Today, January 5, is the Memorial of St. John Neumann, Bishop of Philadelphia from 1852 to 1860.
John Nepomucene Neumann was born on March 20, 1811 in Bohemia to Johann and Agness Neumann. He entered seminary in 1831 and studied theology at Charles University in Prague. By the time he was 24 years old he had learned to speak six languages. He longed to be a priest, but the local bishop decided against ordaining any more men to the priesthood because he had an overabundance of priests and not enough assignments for the priests he already had. Imagine such a problem today! Having a desire to give himself to the missions in America, John arrived in New York in 1836 and was ordained a priest by Bishop John Dubois. Fr. Neumann was assigned to work with German immigrants in western New York state. He traveled the countryside, tending to the sick, teaching the faith, and training catechists. His was a large territory and very remote. He grew lonesome and desirous of community. With Bishop Dubois’ permission, Fr. Neumann applied and was accepted to enter the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (the Redemptorists) in Pittsburgh, PA in 1840, taking his final vows as a member of the congregation in 1842. Fr. Neumann became a naturalized American citizen on February 10, 1848. After priestly labor in Ohio, New York and Maryland, he became Provincial Superior of the Redemptorists in the United States. His duties as Provincial Superior didn’t last long, however, as Pope Pius IX elevated him to Bishop of Philadelphia on February 5, 1852. He was consecrated as bishop the next month.
Philadelphia was one of the largest cities in America at the time and waves of immigrants were moving in. There was also a long history of anti-Catholicism, including anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant riots, and even church burnings. Bishop Neumann had his hands full, but his fluency in many languages and his simple lifestyle endeared him to the people of his diocese. He started the first Catholic diocesan school system in the country and the number of Catholic schools in Philadelphia grew from one to 200 during his tenure. As well, the number of Catholic parishes grew at a rate of one every month. Many of these parishes were “national churches,” where the faithful from various countries who had immigrated to the United States worshipped with others from their country. Bishop Neumann also supported the establishment of religious communities in his diocese, including the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an African American community of sisters founded by Haitian refugees in Baltimore.
Despite his success, Bishop Neumann grew discouraged over the religious and racial prejudice of the people of Philadelphia, the anti-Catholic riots and church burnings. He petitioned the Vatican to be replaced as bishop, but Pope Pius IX refused his request. In 1854, Bishop Neumann traveled to Rome and was present on December 8 of that year when Pius IX formally defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
While running errands, Bishop Neumann collapsed and died on the streets of Philadelphia on January 5, 1860. He was 48 years old. His shrine is in the lower church of St. Peter the Apostle in Philadelphia. Bishop John Neumann was beatified by Pope St. Paul VI on October 13, 1963, and canonized, also by Pope St. Paul VI, on June 19, 1977. There is a beautiful church dedicated to St. John Neumann in Knoxville, TN.
“Father, you called Saint John Neumann to labor for the gospel among the people of the new world. His ministry strengthened many others in the Christian faith: through his prayers may faith grow strong in this land. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” Liturgy of the Hours, Morning Prayer for January 5.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.