At the corner of Fifth and Girard in Philadelphia stands a large stone church, St. Peter the Apostle. Beneath the church is a chapel whose altar table rests atop a glass case containing a man’s remains, which are sheathed in a wax shell and dressed in episcopal garb. The shrine is nicely decorated but not elaborate. The parking lot is small and accessible from a side street. From the outside, St. Peter’s appears to be just another church among innumerable such edifices in a city rich in Catholic culture. The modesty of the tomb’s surroundings belies the fact that the crypt church is the resting place of one of the giants of the Catholic Church in the United States. And that is surely the way St. John Neumann would want it.
Neumann was born March 28, 1811 in Prachatice, a medieval walled town in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). He was baptized “John Nepomucene” after a fourteenth-century saint, one of the patrons of Bohemia. His German surname came from his father, a native of Bavaria who had moved to Prachatice to practice his weaving trade and had married a local girl. Quiet and studious, John was attracted to both science and theology. At twenty, he decided to pursue the priesthood, entering the diocesan seminary at Budweis. He completed his seminary training in Prague, where he used his free time to work alongside English factory laborers so as to learn the language of the United States. He had been reading missionary accounts from America, including that of Frederic Baraga, evangelist of the Great Lakes region and a fellow native of the Austrian Empire. His determination to work in the New World was so adamantine that, in his last year of seminary, he refused the offer of a plumb post in the imperial offices in Vienna.
Notwithstanding John’s excellent preparation and eager anticipation, his ordination was delayed by the illness of his bishop, which was a grave trial for the zealous seminarian who wished to begin his ministry in America at once. Weary of awaiting both ordination and confirmation of the American bishops’ willingness to receive his services, he set out to cross the Atlantic. In 1836 he arrived in New York City, unbeknownst to any church officials there. When he finally located and was granted an audience with Bishop DuBois, the bishop was stunned at Neumann’s sudden appearance in the city. DuBois had indeed granted Neumann’s request to serve in New York, but the letter was en route to Europe while Neumann was on his way to the U.S. Thus all was well, and John Neumann was ordained as a priest for the Diocese of New York in Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, June 25, 1836.
The diocese covered the entire state at the time, and Neumann was assigned to an enormous parish in and around the Erie Canal boomtown of Buffalo. Neumann had charge of a widely scattered flock in the upstate countryside and he took seriously his duty to visit them all. When asked later what he had done in Buffalo, he replied, “Walk.”
The loneliness of his assignment convinced Neumann of the need for priestly camaraderie, so in 1840 he joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, selecting the Redemptorists in part because of their responsibility for German-speaking immigrants. His “novitiate” was undertaken at the Redemptorist house in Pittsburgh, but circumstances dictated that it would not be a conventional period of preparation for vows. Neumann was already a priest, a skilled linguist, and a proven physician of the soul, so his services were too desperately needed in immigrant America to permit the luxury of a stable time of retreat and formation. He was thrown into service, working in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New York, Rochester, Buffalo, and Norwalk, Ohio. On January 16, 1842 he took his vows to live according to the Rule laid down by St. Alphonsus Liguori and returned to Pittsburgh two years later to take charge of the construction of the parish of St. Philomena.
It was not an ordinary parish. Pittsburgh’s Bishop O’Connor was known to opine that the priests at St. Philomena’s were “all saints.” He was close to the mark. Its first pastor, Fr. Neumann, would become the first canonized male saint in American history. His assistant and then successor as pastor, Francis Seelos, CSSR, was beatified in 2009.
In 1847, Neumann was made superior of the Redemptorists in the United States. The position revealed both his strengths and his weaknesses. His humility and dedication were incontrovertible: he always worker harder than anyone around him and never disdained even the most mundane tasks. But his diplomacy was wanting, and some of the rank and file voiced criticism of his decisions. Neumann disliked the role of superior and recognized his deficiencies, and in 1850 he was relieved of the office.
Around the same time, rumors began to circulate that the Holy Father, searching for American priests qualified to be bishops, had his eye on Neumann. When Neumann became aware that there might be some truth in the rumor, he went to his nun-friends and urged them to “Pray. Pray that God will ward off a great danger from the American Church.” It was no display of false humility, but a statement of his genuine belief that his talents were ill-suited to the duties of a bishop.
On Passion Sunday, 1852, John Neumann was consecrated as the fourth bishop of Philadelphia. The diocese contained the most sophisticated old-wealth aristocracy of nineteenth-century America as well as the poorest immigrants struggling to make their way in the New World. It was an impossible combination, and while Neumann excelled among the latter group, he alienated the former. Just over five-feet tall, speaking in a foreign accent, and draped in a threadbare cassock, Neumann was snubbed by urbane Philadelphians whose preconceptions of a prince of the church were rather different.
But Neumann’s legacy did not depend on his eloquence or appearance. He had always evinced particular concern for children and their education and in Philadelphia he had the opportunity to give that concern institutional expression. When he arrived in 1852, there were two Catholic grammar schools in the diocese; by the end of his tenure just eight years later, there were a hundred. In addition, Philadelphia added new churches at a pace of ten per year, among them the magnificent Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. Even allowing that the period was a “brick-and-mortar” bonanza throughout much of the American Catholic world, Neumann’s episcopacy represents one of the most astonishing bursts of ecclesiastical construction in human history.
More important was the spiritual renewal that these physical accomplishments reflected. In fact, his subordinates frequently complained that Bishop Neumann diverted too many resources away from the completion of the cathedral, which was not the bishop’s priority. Instead, his focus was on the spiritual welfare of the diocese. He vigorously promoted the Forty Hours devotion of Eucharistic adoration; from Philadelphia it would spread across the country in the decades following. His wisdom and compassion as a spiritual director were legendary. He served as confessor for bishops and priests, multiple congregations of sisters, and countless lay men and women. He possessed the necessary practical skills for this task: By the time he was bishop he had mastered twelve languages, which came in handy when serving the Germans, Poles, Czechs, Italians, French, and Spanish who populated the diocese. Ironically, he ran into trouble only with the Irish—some of them could not speak English. Soon enough, he had learned Gaelic as well.
Neumann was recklessly generous with his own possessions. The city’s poor knew that the bishop’s residence would always have some food or money to offer. He constantly divested himself of everything on his person, not excluding his clothing. One Sunday, one of his priests scolded him for his shabby appearance and argued that he should don a nicer suit on the Lord’s Day. He shrugged, “What can I do? I have no other clothes.”
A highlight of his priesthood was his 1854 trip to Europe. It began in Rome, where Pope Pius IX solemnly proclaimed the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Because he was short of stature and would not block the view of the pope (or so the story goes), he was chosen to hold the text for the Holy Father to read as he made the proclamation in St. Peter’s Basilica.
The native Bohemian, by now a United States citizen, took the opportunity to visit the place of his birth. The people of Prachatice turned out in force to see the “little bishop.” Accustomed to the typical protocol of European bishops, they were surprised that his lifestyle still bespoke that of the tradesman’s son that he was. He carried his own luggage and, when he wanted to go somewhere, he walked!
He was walking—completing an errand in downtown Philadelphia—on June 5, 1860, when he collapsed. Passersby carried him into a nearby house while word was sent to get help. Neumann’s own secretary, Father Quinn, raced from the bishop’s office a few blocks away but by the time he arrived it was too late. Thousands of Philadelphians processed past his open casket before the body was interred beneath St. Peter’s Church. As one of Neumann’s biographers wryly but astutely points out, they were able to observe two characteristics they had never before seen their bishop exhibit: He was at rest, and he was wearing new clothes.
John Nepomucene Neumann was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1963, and canonized by the same pope in 1977.