St John Neumann. Young John, called after his Bohemian compatriot St John of Nepomuk, sailed as a deacon to New York, where he was ordained a priest. Four years later, he joined the Redemptorists. He subsequently became the fourth bishop of Philadelphia. In 1977 he became the first bishop from the US to be canonised.
Patrick Duffy tells his story.
John’s father was German and his mother was Czech. He studied for the priesthood at Budweis seminary in south Bohemia and at Prague University. He spoke eight languages and was interested in botany and astronomy. When his ordination was delayed since his elderly bishop felt he had enough priests in Budweis, John sailed for New York where the bishop welcomed and ordained him and sent him to minister to German-speaking immigrants clearing forests near the Niagara Falls. In New York, John was one of 36 priests for 200,000 Catholics. John’s parish in western New York stretched from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania. His church had no steeple or floor but that didn’t matter because John spent most of his time travelling from village to village, climbing mountains to visit the sick, staying in garrets and taverns to teach, and celebrating the Mass at kitchen tables.
Joins the Redemptorists
Feeling isolated, John felt the need of a supporting community and joined the newly arrived Redemptorist community of priests and brothers dedicated to helping the poor and most abandoned. After his novitiate he worked in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Six years later he was made provincial of the Redemptorists in the US and in 1851 was named bishop of Philadelphia.
Much of John’s energy went into setting up schools and parishes for immigrants, building churches and visiting his diocese. He also wrote two catechisms and founded the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who as an active Franciscan Third Order staffed his schools and orphanages.
The ability to learn languages that had brought him to America led him to learn Spanish, French, Italian, and Dutch so he could hear confessions in at least six languages. When Irish immigration started, he learned Gaelic so well that one Irish woman remarked, “Isn’t it grand that we have an Irish bishop!”
Once on a visit to Germany, he came back to the house he was staying in soaked by rain. When his host suggested he change his shoes, John remarked, “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.”
He made the strenuous ad limina visits to Rome and was there in 1854 for the formal declaration of doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
A small man, he spent much of his time encouraging nuns and lay people to live a life of hidden sanctity. Worn out by his labours, he collapsed on Jan.5th 1860 on Vine Street, Philadelphia, and died at the age of only forty-eight. In 1977 he became the first bishop from the United States to be canonised – by Pope Paul VI.