John Nepomucene Neumann was born on March 28, 1811 in Bohemia, the Czech portion of the present Czechoslovakia. He graduated from a nearby college in Bohemia and then applied to the seminary. John distinguished himself not only in his theological studies, but also in the natural sciences. Besides mastering Latin, Greek and Hebrew, he learned to speak fluently at least eight modern languages, including various Slavic dialects.
During his seminary studies, John had read with great interest the quarterly reports of the Missionary Society of St. Leopold containing accounts of the pioneering work being done in the United States. On the morning of February 8, 1836, he left his native home and made the trip across Europe on foot. Several months later, he set sail for New York aboard a 210-foot, three-masted ship loaded to capacity with emigrants. Six weeks later, the ship entered the harbor of New York.
A few days after arriving in New York, John Neumann sought out and met the bishop, John Dubois. Bishop Dubois had only 36 priests to care for 200,000 Catholics living in all of New York State and half of lower New Jersey. In June of 1836, the bishop ordained John Neumann as a sub-deacon, a deacon, and as a priest, all within on week’s time. Young Fr. John Neumann devoted himself to the pastoral care of all the outlying places in the parish of Buffalo for four years. From his headquarters near Buffalo, he made frequent journeys on foot in all kinds of weather to points ten or twenty miles distant, visiting the settlers on their scattered farms.
Fr. Neumann could not long keep up the strenuous work he was doing. He began to suffer from fevers that lasted as long as three months. At Easter time, 1840, he had a complete breakdown; and after recovering to some extent, he made up his mind to join the Redemptorists. After being accepted into the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, John was directed to go to Pittsburgh. He was the first novice of the Redemptorists in the United States and, in 1847, he became the head of the American Redemptorists. He also wrote several German Language Catechisms and a German Bible history. Files of the US State Department show that Bishop Neumann became a naturalized citizen of the United States at Baltimore on February 10, 1848, renouncing allegiance to the Emperor of Austria in whose realm he was born on March 28, 1811.
In 1852, he was appointed Bishop of Philadelphia and he accepted the appointment only because Pope Pius IX commanded him to do so. Neumann the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, and held that position from 1852 to 1860. On his 41st birthday, Neumann was consecrated bishop of Philadelphia by Archbishop Francis Kenrick at St. Alphonsus Church in Baltimore, in 1852. The Diocese of Philadelphia was at this time the largest in the country, comprising eastern Pennsylvania, western New Jersey, and all of Delaware.
Bishop Neumann was the first in the United States to introduce the Forty Hours Devotion in his diocese. Italian immigrants remember Bishop Neumann as the founder of the first national parish for Italians in the United States. At a time when there was no priest to speak their language, no one to care for them, Bishop Neumann, who had studied Italian as a seminarian in Bohemia, gathered them together in his private chapel and preached to them in their mother tongue. In 1855 he purchased a Methodist Church in South Philadelphia, dedicated it to St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, and gave them one of his seminary professors, Vincentian Father John Tornatore, to be their pastor.
From the beginning, Bishop Neumann promoted the establishment of parochial schools. There were only two such schools in 1852, but by 1860 they numbered nearly 100. He is responsible for establishing the first unified system of Catholic schools under a diocesan board. This took place a fortnight before the Plenary Council at Baltimore would seconded his proposals.
Bishop Neumann was the founder of a religious order for women, the Third Order of St. Francis of Glen Riddle, whose Rule he drafted in 1855 after returning from Rome for the solemn promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The School Sisters of Notre Dame likewise regard Bishop Neumann as their secondary founder, their "father in America." In 1847, Father John Neumann, superior of the Redemptorist Order at the time, welcomed the first band of these teaching sisters from Munich. He found them a home in Baltimore and then provided them with teaching assignments in his Order's parish schools at Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New York, Buffalo and Philadelphia.
Though Bishop Neumann had suffered from frequent illnesses, his sudden death, at the age of 48, was wholly unexpected. On January 8, 1860, he went out in the afternoon to attend to some business matters and was walking back when he suffered a stroke and died. At his own request Bishop Neumann was buried in a basement crypt in Saint Peter's Church where he would be with his Redemptorist confreres.
The cause of his beatification was begun in 1886. Ten years later, he received the title of "Venerable." In February 1963, Pope John XXIII issued the proclamation for his beatification, but the ceremony was delayed by the death of Pope John and Pope Paul VI beatified him on October 13, 1963. In a personal letter to each bishop of the world, before the opening of the Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII asked each bishop to aim at achieving the heights of personal sanctity in order to assure its success. He reminded them of their first and highest mission of carrying on a constant policy of instruction and of pastoral visitation so that they can say: "I know my sheep, each and every one," and that one of the great blessings that can come to a diocese is a bishop who sanctifies, who keeps watch and who sacrifices himself. All these qualities are pre-eminent in the life and holiness of Bishop Neumann, the shepherd declared Blessed during the Second Vatican Council.
Neumann’s canonization followed in June of 1977. Known for a lifetime of pastoral work, especially among poor German immigrants, Bishop John Neumann was the first American man to be named saint. His feast day was established on January 5th.
Pilgrims came from all over the world to his tomb in St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia. From his native Bohemia, from Germany and Holland they came to claim allegiance to one of their own. In 1976 during the International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) visited the shrine and prayed at Neumann’s tomb.
Excerpt of Homily of Pope Paul VI
CANONIZATION OF JOHN NEPOMUCENE NEUMANN
HOMILY OF PAUL VI
Sunday June 19, 1977
Find the full text here.
National Shrine of St. John Neumann in Philadelphia
“Greetings to you, Brethren, and sons and daughters of the United States of America! We welcome you in the name of the Lord! The entire Catholic Church, here, at the tomb of the Apostle Peter, welcomes you with festive joy. And together with you, the entire Catholic Church sings a hymn of heavenly victory to Saint John Nepomucene Neumann, who receives the honor of one who lives in the glory of Christ.
In a few brief words we shall describe for the other pilgrims some details of his life, which are already known to you.
…We ask ourselves today: what is the meaning of this extraordinary event, the meaning of this canonization? It is the celebration of holiness. And what is holiness? It is human perfection, human love raised up to its highest level in Christ, in God.
At the time of John Neumann, America represented new values and new hopes. Bishop Neumann saw these in their relationship to the ultimate, supreme possession to which humanity is destined. With Saint Paul he could testify that “all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3, 22). And with Augustine he knew that our hearts are restless, until they rest in the Lord.
His love for people was authentic brotherly love. It was real charity: missionary and pastoral charity. It meant that he gave himself to others. Like Jesus the Good Shepherd, he lay down his life for the sheep, for Christ’s flock: to provide for their needs, to lead them to salvation. And today, with the Evangelist, we solemnly proclaim : “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15, 13).
John Neumann’s pastoral zeal was manifested in many ways. Through faithful
and persevering service, he brought to completion the generosity of his initial act of missionary dedication. He helped children to satisfy their need for truth, their need for Christian doctrine, for the teaching of Jesus in their lives. He did this both by catechetical instruction and by promoting, with relentless energy, the Catholic school system in the United States. And we still remember the words of our late Apostolic Delegate in Washington, the beloved Cardinal Amleto Cicognani: “You Americans”, he said, “possess two great treasures: the Catholic school and the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Guard them like the apple of your eye” (Cfr. Epistola 2 iunii 1963).
And who can fail to admire all the loving concern that John Neumann showed for God’s people, through his priestly ministry and his pastoral visitations as a Bishop? He deeply loved the Sacramental of Reconciliation: and like a worthy son of Saint Alphonsus he transmitted the pardon and the healing power of the Redeemer into the lives of innumerable sons and daughters of the Church. He was close to the sick; he was at home with the poor; he was a friend to sinners. And today he is the honor of all immigrants, and from the viewpoint of the Beatitudes the symbol of Christian success.
John Neumann bore the image of Christ. He experienced, in his innermost being, the need to proclaim by word and example the wisdom and power of God, and to preach the crucified Christ. And in the Passion of the Lord he found strength and the inspiration of his ministry: Passio Christi conforta me!
…There are many who have lived and are still living the divine command of generous love. For love still means giving oneself for others, because Love has come down to humanity; and from humanity love goes back to its divine source! How many men and women make this plan of God the program of their lives! Our praise goes to the clergy, religious and Catholic laity of America who, in following the Gospel, live according to this plan of sacrifice and service. Saint John Neumann is a true example for all of us in this regard. It is not enough to acquire the good things of the earth, for these can even be dangerous, if they stop or impede our love from rising to its source and reaching its goal. Let us always remember that the greatest and the first commandment is this: “You shall love the Lord your God” (Matth. 22, 36).
True humanism in Christianity. True Christianity-we repeat is the sacrifice of self for others, because of Christ, because of God. It is shown by signs; it is manifested in deeds. Christianity is sensitive to the suffering and oppression and sorrow of others, to poverty, to all human needs, the first of which is truth.
Our ceremony today is indeed the celebration of holiness. At the same time, it is a prophetic anticipation-for the Church, for the United States, for the world-of a renewal in love: love for God, love for neighbor. And in this vital charity, beloved sons and daughters, let us go forward together, to build up a real civilization of love. Saint John Neumann, by the living power of your example and by the intercession of your prayers, help us today and for ever.”