Everyone who breathes, high and low, educated and ignorant, young and old, man and woman, has a mission, has a work. We are not sent into this world for nothing; we are not born at random; we are not here, that we may go to bed at night and get up in the morning, toil for our bread, eat and drink, laugh and joke, sin when we have a mind, and reform when we are tired of sinning, rear a family and die. God sees every one of us; He creates every soul, …for a purpose. He needs, He deigns to need every one of us. He has an end for each of us; we are all equal in His sight, and we are placed in our different ranks and stations, not to get what we can out of them for ourselves, but to labor in them for Him. As Christ has worked, we too have but to labor in them for Him. As Christ has His work, we too have ours; as He rejoiced to do his work, we must rejoice in ours also. ~ St. John Neumann

St. John Neumann (1811-1860)

By secular standards, St. John Neumann’s story is a typical American immigrant success story.  He arrived in the U.S. in 1836 from Bohemia, alone and without the promise of a job. But he quickly achieved his dream of becoming a priest, and sixteen years later, at the age of 41, he became the bishop of one of the largest dioceses in the United States, Philadelphia.

But, despite St. John Neumann’s rise to success, he was not the typical American immigrant – he was a saint! He would have eschewed the idea that his life was successful and would have preferred a different kind of success – spiritual.  He did not want to be a bishop and only wanted to serve God and serve God’s people. It is because of his pastoral works, his humility, and his acts of kindness that he is remembered today.  For his feast day, celebrated today in the U.S., I would like to share more about his amazing life and also relate how his life affected the lives of my family years after his death.

John Nepomucene Neumann was born on March 28, 1811 in Prachatitz, Bohemia (today, the Czech Republic). From childhood he had inclinations towards the priesthood, and his high intelligence allowed him to receive higher education. He wanted to enter the seminary, but he had heard that the overcrowded seminary only accepted applicants with letters of recommendations from important people. Undaunted, and unshaken in his faith, he applied anyway – without recommendations – and was admitted to the seminary in 1831.

At the seminary, John excelled in his studies and showed a strong proclivity towards foreign languages. But he faced obstacles as well. At the time, the seminary was rife with heretical thought and an almost unholy atmosphere, and he lacked a spiritual director.  The darkest hour came when the bishop indefinitely postponed all ordinations in the diocese because of an abundance of priests! But John’s faith never wavered – when he heard that America desperately needed German-speaking priests, he decided to make the long journey.

John Neumann arrived in New York in 1836.  When he contacted the bishop the next day, Bishop Dubois was delighted at his arrival – so much so that John Neumann was ordained a priest only three weeks later for the diocese of New York. The diocese at the time included the entire state of New York and one-third of New Jersey. Of the 200,000 Catholics in that large area, there were only 36 priests – and only 3 spoke German. John was immediately sent to the parish of Buffalo, which included over nine hundred square miles from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania.

The time John Neumann spent as a parish priest ministering to the Catholics in this large area is in itself worthy of admiration.  John Neumann worked tirelessly to provide sacraments to the Catholic immigrants as well as minister to their educational and medical needs. At this time in American history, anti-Catholicism was rampant. John Neumann made sure that Catholics were educated in their faith, and he also won over many converts to the faith.

Eventually, traveling by foot over vast distances put a strain on the priest’s health. John felt that his spiritual needs might be better met through a religious community, and in 1840 he joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.  Two years later, he became the first Redemptorist priest to make his vows in America.

As a Redemptorist priest, John Neumann was assigned to parishes in Baltimore and Pittsburgh and continued his ministerial work with the same intensity as before. He became so well known for his piety, learning, and work ethic that in 1851 Archbishop Kenrick, Archbishop of Baltimore and former Bishop of Philadelphia, asked John Neumann to be his confessor.  Much to his horror, Archbishop Kendrick asked the Pope to appoint John Neumann as his successor in Philadelphia.  John Neumann felt he was not worthy of such a dignity, and if appointed it would cause “a calamity for the church.”  Pope Pius IX felt otherwise, and in 1852 John Neumann was consecrated as the 4th Bishop of Philadelphia.

At that time, the diocese of Philadelphia consisted of two-thirds of Pennsylvania, western New Jersey, and all of Delaware. In this vast area were 170,000 Catholics in 113 parishes ministered by only 100 priests.  Although we think there is a shortage of priests today, these numbers are staggering.

John Neumann exhibited the same zeal in his work as bishop as he did as a priest. He sought to visit every parish in the diocese as well as hospitals, orphanages, and religious communities. He avoided the pomp and ceremony customary of the office of bishop and preferred to live on a smaller scale without secretarial staff. He continually gave his belongings to the poor.  Other bishops scoffed that Bishop Neumann would wear tattered clothes unbefitting of his “stature”. He never rebuffed the remarks nor defended himself, but merely continued to live as piously as he could.

John Neumann accomplished much for the diocese of Philadelphia. First, he attempted to make a pastoral visit to every parish – even the most distant from the city of Philadelphia. He used this visits as an opportunity to meet the parishioners, and because he spoke eight languages he was able to hear confessions for many immigrants.  Next, he established the first parochial school system in America.  As if that weren’t enough, he published catechisms that remained in use until the publication of the Baltimore Catechism thirty-five years later.  John Neumann, the Bohemian immigrant, founded the first Italian Catholic parish in the United States, St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi in Philadelphia. He introduced the devotion of Forty Hours to the United States as well. And in a rather amazing accomplishment, in the eighty months he served as Bishop of Philadelphia, he founded eighty new churches as well as forty new schools. He even founded an order of religious sisters, The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis.

On January 5, 1860, the bishop was not feeling well. A fellow priest asked about his health, and Neumann replied, “I have a strange feeling today. I feel as I have never felt before. I have to go out on a little business and the fresh air will do me good.” He added mysteriously, “A man must be ready, for death comes when and where God wills it.”

The bishop went to run some errands. On his trip home, he collapsed on the corner of 13th and Vine Streets and died. He was only 48 years old.  He was buried in the Redemptorist church of St. Peter. Today, St. Peter’s has a shrine to St. John Neumann and visitors can see his body lying under the main altar.

St. John Neumann at the National Shrine of St. John Neumann located at St. Peter's Church in Philadelphia, PA

Soon after John Neumann’s death, there were reports of miraculous cures from his intercession. The first scrutinized miracle took place in 1923 when an 11-year-old Italian girl was cured of peritonitis. In 1949, a 19-year-old college student in the Philadelphia area was near death after a car accident; he was healed after prayers for John Neumann’s help.  These two miracles led to the beatification of Neumann in 1963.

The third miracle – the one that led to Neumann’s canonization – took place in 1962 when a young Philadelphia boy was given six months to live after a cancer diagnosis. After visits to the shrine at St. Peter’s to pray, he was completely healed within five months.  St. John Neumann was canonized on June 19, 1977.

St. John Neumann left his mark on Philadelphia in many ways. My family immigrated to Philadelphia over forty years after his death, yet his life impacted my family in several ways as well.  First, the Redemptorist church in which St. John worshipped and was buried, St. Peter’s Church, is in the neighborhood where my Bavarian great-grandparents settled.  It became their church, my grandparents’ church, and my father’s church. All worshipped there in the presence of St. John Neumann’s body, and the story of his pious life and miraculous intercessions were well known in my family as a result.

Also, as mentioned above St. John Neumann is known as the Father of the Parochial School System. My mother and grandfathers attended public schools, but my father, two grandmothers, my brother and I and numerous cousins all attended Catholic schools in Philadelphia. Until the Catholic school system was organized by St. John Neumann, there was no centralized method for Catholic education in this country. Those of us that “lived through it” are grateful that it existed.  We always felt special attending Catholic school because we shared our faith daily in addition to sharing the quest for knowledge about other subjects. As Catholic school children, we had a greater exposure to attending Church and learning about the faith, and we got to experience priests and nuns as our teachers.

The institution of the Forty Hours devotion by Neumann also impacted my family’s lives. Forty Hours is a 40-hour-period of Eucharistic adoration that represents the traditional time Jesus’ body was in the tomb from his death to Resurrection. The Forty Hours devotion began in Italy by St. Phillip Neri, but St. John Neumann was the first to introduce it to America. My teenage experiences with the annual Forty Hours at my parish positively impacted my faith. It became a celebration of sorts, and the music, prayers, and special guest preachers revitalized the parish.  Coincidentally, the priests who came to preach were from the Redemptorist order and lived at St. Peter’s – they were wonderful preachers.

St. John Neumann’s name has a way of occasionally appearing in my own life because of the many churches he built during his tenure. Most of these are not within the city limits of Philadelphia, but quite far away, and stumbling on to these legacy churches showed me just how much territory Neumann covered as a pastor.  My first Neumann-church find was somewhere near Scranton, PA – unfortunately, I do not remember the name, and there are about 27 churches founded in what is now the diocese of Scranton in addition to the cathedral.  As teenagers we were “far away” from home – nearly four hours north on the PA Turnpike – and visited a small, old church on our travels. On the wall was a sign that indicated St. John Neumann had made a pastoral visit to the church – and I wondered just how long that horse ride must have taken! I came upon another of his churches close to the town where I now live. The church, St. Peter’s in Riverside, NJ, would have been another long ride and must have included a ferry across the river since Neumann lived before the local bridge was built. This St. Peter’s is also the church where my brother got married.

Whether or not you have had that “personal” connection to the saint as I do, after reading his story hopefully you will find St. John Neumann’s life worthy of admiration for all of the good works he accomplished. He also continues to do good through intercessory prayer and miracles. All of that is rather amazing for a man who was told that he couldn’t be ordained because there were too many priests!  I pray that the church will be blessed with more priests like St. John Neumann.

St. John Neumann, pray for us!

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