John Nepomucene Neumann
Feast Day: January 5
Canonized: June 19, 1977
Beatified: October 13, 1963
Venerated: December 11, 1921
The new Bishop of Philadelphia had just about had it with the unfair treatment of Catholic students in the public school system of his city. We can hardly imagine such an occurrence today, but in the middle 1800s, school boards, administrators and teachers were mostly Protestant and forced their beliefs on all the students. Catholic children were pressured (often with whippings) to read the Protestant Bible and participate in Protestant worship services in their schools.
Bishop John Neumann worked hard to change this practice in the Diocese of Philadelphia. In some cases it took lawsuits; in others, he built schools and organized a diocesan school system in 1852. Even so, he was not a particularly popular bishop and faced discouragement when enemies burned down the convents and schools he built.
It seems that disappointment may have been a way of life for John Nepomucene Neumann, who was born in 1811 in Bohemia (part of the Austrian Empire then and today the Czech Republic). As a young man he entered the seminary and prepared to be a priest. Just before his ordination, the local bishop decided Bohemia had too many priests and no more would be ordained. John contacted other diocese throughout Europe, but they all had the same problem . . . too many priests.
There was one place in the world that needed priests. Immigrants flocked to the United States searching for a better life. Many of these immigrants were Catholic, and there were not enough priests to minister to them. The 25-year-old John headed for the United States. He walked from Bohemia to France, where he boarded a ship bound for the United States. When he arrived in New York, the pockets of his worn black suit were empty except for one dollar, but Bishop John Dubois of New York was happy to see him. John was ordained in 1836 and went to minister among the German-speaking people of Buffalo, where he helped build churches and log schools.
He was the first priest in the United States to make vows with the Redemptorist Order, which he did in Baltimore in 1842. He became a U.S. citizen in 1848.
Although John studied six languages in the seminary, his English was difficult to understand. This frustrated many people and when he was appointed the fourth bishop of the sophisticated Philadelphia Diocese at the age of 41, people were unhappy. These prestigious people, in their City of Brotherly Love, were accustomed to professional and polished leaders. On top of that, by his own admission, John was not a very good administrator. He did not care for the details of finances, personnel, and legal battles over who owned diocesan land. Things began to look up, however, when Rome sent him an assistant bishop who had been a banker.
John worked hard in several areas. First, he helped immigrants feel comfortable in their new home. He provided parishes where they could worship in their native language and he gave them food, clothing, and housekeeping items when they could not afford their own. He helped the Sisters of Notre Dame establish themselves in the United States. The Notre Dames taught in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New York, Buffalo, and Philadelphia. Education was always dear to John’s heart. He built Catholic schools, organized Catholic school boards, and assigned Catholic teachers to these schools. During the time he was bishop, schools in his diocese grew from one to 200, and enrollment boosted from 500 Catholic school students to 9,000.
John worked hard and tirelessly. This may be in part the cause of his death on January 5, 1860, at the age of 48. He crumpled to the snow a few blocks away from his Philadelphia cathedral. Priests rushed to him with oils, but he was already dead. He is buried in a glass crypt under the main altar of St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia.
In 1977, Pope Paul VI declared a saint, and he is the patron of immigrants and sick children.
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