The Catholic Defender: The St. John Neumann Story


"Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession." Hebrews 3:1

When the Lord calls you, He will open doors that seem closed if it be His Will. St. John Neumann is a classic case. At the time of St. John, there were no openings in the Seminaries as they were filled to capacities.

Can you picture a time when there were no priest shortage?

St. John Neumann was born on March 28, 1811 in Bohemia and was raised in the holy Faith by his parents. So much so that by 1831, he was already seeking to become a Catholic priest studying at a local seminary.

By the time he was 24 years old, he had become fluent speaking six languages which made him very important as a speaker and missionary.

1835, the Bishop of Bohemia was not taking in new priests so St. John wrote to other European countries only to find the same problem for him, but he would not be denied.

In 1836, St. John traveled to America hoping to finally receive ordination to the priesthood. He placed his full confidence in God as he arrived in New York with only one dollar to his name and the clothes on his back. If God has your calling, it is a matter of time and soon, St. John would run into Bishop John Dubois of the Society of Saint-Silpice who saw St. John's potential. Three weeks later, June 1836, St. John was now called "Father Neumann"!

St. John was ordained in New York City where the old St. Patrick's Cathedral was and was assigned to work with the many immigrants coming from Germany. The Parish assigned reached from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania. He was quite a site as he rode his horse, let's say that St. John was not a born horse rider, he could barely manage to ride the saddle. But it wasn't long before he was beloved by the sick whom he cared for.

As an Evangelist, he taught catechism to the poor, and he taught leaders to be teachers.

He established his main headquarters at modern day Tonawanda serving the St. John the Baptist Parish (1836-40). In 1840, St. John, with his Bishop's permission, applied to join the Redemptorist and was accepted.

In the near future, St. John would serve at St. Alphonsus Church in Peru Township, served as pastor of St. Augustine Church in Elkridge, Maryland and would eventually became the Provincial Superior for the United States.

On February 10, 1848, Father John Neumann became a naturalized citizen in Baltimore, Maryland continuing his services at St. Alphonsus Church in Baltimore.

On February 5, 1852, St. John was appointed Bishop of Philadelphia organizing a productive Catholic School System. He increased the number of Catholic schools from two to 100.

As Bishop, St. John always maintained his care for the common man, the poor, building up the Kingdom of God in their midst. 1 Corinthians 4:20 states:

"For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power."

This was St. John's calling as Bishop. He was present handling the severe anti-Catholic backlash that began hitting Philadelphia by mobs of Protestants who opposed the Irish/German immigration. This did not deter Bishop Neumann as every month another parish was being organized (nearly 90 total).

The once young man who wanted to serve God as a priest, as Bishop, he traveled to Rome with 139 other bishops, there were 53 cardinals, and thousands of priests who on December 8, witnessed Pope Pius IX solemnly declare and define ex cathedra, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Back in the homeland, while visiting a rural parish, the parish priest picked up Bishop Neumann with a wagon loaded with manure giving our fine Bishop[ this occasion to joke:

"Have you ever seen such an entourage for a bishop!"

With Bishop Neumann's gift of languages, he continued to learn Gaelic so well that an Irish woman proclaimed, "Isn't it grand that we have an Irish bishop!"

Once while visiting Germany, St. John was pelted by a heavy rain soaking him down to the bone, he told the people at the home he was visiting, "The only way I could change my shoes is by putting the left one on the right foot and the right one on the left foot. This is the only pair I own."

On January 5, 1860, St. John Neumann was serving his people on the streets of Philadelphia when he collapsed due to a heart attack. He was just 48 years old. He was succeeded by an old friend who was a convert to the Catholic faith, Bishop James Frederick Wood.

Pope Benedict XV declared St. Neumann as venerable in 1921 and was beatified by Pope Paul VI (John Neumann became the first American bishop on June 19, 1977. In the homily on the occasion of Neumann's canonization, Pope Paul VI summarized the activity of the new saint: "He was close to the sick, he loved to be with the poor, he was a friend of sinners, and now he is the glory of all emigrants." January 5 is St. Neumann's Feast day.

While I was studying at the School of the Ozarks (1976-1980), I benefited from the Neumann Club which supports Catholic college students on campus.

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