St. John Neumann, the Common Man’s Saint

St. John Neumann, the Common Man’s Saint

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What would the future hold for him, wondered young John Neumann as he gazed at the New York harbor from the deck of the Europa, the ship that had just brought him across the Atlantic in a rough, forty-day voyage.

Soon the Bohemian “mountain boy” was tramping the streets of the city, searching for the residence of Bishop John Dubois, less than a dollar left in his pocket. What a relief when the bishop welcomed him with open arms! After examining John’s credentials with approval, Dubois exclaimed, “I must ordain you quickly. I need you.”

Neumann had left his homeland and come to America with the hope of serving the thousands of Catholic immigrants flooding the young nation in the mid-1800s. His love for his parishioners, dedication to God’s will in whatever he was asked to do, and practical faith would become the foundation stones of his life in his new country.

From Bohemia to America

John Neumann was born in Prachatitz, Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), on March 28, 1811. His father, Philip, owned a stocking-weaving business and was a member of the town council. One of six children, John grew to be a bright student with an avid interest in botany. His mother, Agnes, playfully dubbed him her “little bibliomaniac” because of his passion for reading.

After completing his studies at the Budweis Institute of Philosophy, John was accepted at the diocesan seminary. There he read reports describing the great need for priests among the European emigrants to America and resolved that this was God’s call to him. He already knew Spanish, Italian, Greek, and Latin as well as German and Bohemian, but to prepare himself for work in the United States, he began to study English and French.

In 1834 John passed the examinations for the priesthood, but that year all ordinations were put off because there was an excess of priests in his diocese. After waiting months and receiving no replies to letters he had sent to several bishops in America offering himself as a missionary, John decided to begin his journey anyway. Though he had only 200 francs ($40) to pay for the voyage from Le Havre to New York, the “bibliomaniac” bought several books to take to his mission field as he made his way across Europe saying farewell to friends and relatives.

In New York, Dubois had indeed received Neumann’s letter, but the bishop’s reply accepting his offer never reached him. All confusion and anxieties were cleared up when John arrived, and he was ordained on June 25, 1836. After celebrating his first Mass, he wrote this resolution in his journal: “I will pray to you, O Lord, that you may give me holiness.”

Buffalo and Beyond

From 1836 to 1840 the new priest journeyed throughout the 900-square mile territory assigned to him around Buffalo and Niagara Falls, caring for three parishes and several outlying missions. John baptized the newborn and converts and visited the sick and the dying. He used any means available to reach them, walking the long miles or even riding on a cart full of manure. On one occasion, the horse his parishioners had given him ate the botanical specimens he had gathered to send home to Bohemia. John also had a talent for explaining the faith in clear, simple language, and especially loved teaching children and preparing them for their First Communion.

Life on the frontier was rugged, and this was the era when many Americans were suspicious of foreigners and the “popish” faith they brought with them. Anti-Catholic sentiment flared up occasionally, fueled by the Know-Nothing party and other secret societies. Twice Neumann narrowly escaped being lynched by men who resented the Catholic immigrants and their priests.

These early years of Neumann’s priesthood were satisfying but demanding. He nearly wore himself out with zeal and hard work, and he was lonely. So, when John met some German-speaking priests from the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, he was attracted to their fraternal spirit. Commonly known as the Redemptorists, the order had been founded in Italy in 1732 by St. Alphonsus Liguori, and some of its members had come to America in 1832. Recognizing the priestly support they could provide him, John wrote to the American superior in 1840, asking to be received into the order. He made his profession on January 16, 1842, the first Redemptorist priest to do so in America.

Over the next several years, Neumann served in parishes in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Much of his time was spent overseeing the building of new churches to meet the needs of the rapidly growing Catholic immigrant population of America’s major cities. But his chief loves continued to be visiting parishioners in the outlying mission areas and instructing the young. Keenly interested in education, he wrote a catechism and Bible history textbook while in Pittsburgh.

Shouldering Greater Responsibilities

In 1847, Neumann was appointed superior of the ten Redemptorist foundations in America and resided at St. Alphonsus parish in Baltimore. Though he would have much rather remained a simple parish priest, he accepted his new responsibilities with the same steady faith he brought to each task he recognized as God’s will. During his two years in that position, he did much to consolidate growth in the order. Around this time he also became an American citizen.

While Neumann was rector at St. Alphonsus’, Francis Kenrick, the archbishop of Baltimore, chose him as his confessor. Kenrick was so impressed with the priest’s humility and intellect, and above all with his faith, that he recommended him as the prime candidate to fill the see he had recently left in Philadelphia. When Neumann realized he was being considered for such an office, he regarded himself so unqualified and unworthy that he asked the sisters in the parish convent to make a novena to “divert a disaster for the Church in America.” However, Pope Pius IX was not to be deterred in his choice.

When Archbishop Kenrick received confirmation of Neumann’s appointment from Rome, he went to St. Alphonsus’ rectory as he usually did for confession. Discovering that Neumann was out, Kenrick left the episcopal ring and pectoral cross he himself had worn for twenty-one years as bishop of Philadelphia in his room. When John returned, he realized the significance of the cross and ring and was stricken. He immediately went down on his knees to pray—and remained there until a fellow Redemptorist found him the next morning.

Philadelphia’s “Little Bishop”

When John Neumann was consecrated bishop of Philadelphia on March 28, 1852, his forty-first birthday, the diocese covered half of Pennsylvania, all of Delaware, and part of New Jersey. It included 113 parishes, with a total Catholic population of 170,000 served by 100 priests.

Neumann was sturdy and well-built but he was only five feet two inches tall. A man with a calm, quiet disposition, he measured his words well before speaking. While the other American bishops esteemed him highly for his holiness and intellect, some of them felt he was not a commanding enough figure for Philadelphia, one of the most prestigious sees in America and a city of “high society.” Many had hoped for a sophisticated and urbane man to fill the vacant bishopric; others had looked for a renowned preacher or a native-born American. However, they overlooked the fact that a large portion of the diocese was made of settlers in the regions beyond Philadelphia, people among whom Neumann was an effective and beloved pastor.

John simply ignored the opinions of those who underestimated him and gave all his energy to being Philadelphia’s new bishop. Again, he handled building projects, fund-raising, and other financial concerns willingly because he knew that if the ever-increasing number of Catholic immigrants didn’t have churches, they would abandon their faith. But what he still enjoyed most was visiting the pioneer settlements of his diocese and the person-to-person contact of administering the sacraments. He even learned Gaelic to hear the confessions of Irish parishioners.

One of Neumann’s first actions as bishop was to organize a central board of education for his diocese. Out of his vision to have an adequate school building staffed with competent teachers in every parish grew the parochial school system that was later established all across America. By November 1853 he could write to his aging father: “Much has been done for the schools. The number of children in them has increased from five hundred to five thousand; and before another year has passed, I hope to have ten thousand children in our schools here.”

In 1854 bishops throughout the world were invited to Rome by Pope Pius IX for the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. During an audience with the pope, Neumann reported that he had added thirty new churches in his diocese during the thirty-four months since he had become bishop. While in Europe, he was also able to visit his family after eighteen years and finally celebrate Mass for them.

Ready to Meet Death

During the next five years, Philadelphia’s bishop helped build eighty more churches, promoted parish missions and the popular Forty Hours Devotion, supported the establishment of several religious orders of sisters, championed the parochial school system, and conducted visitation tours in his extensive diocese. He also played an active part in several councils of the American bishops.

On January 5, 1860, Bishop Neumann mentioned to a friend, “I have a strange feeling today… . I have to go out on a little business and the fresh air will do me good.” Then he added, “A man must always be ready, for death comes when and where God wills it.” Several hours later the bishop, in the prime of life at forty-eight, collapsed in the street. Passers-by rushed to help and carried him into a nearby house, where he died a few minutes later. As Philadelphia mourned the death of their “little bishop,” word was sent to Rome, “The Church in America has suffered a great loss.”

John Neumann played a significant role in firmly establishing the Catholic Church throughout the Eastern United States during the years of the nation’s tremendous “growth spurt.” At his beatification, Pope Paul VI said of him: “Neumann was a pioneer … a founder … one of that marvelous chain of bishops which prepared the cadre of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States and infused in it those virtues of dedication, of zeal, of efficient practicality.”

But Neumann is also called the “common man’s saint.” His legacy lies not only in his episcopal achievements, but in the holiness and persistent faith with which he embraced God’s will in every circumstance of his life. Vatican II pointed to him as a model of how every follower of Christ is to live. In 1977, the “mountain boy” from Bohemia who had begged God, “Give me holiness,” was canonized, so far the only North American bishop to be named a saint of the Church.

This article originally appeared in the book In the Land I Have Shown You: The Stories of 16 Saints and Christian Heroes of North America (The Word Among Us Press, 2002).