Monday, January 05, 2009
St. John Neumann: An American Saint
St. John Neumann was born on March 28, 1811 in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. At age 20, he still wasn’t sure what to do with his life. His father wanted him to be a doctor, but he followed the advice of his mother who encouraged him to enter the seminary.
His bishop declined to ordain him when his studies were completed, because of a large number of priests who were ordained that year. Neumann decided to become a missionary to the United States after reading writings of the American Bishop Frederic Baraga about the missions there. Neumann was an excellent student. He especially excelled at languages. In addition to his native German and Bohemian languages, he learned Italian, Spanish, Greek, Latin, English and French. Later in life, he learned enough Gaelic in order to hear the confessions of Irish–American immigrants.
John Neumann arrived in New York on June 6, 1836 with one suit of clothes and a dollar in his pocket. He was ordained by Bishop John DuBois of New York at the age of 25. He was assigned to mission Churches around Niagra Falls, New York which he found both difficult and rewarding. He ministered to the German-speaking immigrants that had settled in the area. The area was a wilderness that included swamps, dense forests and few roads. Once he was so exhausted he collapsed in the woods. Indians recognized him as a “Black Robe” who had visited their people and carried him on a blanket to the safety of the nearest homestead.
He felt he needed the companionship of other priests for the sake of his own soul. He was lonely and suffered from health problems. So he joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, commonly known as the Redemptorists, in Pittsburgh. He quickly rose to the position of provincial superior and came to the attention of Archbishop Kenrick of Baltimore who suggested to Rome that Neumann be appointed as the Bishop of Philadelphia. Neumann feared this awesome responsibility and felt he was not the right choice for the cultured world of Philadelphia. He wrote a letter to the Vatican requesting that another man be chosen.
However, Pope Pius IX decided he was, by far, the best person for the job and declared him a Bishop in 1852. The poor people affectionately called him “Our Little Bishop” because of his short stature. He was five feet and two inches tall. Wealthy and influential Catholics looked down upon him. They didn’t like his mannerisms and his German accent. They wanted a person who could speak English well and make a good impression. They wrote to Rome to try to have him replaced, but the poor, especially the new immigrants loved him.
One Sunday a priest was embarrassed by him and scolded him for his shabby appearance. He asked him to change into a better coat. “What shall I do?” the bishop answered. “I do not have another.” He had just given his best coat to a beggar.
Among Bishop Neumann’s accomplishments were the administration of the largest diocese in the country and organization of a Catholic diocesan school system. He had many new schools and churches built in his diocese. He founded the diocesan school systems in America and originated the Forty Hours Devotion. Neumann also founded a new religious community, the Sisters of The Third Order of St. Francis of Philadelphia, and saved the Oblate Sisters of Providence from dissolution. Every year he visited each parish and mission. He also had to deal with the anti-Catholic Know Nothings who burned down Catholic schools and churches.
He published two catechisms and a Bible history in German. He wrote many articles for Catholic newspapers and magazines for the German immigrants.
Bishop Neumann died of a sudden stroke as was doing errands on January 5, 1860. On the day of his death he told Father Urban, the visiting Redemptorist Superior, that he had a strange feeling about today and then added "One must always be ready - Death comes when and where God wills it.”
His body is kept under the altar at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Philadelphia which has become a popular place for pilgrims to visit. He was beatified 1963 and canonized in 1977.
Among the miraculous cures attributed to St. John Neumann’s intercession were:
Eva Benassi, an eleven year old Italian girl, who was in danger of death due to acute diffused peritonitis was completely cured after her father applied a picture of St. John Neumann to her.
James Kent Lenahan, a nineteen year old boy suffered severe injuries when he was crushed between a car and a telephone pole in an automobile accident. He was in danger of death when His parents applied a portion of the cassock of Bishop Neumann to their apparently dying son. That night he began to make a full recovery.
Michael Flanigan, a young boy, was diagnosed with bone cancer, which was rapidly spreading to his lungs, and with several unsuccessful operations, was soon to be fully recovered with no cancer ever to be found again. Michael’s parents took him to St. Peter’s Church to pray for him a relic of St. John Neumann was applied to his cancer and the symptoms miraculously disappeared.
For more information on the life of St. John Neumann see:
John Nepomucene Neumann, Saint by By Reverend F.X. Murphy C.SS.R.
Bishop John Nepomucene Neumann: An American Saint by Br. John Neumann, M.I.C.M., Tert.