The exhumation of the remains of Pierre Toussaint, who lived a life of service, even caring for his former slave masters, was begun in Manhattan and may lead to his becoming America's first black saint.

Cardinal John O'Connor, the head of the archdiocese of New York, said the exhumation of Toussaint's 137-year-old remains, which began Thursday in a Manhattan graveyard, was a step toward his being canonized.Toussaint, a native of what is now Haiti, would be the first black American declared by the Catholic Church as a holy man capable of interceding with God on behalf of sinners. He died in 1853 after a life dedicated to caring for the poor and those with deadly sicknesses, including his former slave owners.

His adopted daughter and wife are believed to be buried there with him.

Church officials credit Toussaint with lifting some of the religious and racial prejudice that existed in New York at the time.

Consideration of his canonization emerges at a time when American cities are racked by racial battles that have generated into violence.

It also is likely to be supported by thousands of blacks segmented in small Catholic churches nationwide who seek recognition and leadership in a church, in which the some leaders themselves were slaveholders.

Toussaint's exhumation began in a graveyard adjacent to Old St. Patrick's Church in lower Manhattan's Little Italy after a prayer ceremony attended by neighborhood parishioners, reporters and church officials.

"This could be a great day for the city of New York, not just for the church," said O'Connor. "It would be magnificent if he was eventually declared a saint."

O'Connor said the exhumation begins the process of investigating Toussaint's life to determine whether the archidiocese will recommend that he be canonized, but the digging up of the remains does not guarantee that he will become a saint.

Toussaint's name can be translated as "all saints" in French, and even though the exhumation began on All Saints Day, O'Connor said it was a coincidence not planned.

Church officials did not know how long the canonization process would take.

"The church is never in a hurry to do this, because the Church does not try to create saints," O'Connor said.