NEW YORK -- Ten feet below ground in a cemetery shadowed by Old Saint Patrick's Cathedral, two anthropologists dug and scraped for hours early this week searching for the skeleton of Pierre Toussaint, America's first black candidate for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

Suddenly, a patch of earth caved in, revealing a hollow space the size of a fist. Tentative murmuring came from priests, cemetery workers, photographers and a nun, who had gathered at the edge of the gravesite rim and leaned over to peer inside.

"Careful," anthropologist James V. Taylor called down to his colleagues, "that could be the cranial cavity."

Using paint brushes, they gently whisked away topsoil around the skull. Residents from the surrounding "Little Italy" neighborhood asked for handfuls of the reddish brown earth, and one woman took some home in a pretzel

bag.

It would be days before the full skeleton emerged, perfectly aligned with a plain gravestone placed years after his death and marked, "Pierre Toussaint, 1766-1853."

A Haitian hairdresser who came to New York a slave and died one of its most respected citizens, Toussaint walked these streets when this was the nation's capital and George Washington was president.

By all accounts, Toussaint was a man of extreme humility, quietly taking in orphans, refugees and penniless priests and entering quarantined sections of the city to minister to those with yellow fever.

When his aristocratic owner became widowed and impoverished, Toussaint surreptitiously supported her and her household for 20 years with money earned as a hairdresser. He paid for them to eat and to entertain, then he donned his uniform to serve the guests. Years later, on her deathbed, the widow granted him freedom.

Toussaint is the object of a campaign initiated by some members of the clergy to have him canonized. If canonized, he would be the first black American, first American lay person and first from Haiti to be addressed as "Saint."

"He was a slave, he was a black man in a white man's country, he was an immigrant, but despite everything he didn't lose his faith," said the Rev. Tom Wenski, pastor in Miami of Notre Dame d'Haiti, the largest Haitian Catholic parish in the nation, which in 1980 named its community center after Toussaint.

"We thought he might serve as a role model," Wenski said. "The way he supported his mistress for all those years indicates . . . {such} sanctity that he could have done this without bitterness. That, I think, is remarkable."

Before canonization, the church requires exhumation to examine remains, which afterward are objects of veneration. A state supreme court judge in Manhattan granted permission.

But finding preserved bones is not a prerequisite to canonization, church officials said.

Taylor and his forensic anthropologists from Lehman College of the City University of New York are on hand to determine the sex, race and age of any find.

"If Toussaint is canonized and some kind of public veneration begins, then we can say for sure these are not some dog's bones or those of some local peddler," said Msgr. Robert O'Connell, pastor of nearby St. Peter's Church, where Toussaint is said to have worshiped each morning for 66 years.

Far more important than anthropological evidence is documentary evidence of Toussaint's life. A Vatican committee will pore through letters that he wrote and received, and five file boxes of them were found in the New York Public Library.

Toussaint learned to read and write as a youth, O'Connell said, because his owner's wife encouraged him to read passages of books as he removed them from library shelves for dusting. He became a trusted confidant and correspondent, especially of ladies whose hair he coiffed.

"Even one of those rich gals spoke about him as her saint, her 'spiritual director,' which is unusual," O'Connell said. "You would expect that, in that time, people would look down on a black man, a slave."

One woman wrote of Toussaint as her "saint in ebony," and another described him as "the illustrious Toussaint, with his good-tempered face, small earrings and white teeth . . . his tall figure arrayed in a spotless apron."

When Toussaint died at 87, grief-stricken over the death two years earlier of his wife, Juliette Noel, whom he had bought out of slavery, he was given a grand funeral Mass at St. Peter's. "The priest," wrote one woman in her account of the service, "did not allude to his color and scarcely to his station; it seemed as if his virtues as a man and a Christian had absorbed all other thoughts."

Buried with his wife and their adopted daughter, Toussaint lay in obscurity in a graveyard in what is now "Little Italy" until about 30 years ago, when the church and the local Haitian community discovered his gravesite.

Carmine Grosso, 65, a retired engineer who has lived a block from St. Patrick's since he was 2, said he started seeing large numbers of blacks in the neighborhood on weekends. "We wondered where they were coming from," he said. "We've never seen that many before around here."

Haitians and non-Haitians alike still come to the gravesite to pray, and now, to watch the exhumation. Schoolboys in blue blazers and girls in plaid jumpers gather behind police barricades encircling the dig.

By late this week, after several days at the site, the anthropologists had measured the skeleton's hip bone and femur and punched the numbers into a computer program. Alas, the computer told them that they had found the skeleton of a male Caucasian.

"Of course, it was disappointing to all of us," said Joseph Zwilling, communications director for the Archdiocese of New York, who has been at the gravesite almost every day. "But the effort will not be abandoned."

Friday, digging began anew four or five feet north, at a second plot owned by Toussaint. Taylor again is hopeful. "We have the outline of another coffin, which means we have found somebody else," he said.