Of the many distinguished staff and parishioners of St Peter’s Church in New York City, several are well known for their sanctity and charity including the first American Saint, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, the Venerable Pierre Toussaint, the Venerable Felix Varela and Mother Adelaide O’Sullivan. As an interesting footnote, St Peter's was also the parish of the notorious outlaw, Billy the Kid.
Venerable Pierre Toussaint
Pierre Toussaint was raised on a plantation in Santo Domingo in the Carribean and reared as a Catholic. He was brought to New York City by his owners, the Bérard Family, in 1787 at the age of 21. Trained as a house slave, Toussaint had the unusual advantage of learning to read and write in the Bérard Family home. Monsieur Bérard encouraged Toussaint to apprentice as a hairdresser in New York and permitted Toussaint to hire himself out for money. Toussaint eventually became a prominent hairdresser to the upper reaches of Manhattan society. After Monsieur Bérard died, Toussaint assumed the financial responsibility of providing for Madame Bérard. Before her death, Mrs. Bérard gave Toussaint his freedom at age 45.
Toussaint tirelessly devoted himself to a large number of charitable works. He and his wife Juliette Noel (also known as Marie Rose Juliette) sheltered and educated orphans and helped get them their first jobs. They were benefactors of the first Catholic school for black children, bought people out of slavery and organized a credit bureau, an employment agency, and a refuge for priests and destitute travelers. Toussaint also crossed quarantine lines to tended to cholera patients during a citywide epidemic and brought many victims into his home, where he nursed them back to health. Over the years, he and his wife took in poor black boys, raised and educated them, and made certain they learned trades that would enable them to earn a living.
Toussaint was a devoted parishioner of St Peter’s Church which he attended for 66 years, Toussaint also raised money to help build Old St Patrick's Cathedral (the original site on Mulberry Street).
Eulogy for Pierre Toussaint
On July 2, 1853, a solemn requiem Mass was celebrated for Toussaint who had been a member for sixty-six years. Here is an excerpt of his eulogy given by Father William Quinn in Old St. Peter's a book by Leo Raymond Ryan.
"Though no relative was left to mourn for him, yet many present would feel that they had lost one who always had wise counsel for the rich, words of encouragement for the poor, and all would be grateful for having known him. There were few among the clergy superior to him in devotion and zeal for the Church and for the glory of God; among laymen, none."
New York City’s Cardinal O'Connor eventually had his remains moved to a crypt at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown, Manhattan and in 1992, Cardinal O’Connor began the process of declaring him a saint. Pope John Paul II declared Toussaint Venerable in 1996. Pierre Toussaint’s cause for sainthood is currently being reviewed in Rome. He would be the fourth black saint in the history of the Catholic Church.
Venerable Félix Varela y Morales
Father Félix Varela was a man of extraordinary intellect and energy who distinguished himself in both America and Cuba.
Varela was born in Cuba but spent his formative years living in Saint Augustine, Florida. He returned to Cuba in his teens and became a priest there at age 23. He became a leading Cuban educator and philosopher and taught many Cuban leaders of his time.
Among his early achievements were:
Because he actively supported Latin American independence from Spain, he was considered an enemy of the Spanish Crown and was condemned to death. He escaped to the US in 1823. Here in New York he worked on the staff of St Peter's Church from 1825-1827 and went on to help establish The Church of the Transfiguration. In 1837 he was named Vicar General of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, a position he held for many years. He moved to St Augustine, Florida in his later years and in 1853 passed away.
On Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012, the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints declared Father Varela “Venerable”, a title which is given by the Pope for a virtuous life in the Catholic faith, led to a heroic degree. Father Varela is being considered for canonization as a Catholic saint.
Servant of God - Mother Adelaide of St Theresa
A candidate for sainthood, Adelaide O’Sullivan had an early calling and precocious understanding of the Catholic faith. She was baptized as a Catholic in St. Peter’s Church in New York City.
Mother Adelaide led a difficult, selfless and brave existence, for the most part abroad. Strongly influenced by St. Theresa of Avila, she led the austere life of prayer and reflection that characterizes the Carmelite order. She eventually became a Carmelite Mother in Guatemala.
In 1874, Mother Adelaide and nuns were ejected from their convent on orders of President Barrios. The refugees temporarily were invited to stay in Cuba but due to political turmoil, desperate finances and sickness, Mother O’Sullivan and the nuns had to move back to the United States. The community of Carmelite nuns finally settled in Spain in 1881 on the invitation of the Bishop of Leon. Throughout a long period of adversity Mother O’Sullivan’s remarkable fortitude preserved and kept the order together. Mother O'Sullivan eventually became the Prioress of the Carmel at Grajal del Campo in the Diocese of Leon, Spain.
RegisterBilly the Kid
In contrast to our esteemd parishioners is Henry McCarty, better known as "Billy the Kid", a
19th-century gunman, participating in the Lincoln County War, and gaining notoriety as a frontier outlaw in the American Old West. His parents were married at St Peter's Church and the infant Billy the Kid was reportedly baptized at the church.
(Have you heard of the "Nun with the Gun"? Sister Blandina Segale, a SIster of Charity who worked on the American Southwest Frontie who famously confronted Billy the Kid. The National Catholic Register reported that, "according to one story, she received a tip that Billy the Kid was coming to her town to scalp four doctors who refused to treat his friend’s gunshot wound. Sr Blandina nursed the friend to health, and when Billy went to Trinidad to thank her, she convinced him to abandon his violent plan." Sister Segale is in line for sainthood. Read her story in the National Catholic Register and also reported by The Washington Post and Fox News.)