Feast day: 5 January
John Nepomucene Neumann was born on 28 March 1811 in Prachatice, in what was then the Kingdom of Bohemia, part of the Austrian Empire and now the Czech Republic. His father was Johann Philipp Neumann, a stocking knitter, and his mother Agnes Lebisch. They were a pious couple, and his mother, recognising his calling to the priesthood, nourished and supported it. As a young boy he made an altar out of lead and decorated it with candles and flowers to say "mass" for his friends. He was educated by the Piarist fathers at Ceske Budejovice before entering the seminary there. Two years later he transferred to the Charles university in Prague where he studied theology though he was also interested in astronomy, botany and other sciences. The university was a painful experience for him as there as there was a great deal of anti-Catholicism there, influneced by Josephinism, a form of thinking named after the Austrian Emperor Joseph II. He was also critical of the teaching of theology. He himself read extensively on the subject and wrote a paper on papal infallibility before it was defined. He became very interested in languages and by the age of twenty four he spoke six. He also had a command of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He still wanted to become a priest but the bishop refused his request as there was a surplus of priests in Bohemia and he had difficulty in finding positions for all of them. John therefore journeyed to America in 1836 in the hope of being ordained. He arrived there with one suit of clothes and a dollar in his pocket. Three weeks later, Bishop John Dubois ordained him in what is now the old St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York city.
The diocese of New York encompassed all of New York state and half of New Jersey. John was assigned to a parish in the Niagara Falls area to work with recent German immigrants. His parish stretched from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania. His first church was an unfinished chapel without a roof in Williamsville. He had to travel long distances to visit his flock, which he did with great determination, very often on foot. Once he walked 25 miles and back to confirm a boy. He was laughed at when he was on horseback because, being very short, his feet could not reach the stirrups. He lived a very austere life as he had always done, often subsisting on bread and water. At his death he was discovered to be wearing a girdle of iron wire, so tight that it cut into his flesh. He acted not only as a priest but doctor, pharmacist and teacher as well. Once he collapsed exhausted by his work, his feet so badly blistered that he could not walk; some kindly Indians, to whom he had ministered many times, wrapped him in a blanket and carried him home. He built a school at Williamsville. He moved later to a church at North Bush which is now part of Tonawanda. When Bishop Dubois visited him he was astonished to find what progress he had made.
Because of his isolation he longed for community; he was further motivated by the words of a Redemptorist, Father Joseph Prost, who - sensing John’s spiritual plight - voiced the quotation from scripture, "Woe to him who is alone". With the bishop’s permission he joined the newly established branch of the Redemptorist congregation, becoming its first novice. However his longing for spiritual guidance and community was unfulfilled, because the Redemptorist fathers were called upon to serve in other places. He moved to various churches before being appointed Provincial Superior for the United States. He was naturalized as an American citizen in 1848. He served as parish priest in St Alphonsus Church, Baltimore.
In 1852 John was appointed Bishop of Philadelphia, where there was an expanding immigrant population of Germans fleeing war, Irish victims of the Great Famine and Italians and other southern Europeans. Tensions arose between native-born Americans and the immigrants who were all competing for jobs. The "Know Nothing Party" fomented anti Catholic feeling as the Protestants feared domination by the Catholic clergy. John had resisted his appointment vigorously but he was commanded under obedience to accept it. He was allowed to continue as a Redemptorist.
One of the things that concerned him was the way in which the school system was controlled by Protestants, when Catholic parents wanted their children educated in their own faith. John became the first bishop to organize a diocesan school system. Under his administration the number of parochial schools in his diocese increased from one to two hundred. His fluency in several languages endeared him to the immigrant communities, for he could hear people’s confessions in their own languages. He was even able to speak to an Irish woman in her native tongue, who exclaimed with delight, "At last we have an Irish bishop!"
New churches were founded at the rate of about one a month, some of them to facilitate communities of a particular nationality. Since he was also fluent in Iralian, he established the first Italian national parishes in the country. John made himself available to his flock and continued to lead a life of poverty. When given a new set of vestments he would give them to a newly-ordained priest in the diocese. He himself wore shabby clothes and when reproached he replied that he only had one coat: he had given the other to a beggar. He would frequently empty his pockets to give to the needy.
He was responsible also for establishing communities of sisters and saving a congregation that was threatened with dissolution. Later the Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia, whose foundation he had approved in1855, established Our Lady of Angels College in 1865. It received university status in 2009 and was renamed Neumann College 1980. It is now a co-educational liberal arts college.
In 1854 John was present in Rome at the solemn definition of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX. It was a moving occasion for him as he always had a great devotion to Mary.
He had suffered from ill health many times in his life. He wanted to be relieved of his office of bishop but the Pope would not allow this. On 5 January 1860 he collapsed in the snow a few blocks away from his Philadelphia cathedral. Priests rushed to him with oils but he was already dead. He was 48 years old. He is buried in a glass tomb under the main altar at the Redemptorist church of St Peter, Philadelphia, which has become a shrine. He is the only male American citizen to be canonized; Pope Paul VI performed the ceremony in 1977.
There are several stories of mysterious happening in John’s life; this is an example. After his visit to Rome he was traveling to Prachatice to visit his family, when he lost a trunk of relics that he had collected in Rome. He prayed to St Anthony and almost immediately a young man appeared out of nowhere and handed him his trunk, saying, "Right Reverend Bishop, here is your trunk." When the bishop turned round to question the young man he had vanished.
John Nepomucene Neumann can rightly be called the father of the diocesan school system in America. He struggled often in an atmosphere of anti-Catholic sentiment which sometimes led to violence. He built eighty churches during his term as bishop, including the cathedral of Ss Peter & Paul, as well as seminaries, schools and hospitals with very little means of funding them. After his death the diocese of Philadelphia, which he had governed on his own with latterly a suffrogan bishop, was divided into five separate dioceses.
St John Nepomucene Neumann, pray for us.