To Whom Shall We Go?
Written 17 years ago by one of my predecessors, John Cardinal O’Connor, this column reminded us then what we must remember now — Haiti needs our help and prayers. As the Cardinal said, Pierre Toussaint (now declared “Venerable” — another step on the road to possible beatification and canonization) is the “perfect mediator” for “those looking for peace in Haiti.”
In the Cathedral Crypt, A Prayer for Haiti
John Cardinal O’Connor, Catholic New York
October 21, 1993
It’s time to take Pierre Toussaint seriously. The situation in Haiti is a mess. The relationship between Haiti and the United States is a mess. The potential for massive violence is horrifying.
Meanwhile, the skeleton of a man of peace lies beneath the high altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I pass his crypt each morning as I enter the sanctuary to offer the 7:30 Mass. These days I pray for his intercession for the land where he was born into slavery, the land that has known little but oppression, starvation, occupation, terrorism, war, for generation after generation. The dominant, often the only hope, for the poor has been by way of their parish churches, their Masses, the efforts of their priests and bishops and, religious sisters and brothers and others who care enough about them to teach them to read and write, to know and to love God, to try to be happy in a way the world knows little about…
…Becoming wealthy by the standards of the day, even when technically in bondage, he tramped the streets constantly to feed the hungry, spent himself night after night to visit the sick. Every day for 60 years he trudged to Mass in Old St. Patrick’s Church, passed by wealthy Catholics in their carriages who refused to pick him up because he was black, however bitter the weather. Time after time he was insulted, was refused a seat in the church he had rebuilt after a fire. Yet he went on, doing good, doing endless good.
Yellow fever was common to New Yorkers of the day. Whenever it struck, those who could leave left in panic. Not Pierre. He would search fearlessly through the quarantined areas, seeking in house after house for the abandoned, taking the sick into his own home to nurse them.
Legions of slaves purchased their freedom from this man who felt so free interiorly that he seemed indifferent to his own state of technical bondage. Children black and white received an education they could not have dreamed of except for the generosity of Toussaint. Those orphaned by successive plagues found a home built for them by Pierre.
Was this an Uncle Tom, to be scorned by those who believe he should have been a militant against slavery? What nonsense. If ever a man was truly free, it was Pierre Toussaint. He respected activists. He did not believe their way should be his way, and if ever a man did things his way, it was Pierre Toussaint. If ever a man was a saint, in my judgment, it was Pierre Toussaint.
It is not Pierre Toussaint the slave or the freedman whose help I ask for Haiti as I pass his remains each morning, but the Pierre Toussaint who seems to me to have been as saintly a saint as the Church has ever canonized, albeit he still awaits the formal title that I cannot convey on him. Validation of a miracle is still being sought, and conditions in Haiti have not made the search easy. But no one can read this man’s life—and the records are thoroughly authentic—without being awed by his holiness.
What has really worked in Haiti? Who really knows what will work now? With hundreds of thousands of lives at stake the great powers of the world seem paralyzed. I watch the debates on television. I listen to equally sincere members of the Congress share mutually exclusive ideas about what action should be taken. I respect both their intentions and the complexity of their task. But meanwhile, the remains of a man of peace lie serenely in a crypt beneath the altar of sacrifice in the Cathedral of St. Patrick. If his soul is where I believe it must be, he’s a “natural” for those sincerely looking for peace in Haiti, the perfect mediator.