First Redemptorist Priest Consecrated in America – Bishop of Philadelphia
Motto: “Passion of Christ Strengthen Me.”
John Nepomucene Neumann, the third of six children to Philip and Agnes Neumann, was born on March 28, 1811 in Prachatitz, a village in Bohemia. He was named for one of the patron saints of his homeland, St. John Nepomucene.
Neumann began his schooling in Prachatitz, then at the age of twelve continued his studies in the nearby town of Budwies. While in Budweis he attended the Budweis Gymnasium (high school) and a philsophical instutution.
His mother was a devout Czech woman who attended daily Mass. This helped Neumann with his own spirituality. He received the sacrament of penance at age seven, then confirmation the following year. Given his pious background, Neumann had no early inclination for the priesthood. However, at his mother’s insistence, Neumann decided to study theology at the Budweis Theological Seminary. He spent two years there before transferring to the University of Prague. It was while in Prague that he decided he wanted to become a missionary in the United States, ministering primarily to the German Catholics who had emigrated to the country. Unfortunately, after completing his studies at the University of Prague, he learned that no new priests were being ordained in his diocese. He then attempted to obtain a formal request from one of the American bishops, inviting him to become a missionary in America.
Neumann waited in Prachatitz for a formal invitation. When none came, he decided to make the trip across the Atlantic anyway. After many hardships, he finally arrived in New York on June 2, 1836. Soon after his arrival, Neumann was welcomed into the Diocese of New York by Bishop John DuBois who had sent a request to young John shortly before.
At the time of Neumann’s arrival in New York, only three priests spoke German. With a large number of immigrants in the diocese, Neumann began to prepare for his ordination immediately. On June 25, 1836, John Neumann was ordained at St. Patrick’s Cathedral by Bishop DuBois.
A few days after his ordination, Fr. Neumann set out for Erie County in the western part of the diocese to serve as a missionary. He remained as a missionary in this region for four years.
It was while in New York that Neumann observed the work being done by the priests of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. Although the Redemptorist Order had been established a century before in Italy, missionaries had not been sent to the United States until 1832. After meeting some of the Redemptorist priests, Neumann felt as though he might be more effective if he were part of a religious community rather than a lone missionary. Therefore, in 1840 he applied for admission to the Redemptorist congregation. He was accepted into the Redemptorists and left for Pittsburgh in October of that year to join the Redemptorist foundation located there.
Fr. Neumann became a novitiate for the Redemptorist congregation on November 30, 1840 in Pittsburgh. As a novitiate, Neumann found himself being transferred around the country ministering to German congregations, acting as interim pastor at each location. Finally, on January 16, 1842, John Nepomucene Neumann made his religious vows in Baltimore, becoming the first Redemptorist Priest professed in America. His first assignment was as assistant rector of St. James Church in Baltimore. He remained there until March 1844 when he was appointed Superior of the Redemptorist Foundation in Pittsburgh.
While serving as Superior in Pittsburgh, he rebuilt St. Philomena Church, the church where he became a novitiate. He also continued to minister to the German community, hearing confessions, visiting the sick and celebrating Mass regularly. He also endeavored to improve attendance at the parish schools in Pittsburgh. While in Pittsburgh he also wrote two catechism, one in English the other in German, both of which were approved by the American bishops at their Plenary Council in 1852. He developed a persistant cough which began affecting his health. Because of this, he was ordered to leave Pittsburgh and return to Baltimore. Once in Baltimore, his health did not improve as expected. Instead of having time to recuperate from his illness, Neumann received word that he was to serve temporarily as Superior of all Redemptorists working in the United States. For almost two years, Neumann worked to strengthen the Redemptorist Congregation. He also undertook the pastoral care of Germans in Baltimore. While in Baltimore Neumann arranged for the School Sisters of Notre Dame to locate in Baltimore and take charge of the schools located at the Redemptorist parishes. It was during this time the Neumann also became a United States citizen.
In 1851, a new American Superior arrived from Europe, and Neumann became the first rector of St. Alphonsus Ligouri Church, a church located in downtown Baltimore.
Also in 1851, a new Archbishop of Baltimore, James Patrick Kenrick, arrived in Baltimore. After hearing of Neumann’s exemplary work, the Archbishop began visiting Neumann to make his confessions. During one of his confessions, Kenrick hinted that Neumann was under consideration as next Bishop of Philadelphia. After hearing this, Neumann did all he could to avoid the appointment. He appealed to Archbishop Kenrick and requested that the Superiors of the Redemptorist Congregation present his case in Rome. However, Pope Pius IX appointed John Nepomucene Neumann to the See of Philadelphia in 1852. He was consecrated at St. Alphonsus Church on March 28, 1852 by Archbishop Kenrick. He served more than seven years as Bishop of Philadelphia. During his administration he faced serious administrative and financial problems. Many clergy and laity believed that he was not a good choice for Bishop of Philadelphia. Regardless, he overcame these difficulties and strengthened the Church of his diocese. The day after his arrival in his new diocese, Bishop Neumann began visits to the all the parishes and other Catholic institutions. He also worked to strengthen the existing schools and establish new ones in parishes where none existed.
In October 1854, Bishop Neumann traveled to Rome to be present at the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. On December 8, 1854, Bishop Neumann and fifty thousand other people gathered at St. Peter’s Basilica to hear the promulgation. While in Rome he lived with Redemptorist Community of Santa Maria in Monterone.
In the early part of 1855 he visited Northern Italy and Austria before returning to his birthplace, Prachatitz. He stayed for a week, rejoicing with his family and visiting his favorite childhood places. After leaving Prachatitz, Neumann visited Munich before his return to the United States.
During his administration as Bishop of Philadelphia, Newmann brought seven religious communities to his diocese: The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the Sisters of the Holy Cross, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Christian Brothers, the Holy Cross Brothers, the Benedictines and the Franciscan Conventuals. Additionally, Neumann founded a new congregation of religious women, the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis at the suggestion of Pope Pius IX. He also formed the Sisters of St. Francis. The first sisters were three women who had established a hospice for working girls in St. Peter’s parish. He obtained permission from the Holy Father while in Rome for the promulgation of the Immaculate Conception. On April 9, 1855 he invested the three women with the habit of novices at St. Peter’s. On May 26, 1856 he heard their final vows at the private chapel in his residence.
Even though the Diocese of Philadelphia was in financial troubles, Bishop Neumann was still able to begin or complete the construction of 80 churches and church buildings during his See.
At the Eighth Provincial Council in 1854, Bishop Neumann proposed that his diocese be divided into two. His request was denied but a Coadjutor Bishop, James Frederick Wood, was appointed to help with the administrative tasks of the diocese. Wood was conscrated on April 1857 and immediately took charge of all business and financial affairs. This enabled Bishop Neumann to give more of himself to the spiritual care of the Catholic community in Philadelphia.
Shortly after Christmas 1859, Bishop Neuman fell ill. On January 6, 1860 he went out to do business and never returned. He collapsed on the front step of 1218 Vine Street. He was carried inside, but by the time one of the priests arrived with holy oil for extremem unction, Bishop Neumann was dead. He died a few weeks before his 49th birthday. He was buried at St. Peter’s.
Years after his death, Philadelphia Archbishop Patrick J. Ryan instituted a diocesan investigation into Bishop Neumann’s virtues. The cause was formally accepted by the Sacred Congregation for the Cause of Saints, formerly called the Congregation of Rites. His body was exhumed and examined, and relics were obtained. In 1921, Pope Benedict XV said the following of Bishop Neumann: “Works even the most simple, performed with constant perfection in the midst of inevitable difficulties, spell heroism in any servant of God. Just because of the simplicity of his works, we find in them a strong argument for saying to the faithful of whatever age, sex or condition: ‘You are all bound to imitate the Venerable Neumann’.”
On October 13, 1963, John Nepocumene Neumann was beatified. On June 19, 1977 he was canonized, becoming the first American bishop to be so honored.
Source: St. Alphonsus Shrine, Baltimore, MD.