Share this article

print logo


NEW YORK - It happened during pancakes one Saturday morning, the idea that little Joey Peacock would pray for a miracle. The kindergartner had been diagnosed with scoliosis, an incurable spinal condition that could only worsen with age.

"We figured why not pray," said Lisa Peacock, Joey's mom. "So Saturday night we prayed, and Sunday we prayed at church. It wasn't like we had hours to sit and be prayerful. We explained to Joey that Pierre Toussaint was a great guy and he can ask the Lord to fix your back."

After three days of praying to the former Haitian hairdresser - whose story was told in a newspaper article - X-rays showed a dramatic improvement in Joey's spinal curvature.

"When I picked the X-rays up, I said, "No way. I'm seeing things because I want to see them,' " Peacock recalled. "Even when I got back to the parking lot at work, I looked at the X-ray and thought, "What if it was the wrong X-ray?' The difference was dramatic. It blew my mind."

Call it divine intercession, the Peacock family did. Their doctor, meanwhile, while noting Joey's spinal improvement - the lower spinal curve was completely gone; the upper was decreased by half - suggested that Joey may not have been standing straight for the initial X-ray. He also pointed out that such a change in a child was not that exceptional because young bodies are constantly in flux, Peacock related.

But as devout Catholics, the Peacocks of Silver Spring, Md., knew they could pray for a miracle. What the family didn't know is the role they may play in making Toussaint the first black saint born in the United States.

"It's a splinter compared to the crosses you can have as a parent," Peacock said during a phone interview. "But what makes us think this is a miracle is that it was so instantaneous."

And that's how the journey began for the Peacock family, a process that would lead them to St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, where Toussaint is interred, and then hopefully on a pilgrimage to Rome, to celebrate his beatification.

Toussaint's trek, on the other hand, started in 1766 on a plantation in Haiti, where as a young boy he woke to the eerie beat of native drums.

The slave who would be saint

"I think being involved with Pierre Toussaint has helped me," said Monsignor Robert M. O'Connell. "Here is a man who had every reason to cop out. Toussaint was black. He was a slave."

O'Connell, 76, is vice-postulator for the canonization cause of Toussaint, which - translated from Vatican speak - means that the former police department chaplain is Toussaint's point man in this country. Tall, hearty and a lifetime New Yorker, O'Connell is determined to help make Toussaint a saint.

In St. Patrick's Cathedral, Toussaint rests in good company. The former slave is the only layman holding a place of honor beneath the altar of St. Patrick's - to the left of Cardinal Terrence Cooke, below Archbishop Fulton Sheen and to the right of Cardinal John O'Connor, the man credited with putting Toussaint's cause back on track. So rare is it to have a layman sharing such coveted turf (there are only eight of 21 spaces left), that O'Connor is said to have offered his spot to Toussaint.

Yet Toussaint never founded a religious order, was not martyred and did not hold any kind of distinguished position in the Catholic Church, all hallmarks of sainthood.

Toussaint, who suffered from arthritis, limped in his later years, experts theorized, possibly from time spent hunting the streets in search of orphans and refugees. During a yellow fever epidemic, Toussaint entered barricaded buildings to nurse or pray with the sick. He founded one of New York's first orphanages and raised money for the city's first cathedral.

Before that, he was hairdresser to the stars, catering to curls on the most elegant of heads, listening as New York's elite bared their souls. Even Martha Washington was said to have had her hair done for her husband's inauguration by the skillful hands of this black entrepreneur.

Although Toussaint remained a slave, he supported his master's widow for nearly 20 years. Her dying wish in 1807 freed Toussaint, who later would marry and become a leader among the small band of Catholics in New York. When Toussaint died in 1853, he was so well-known in the city that newspapers treated his death like that of a celebrity.

"His owner had him apprenticed to a hairdresser," whispers O'Connell, reverently touching the marble-encased crypt. "He wound up learning the trade so well that he was in demand from all these rich gals. What money he had he gave away."

With that O'Connell smiles, steps back and surveys the crypt and its occupants, like a coach admiring his first-string team. Only one thing: This squad sits behind an imposing pair of brass doors, and this coach may be on the brink of a miracle.

Which is why in 1990, the remains of Toussaint were ordered moved from the Old St. Patrick's Cathedral near Chinatown on Manhattan's Lower East Side to a home on Fifth Avenue.

New digs

"I learned more about bones than I ever knew in my life," O'Connell said later, outside the cathedral, skillfully weaving and bobbing his way through the crunch of Manhattan humanity.

O'Connell is describing the project that transferred Toussaint's remains to St. Patrick's, a move intended to increase awareness -- and with it, devotion -- and maybe bring an almighty miracle. As saint-making goes, identification is key, or as O'Connell explained, "to make sure we're giving devotion to the proper bones."

"I was fortunate," O'Connell said. "We got a metropolitan forensic team -- an anthropologist, archaeologist, medical doctor -- and spent about 16 days digging for him. People want relics, and I'm not talking about the salesmanship, but you have to have the right body.

"Every day I was there, and it was a cold November," O'Connell recounted. "When we got near him, these guys started digging with a wooden spoon and a paintbrush, a painstaking job. We found him on his back with his hands at his side. Every bone of his 6-foot-2-inch frame was in place."

The wooden casket, however, had disintegrated, its outline distinguished by a different texture of dirt than the grave.

O'Connell now is on a hunt of a different kind.

"All we need is one miracle, and it's automatic he will be beatified," said the monsignor. "One more and he'll be canonized. I never thought I would see the day that we're pretty much on the brink of declaring him beatified. I thought it would take another 40 years."

In Vatican time, Toussaint's ascent could be described as swift, having been declared "venerable" in 1996, only 150 years after his death at age 97. That first hurdle required proof of a life of virtue -- including the translation of Toussaint's letters from French to English -- the results bound in two volumes and sent to Rome. It was the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation, according to O'Connell.

"I'm convinced that more people should be canonized, and our Holy Father has the attitude we should have more people closer to our time," said O'Connell. "It's all right to pray to St. Augustine in the fourth century or whatever, but the pope wants them closer to our lifetime, and he wants different ethnic groups."

An extreme minority

"There used to be a sense that to be black and Catholic was to have two strikes against you," said the Rev. Roderick M. Brown, sitting in his office at St. Martin de Porres Church in Buffalo. "That's not quite true any longer."

The construction last year of the inner-city church -- in the 500 block of Northampton Street and in the shadow of the old Deaconness Hospital -- was a testament to the strength of the black Catholic faith in Western New York. Not only is it the first new Catholic church built in Buffalo in 35 years, St. Martin de Porres represents the first new church ever built by black Catholics in the city.

"We are clearly very much at home, but we are an extreme minority," Brown said, and the numbers back him. Out of the approximately 731,000 Catholics in the Buffalo diocese, 5,500 are black, giving rise to the extreme minority status described by Brown.

"Black and Catholic is an issue at some level, but not nearly what it used to be," said Brown, parish pastor and vicar for Central Buffalo Ministries. "At one time, most people in the black Protestant community thought of Catholics as not inviting, not welcome, as part of the white race's structure. There was and still is an amount of racism within the Catholic Church, but then the church reflects American society."

The building that houses St. Martin de Porres parish is anything but a reflection of white America. Achieving the African theme of bringing the outside in, the church is an exercise in windows, all shapes and sizes. Its crucifix carries a black Christ figure. Its 10 a.m. Sunday service showcases choir, preaching and music.

"We bring our own particular style," Brown explained. "Our friendliness, I don't know how to explain it -- not to say it doesn't happen elsewhere. It just happens differently here."

During the celebration of Mass, for example, there comes a time when parishioners share a greeting with one another, a sign of brotherhood that usually translates into a police handshake or brief embrace.

"Folks spend a lot of time kissing and hugging and greeting and walking around," Brown described." It takes a little while to get everybody back so we can go on with the rest of Mass. I don't think it's an experience you'd have in most other churches.

"That's one thing about the black community," Brown said. "We do tarry awhile. We're not in any big hurry. Our folks enjoy the singing."

An aggravated case of arthritis complicated by diabetes has Brown zipping around his church on a red scooter. Proud of his young congregation, composed of about 400 families with a median age of 35 to 40, Brown scooters a lot.

"We are a young parish, and the youth ministry plays a major role," Brown said. "At one time, we were considering changing the name of our school to Pierre Toussaint."

Toussaint, Brown said, would offer his congregation a role model, one that young black Catholics could emulate as a model of patience and forgiveness.

"Pierre Toussaint was born a slave, and to overcome all of this in a positive way is something else," Brown said. "He never took it so badly that he couldn't get beyond it and be a true Christian. Sometimes you can be so bitter and so sad and unhappy about the way you're being treated that your response would not be positive."

Uncle Pete

Back at the Peacock home in Silver Spring, Md., Toussaint is talked about like a family member.

"Joey has an 8-by-10 picture of Toussaint on his bedroom dresser. I have one in my room. Danny has one in his room, I have one in my Daytimer at work. My parents have one at their house," said Lisa Peacock. "He's like Uncle Pete."

The Peacocks -- John, 37, a software engineer; Lisa, 35, a communication's manager for Verizon; John Daniel, 9, and Joey, 6 -- are an active family who like to camp and canoe. The prospect of bracing for their child would not have been an easy cross.

"It's not like he was blind or deaf, but for us the healing is dramatic," Lisa Peacock recalled. "Going to the cathedral was just so moving. To see Joey praying at the tomb of his intercessor -- and he's not in a brace -- was just beyond words. I got teary eyed.

"Why has this miracle happened to a white blond boy?" asked the teacher of fifth-grade religious instruction. "It's so like Toussaint, because he didn't care what color you were, or who you were, or if you were Catholic or whatever."

For now, the Toussaint soldiers -- the Peacocks and O'Connell -- are waiting on the scheduling of a tribunal, where testimony on Joey's healing will be heard by a Vatican team of experts, members of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.

In the meantime, the key is to spread the word.

"Our biggest problem was getting him known in Haiti because he left there when he was 21 and spent 66 years here," O'Connell said. "So I contacted the archbishop in Port au Prince. My work is just to get him to be known."

For her part, Lisa Peacock is hoping to create a Toussaint Web site to attract some cyber chatter.

"We have to let more people know what this is about, because then people can model their life after Pierre," she said. "I will tell people to the day I die about Toussaint."

There are no comments - be the first to comment