NEW YORK (AP) _ It was no accident that officials of the Roman Catholic Church picked Thursday, All Saints Day, to unearth the bones of a former slave who is the first black American proposed for sainthood.

Cardinal John O'Connor turned the first shovelful of dirt at the small cemetery at Old St. Patrick's Church in Little Italy. That's where Pierre Toussaint was buried in 1853 when he died at age 87.

Born into slavery in Haiti, Toussaint is now considered the founder of Catholic Charities because he helped the needy for 66 years before formal services for aid existed.

''It would be magnificent if it could eventually be determined that he deserves to be a saint,'' O'Connor told about 100 spectators pressed against police barricades.

Toussaint was born in 1766 and brought to New York at age 21 by his French owners. Still enslaved, he became a leading hairdresser in the city and was allowed to keep some of his income.

When Toussaint's owner died, he left an impoverished widow and child. In a typical act of generosity, Toussaint secretly supported them for 20 years. The widow freed Toussaint from slavery just before she died in 1807.

Once free, he bought the freedom of slaves and lavished money on charities, including an orphanage and the city's first school for black children. He also entered quarantined sections of the city to help yellow fever victims. O'Connor described Toussaint as ''an extremely holy man, a great humble man, who made a considerable amount of money. He used that money for the poor. He visited the poor, wherever they were. ... He gave away all his money.''

Church officials say the case for sainthood is boosted by one reported miracle: the recovery of a young Haitian with cancer who refused medical care and relied solely on prayers to Toussaint.

In 1989 the church began investigating and examining Toussaint's life, the first formal step if he is to be canonized. The process can take years.

Identifying Toussaint's remains is part of that process. If he is made a saint, his bones may be distributed to churches and other holy places.

Though sainthood may be far away as workmen dug deep into the graveyard, people darted past the barricades to pocket fistfuls of earth as keepsakes.

Only a few bones were unearthed in the first day of digging. A church spokesman said the project could go on for days.

Workmen had found a portion of a jaw with teeth, said Dr. Victor Tchertkoff, head of the Department of Pathology at New York Medical College in Valhalla. Other small bones appeared to be from human ribs.

The remains will go to an anthropological pathologist, he said.

Church officials said it was likely that the remains of Toussaint, his wife and stepdaughter were buried in wood coffins that have since disintegrated.

On a piece of concrete lifted off the grave before digging began, Toussaint was described as a Catholic black man ''respected and revered for the integrity of his life and for his many works of charity.''

As O'Connor stood outside the cemetery on Thursday, he said, ''I wish I were as holy as he.''