Saint of the Day – 5 January – St John Nepomucene Neumann CSsR (1811-1860) Bishop, Religious, Founder, Preacher, Writer, Founder of Schools and builder of Churches. St John was born on 28 March 1811 at Prachititz, Bohemia (Czech Republic) – 5 January 1860 of a stroke at 13th and Vine Streets, Bishop of Philadephia, Pennsylvania, USA. His body is incorrupt. St John Neumann is the first United States Bishop (and to date the only male citizen) to be Canonised. While Bishop of Philadelphia, Neumann founded the first Catholic Diocesan school system in the United States as well as building 50 Churches and starting on a Cathedral, before his death. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9OcOcnZ0CI
John was the third of six children to a German Father and Czech mother. He showed great talent in school and by the time he was 24, he had mastered six languages. It was his desire to become a priest, so in 1831, he entered the diocesan seminary in Budweis, and continued his studies at the Charles Ferdinand University in Prague.
He was looking forward to being ordained in 1835 when the bishop decided there would be no more ordinations as there were more than enough priests in Bohemia. John wrote to bishops all over Europe but the story was denied on each request. Nevertheless, John was not discouraged from his vocation and continued to search for a diocese that would take him. He had learned English by working in a factory with English-speaking workers so he wrote to the bishops in America. Finally, he emigrated to the United States, where the bishop of New York ordained him in 1836.
He spent 4 years ministering to German immigrants and Native Americans in the Buffalo-Rochester area. He was one of 36 priests that were attending to more than 200,000 Catholics and his parish in western New York was vast, stretching from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania. His church was very meagre, not even having a floor and he spent much of his time travelling from town to town through rugged wilderness to visit his flock. His work was very solitary and he felt drawn to a community. He was accepted into the Redemptorist Congregation in 1840 and began his novitiate in Pittsburgh. Two years later, he took his vows. By this time, he spoke eight languages. His religious superiors in Europe were impressed with his holiness and hard work, so the appointed him vicar of all the Redemptorists in America. He was devoted to the education of African-American children and became an American citizen.
John was surprised by his appointment as bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. His new responsibilities were heavy, as the diocese of Philadelphia was geographically very large and there were many languages spoken among the immigrants under his care. One of his major accomplishments was to organise the first diocesan Catholic school system. He worked tirelessly, founding a Congregation of religious sisters to teach in the diocesan schools and during his tenure as bishop, the population of his diocese doubled. He increased the number of Catholic schools in his diocese from two to over 200.
Neumann lived very simply and frugally. On one visit to Germany, he came back to the house he was staying in soaked by rain. His hosts suggested he change his shoes but John replied, “The only way I could change my shoes is by putting the left one on the right foot and the right one on the left foot. This is the only pair I own.” When he was given a new set of vestments as a gift, he would frequently give them to the most recently ordained priest in the diocese.
He was also a humble man, once being picked up by a parish priest from a rural area and riding to town on the back of a manure cart. John jokingly exclaimed, “Have you ever seen such an entourage for a bishop!” He was disheartened by constant conflict with religiously and racially prejudiced people in his diocese. There was a strong anti-Catholic movement which had a strong presence in the area and there were even anti-Catholic riots and arson of religious buildings. Neumann wrote to Rome asking to be replaced as bishop but Pope Pius IX insisted that he continue. In 1854, he travelled to Rome and was present at St. Peter’s Basilica on December 8, along with 53 cardinals, 139 other bishops and thousands of priests and laypersons, when Pope Pius IX solemnly defined, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
His strenuous work load caught up with him and at the age of 48, he collapsed on the street and died on 5 January 1860. He was declared venerable by Pope Benedict XV in 1921 and beatified by Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council on 13 October 1963. Pope Paul VI also canonised him on 19 June 1977. His incorrupt body currently lays in a glass sarcophagus for public veneration in Saint Peter’s Church in Philadelphia.