaint played a role — St. Paul’s Church and Trinity Church. Sullivan said that St. Paul’s Church was significant because of its age — it is an original colonial building that Toussaint would have known well. Trinity was important because it was the institution that many of Toussaint’s white friends attended.

On the tour, there were about five guests unaffiliated with the foundation. Barbara Bowman, who traveled from Connecticut just to learn more about Toussaint, was one of them.

She said that she learned a lot about Toussaint, and was inspired by how he was “the one that was always giving and never the one that was taking.”

“He not only did extraordinary things for people, but he caused other people to want to live like him,” said Sullivan, who first became interested in writing a book on Toussaint when he was getting his master’s in theology at Cromwell, Conn. He is currently in the stages of writing a book on Toussaint.

Sullivan hosts private tours through the Municipal Arts Society twice every year. He hopes to create more once Toussaint’s monument is created, when tourists have a physical tribute to see.