Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Blessed John Neumann

by Fr. Edward G. Boland


This article provides a wonderful, detailed look at the holy life of St. John Neumann, the beloved bishop of Philadelphia. Among his many attributes, was his devotion to building Catholic schools as well as his love for those parishioners living in the most rural corners of his Diocese.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


148 – 152

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, November 1963

In December of 1921 Benedict XV heralded the beatification of John Neumann with these words: "Venerable Neumann's activity was indeed admirable, not so much for the good he effected in the fleeting hour of the present, as for that which assured the benefit of future ages." His accomplishments were varied and of great importance to the Church in the United States.

When Neumann was appointed bishop of Philadelphia, his diocese included half of New Jersey, most of Pennsylvania and all of Delaware. It was the most populous see in the United States. When we consider the difficulties which he faced, those of the present seem less towering. Immigrants were arriving by the boatload from Europe with few priests in their company to care for them. Communities were springing up beyond the Pocono and Allegheny Mountain ranges and along the Schuylkill, Delaware and Susquehanna rivers.

Virtually without a chancery staff, Neumann attended to the essential matters and the many details connected with governing such an enormous diocese. Like many bishops of his time, he made decisions which preserved the faith for succeeding generations.

Bishop Neumann would surely have been justified in concluding that the problems confronting the Church in his time defied adequate solution. Human prudence advised curtailment of building and consolidation until more funds were available. But to have followed such a policy would have meant the loss of thousands of immigrants in the fast-growing coal towns near Scranton and Pottsville, and in the farming areas around Lancaster, York, and Reading.

Putting aside human calculations, Neumann plunged into a building program which seems impressive even by present-day standards. More than any other bishop of his time, the little bishop of Philadelphia put into brick and mortar the recommendations of the First National Council of Baltimore concerning the establishment of parish schools.

Today we know that his efforts were eminently successful, but at that time worry and work were his everyday lot. In a letter to Cardinal Franzoni, the Prefect of Propaganda, Neumann provided the negative of the bright picture we see of him today: "As for myself, I am filled with uneasiness . . . I pass my days and nights without sleep . . ."

The great diocese of Philadelphia was no easy assignment. It was especially trying for a bishop who had known in his younger days only the peace of the countryside.

The Man

John Neumann was born in Prachatitz, a quiet village in southwest Bohemia, on March 28, 1811. His birthplace had known very little excitement since the seventeenth century when Catholics and Protestants had battled in its streets.

Here in Bohemia, as a young seminarian, Neumann became interested in the American missions. Through association with Father Frederick Rese, the future bishop of Detroit, Neumann began to read the reports of the Leopoldine Foundation, an organization established in Vienna as an extension of the work of the newly formed Society for the Propagation of the Faith. Letters from New York and Philadelphia confirmed the plight of thousands of Germans who had no priests. In his youthful zeal Neumann began a course of his own: studying languages which he knew would be invaluable to him as a missioner in America. Though he could remove the language barrier by hard work, his status as a seminarian preparing for the diocese of Budweis left him with doubts concerning the future.

The Traveler

With his Ordinary's blessing Neumann, not yet ordained, set out for America. Before leaving Prachatitz, however, he had become involved in a tangle of disappointments and uncertainties. His services, he had been told, were badly needed in Philadelphia; but no letter arrived from Bishop Kenrick confirming his appointment.

John Neumann began his journey to the United States with 200 francs (about $40) in his pocket. The young cleric seemed even smaller than his 5'3" as he passed between drifts of snow on his departure from Prachatitz. His clothes were poor and shabby. Beside him in the stagecoach, on the first part of his trip to Linz, sat Adalbert Schmidt, his closest friend of seminary days, who shared Neumann's intention of going to America, but had lately decided to remain as a diocesan priest in Budweis.

When Neumann arrived in Strassburg, he discovered that a purse which he had been promised had been given to another missioner. At Strassburg, too, he learned that he was not needed in Philadelphia. But he traveled on.

On sailing from Le Havre on the Europa on April 20, 1836, Neumann knew only that somewhere in the United States his services would be needed. Some forty-four days later, on the Feast of Corpus Christi, Neumann was walking in a heavy rain through the streets of lower Manhattan, New York, that bustling city of about 300,000.

That first night in the New World, Neumann slept over a tavern. In short order, however, he made the acquaintance of Father Joseph Schneller who directed him to Bishop Dubois of New York. This elderly prelate, who was struggling to provide priests for communities around New York City and up the Hudson, received Neumann with open arms. In the New York diocese priests were in demand everywhere. For an estimated 200,000 Catholics scattered from the East River to Lake Erie there were thirty-six priests; of these, only three were German.

The Priest

On June 25, 1836, Bishop Dubois ordained Neumann at old St. Patrick's. A few days later the new priest was assigned to Buffalo as assistant to Father Pax, a seriously overworked pastor trying to care for thousands of German Catholics in that area.

Shortly after Neumann's arrival in Buffalo, he was given this choice: to carry out his ministry either among the faithful concentrated in the city itself or else among parishioners in the far-flung rural sections. Neumann elected the rural apostolate, for he knew that in the tiny hamlets and isolated farms souls would be most neglected. "I'm a sturdy Bohemian mountain boy," he said to Father Pax, "I'll take the woods. I like walking." "I go from place to place," Neumann wrote, "carrying my gear with me."

Because he had no place to stay in the outlying districts, Neumann returned each evening to Williamsville. Here he took over the task of teaching the children. While he was their special favorite, some of the grownups, however, were not so easily pleased. The trustee system was in full swing, and a priest was expected to keep on good terms with the important people of the parish. Neumann did not care for the arrangement, but he tried to avoid dissension.

Most of the parishioners respected him, but there were some who questioned Neumann's personal chastity because he lodged with a certain Wirtz family who had a servant girl living with them. There were no specific charges, but the trustees thought it best to call the young priest before their august assembly. Neumann attended, but made no reply. He gave the trustees a lesson, however, by moving to North Bush.

Neumann could see that important work had to be done in his mission parish. At Williamsville the trustees had put up walls for a church, but no roof. The pastor insisted that the roof be put on after a group of youngsters took to throwing stones into the church during Mass.

Not all his problems were so easily solved. He had opened his second school at North Bush in 1837, the year President Andrew Jackson deprived the Bank of the United States of its charter and left the country financially groggy. Work became scarce and paychecks smaller. It seemed the wrong time to begin a new school, but Neumann opened the doors.

Before long he had his first permanent teacher. In 1839 Neumann persuaded his younger brother to come to Lancaster as schoolmaster of a third school. Wenzel Neumann became the forerunner of many Christian Brothers, Benedictines, Franciscan Conventuals and Holy Cross Brothers whom he would attract to America.

The Redemptorist

Unfortunately the assistance came too late. His strenuous life on the Niagara frontier had exhausted Neumann. During a prolonged illness he decided that the lonely life of a missioner was not for him. On September 4, 1840, the young priest applied for admission into the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. He made his profession at Baltimore on January 16, 1842. Five years later he was appointed vice-gerent of the Redemptorists in the United States.

As superior, Neumann opposed establishments where only one or two priests could be stationed. "I am convinced," he wrote to Father Seelos, C.SS.R., "that it does not work out; since history shows that the spirit of the observance is soon lost because the meditations, the conferences, etc., must be omitted too often."

Among those who recognized his sanctity was the Archbishop of Baltimore, Francis Patrick Kenrick. Neumann was then rector of St. Alphonsus parish in Baltimore. Already, from all over the city, people were coming to Neumann for confession, and Archbishop Kenrick was one of them. One afternoon after confession, he remarked with playful gravity, "You'd cut a fine figure in purple, Father." Then as he reached the door he turned back and said, "If I were you, I'd go and shop for a mitre."

The Bishop

Three months later, March 28, 1852, the same prelate addressed Neumann in St. Alphonsus church in Baltimore. It was the day of Neumann's episcopal consecration. "Wilt thou teach the people?" The next eight years would show how well he would answer that question.

Neumann wasted no time getting started. On the very day he arrived in Philadelphia, he was met by a delegation of priests and laymen. They had heard of his zeal for Catholic education and, instead of band music and parade, they presented him with the deeds to a newly built school.

Neumann's first sermon as Bishop of Philadelphia was a plea for more Catholic schools. He was in Philadelphia only a month when he called a special meeting of the influential gentlemen of the diocese. At this gathering he outlined his plans for building Catholic schools. He asked for suggestions. A week later the group assembled again. This time every parish in Philadelphia was represented. At this meeting arrangements were made to set up a central board of education in the diocese. This was the beginning of the first Catholic school system in the United States.

Neumann did not hesitate to push his ideas. In one parish, in fact, where the pastor refused to build a Catholic school, Bishop Neumann delegated another priest to take charge of that operation. The results of these efforts may be seen in the records of Neumann's first three years at Philadelphia. When he arrived, about 500 children were in parish schools; thirty months later, 9,000 children were enrolled.

Not everyone in the diocese, however, appreciated the benefits of his building program. His critics claimed that he knew nothing about financing. Besides, they were dissatisfied with the appointment of a chief shepherd whom they judged ill-fitted for the great see of Philadelphia.

Their complaints would probably have received scant attention in Rome except for the secret report of Archbishop Bedini, a Vatican diplomat and trouble-shooter who had visited Philadelphia while en route to Brazil. When he returned to Rome, Bedini had this to say concerning Neumann: The Bishop of Philadelphia seems a little inferior for the importance of such a distinguished city, not in learning, nor in zeal, nor in piety, but because of the littleness of his person, and neglect of the fashions."

Neumann himself had said pretty much the same thing in his letter to Cardinal Franzoni. He had recommended that his diocese be divided and that he be sent to a smaller diocese. These proposals had been brought to the attention of Pope Pius IX. Fortunately, however, the Holy Father ordered that no decision concerning Neumann be made until the next meeting of Propaganda. By that time a letter from Kenrick had arrived in Rome stating his views: "I am convinced that it is necessary to give the most worthy Bishop of Philadelphia a coadjutor, without actually taking away from him the administration of the diocese."

The appointment of Bishop James Wood did much to allay the fears of both Neumann and his critics, but it in no way slackened Neumann's pace. Besides dedicating churches from Montrose in northern Pennsylvania to Gettysburg on the Maryland border, he continued to give many months of each year to official visitations. When he went to a parish, it was Neumann's custom to stay for a few days hearing confessions, visiting the sick and instructing the people.

Once, while confirming in western Pennsylvania, he received word that a child in Snow Shoe was ready to be confirmed. Snow Shoe was only a cluster of homes high in the Allegheny Mountains, but Neumann insisted on going there. When asked why he spent almost two days traveling to confirm one child, he replied, "Doesn't that child have a soul to save?"

Now, in early 1860, Neumann was making what would be a final drive to provide for the spiritual needs of his people. During the preceding decade he had managed to cope with the problems of an ever-growing diocese, for the population of Pennsylvania had increased by almost one million, and the birth rate in the United States was higher than it is today. Although his health was not all he would have liked, Neumann arranged for the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart to staff a new school. After lunch, on January 5th, he remarked that he was going out to confer with a lawyer about property deeds. He intended also to send a chalice to a poor priest. On his way to the express office to see about sending the chalice, Neumann collapsed and died.

© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

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