St. John N. Neumann, Bishop of Philadelphia, United States
Born in 1811 in a Bohemian village – now in the Czech Republic but at the time part of the Austrian Empire – John Nepomucene Neumann was named for a martyred priest, the patron saint of his homeland. It was a great legacy for a small child in a small village. The child was bright, soon pursuing higher studies and then the seminary in nearby Budweis. He had a gift for learning languages other than his native German and Czech.
While in seminary, he heard of the need for missionary priests in a land far away: the United States, a new country filled with many immigrant communities in need of spiritual care. A light was kindled in his heart and he began to teach himself English.
An American priest
Neumann was to be ordained a priest for the diocese of Budweis, but his ordination was delayed, for Budweis had too many priests! He began to pursue his dream of missionary work in the United States with earnest. In 1836, with little money and no clear idea of which diocese would accept him, John Neumann bid farewell to his sister – he did not have the heart to tell his grieving mother when he would depart – and left for America. He landed on Staten Island, New York with one dollar in his pocket and one set of clothes.
The bishop of New York had heard of him and, assured of Neumann’s rigorous seminary education, resolved to ordain him quickly. Instead of being a Bohemian priest “on loan” to the missions, Neumann would be a priest of this new land, in a diocese that included the entire state of New York and part of New Jersey, with 36 priests for 200,000 Catholics. He as ordained subdeacon, deacon and priest all in the same week, and sent to a parish that stretched from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania. The new priest threw himself into his mission, travelling miles on horseback, on wagons or on foot to reach the faithful in remote outposts and celebrating Mass in people’s kitchens when there was no church nearby. “Only a poor priest,” he wrote, “one who can endure hardship, can labor here.”
A bishop with a heart for the people
In 1842, Fr. Neumann joined the Redemptorist Fathers, becoming their first American vocation. In 1848, he became an American citizen. In 1852, he was appointed Bishop of Philadelphia, the largest diocese in the country. The city that was the birthplace of the American Revolution was also an industrial center that attracted impoverished Catholic immigrants from Germany and Ireland, and soon, from Italy and Eastern Europe as well. It was not an easy place. A part of the city’s population resented the newcomers, and anti-Catholic riots broke out with some frequency. Catholics were often poor, bereft of social services and at the mercy of discrimination.
This bishop was poor with them. He possessed one pair of boots during his entire time in America, slept and ate little, and continued to travel by the most rudimentary means of transportation to reach his faithful. He learned their languages so as to be able to hear the confessions not only of German-speakers, but also of Italians, Spaniards, Dutch, and even the Gaelic-speaking Irish. “Isn’t it grand,” one Irish woman remarked upon hearing his Gaelic, “that we have an Irish bishop?”
The tireless bishop had an eye to the people’s education as well. When he arrived in Philadelphia, the city had one parochial school. By the end of his episcopate, it had 200 – the first diocesan school system in the country. In the end, he spent himself for love of his people. On January 5, 1860 Neumann suffered a sudden stroke as he walked down a Philadelphia street and died at the age of 48. In relatively few years in this new country, the young bishop from Bohemia had become a father to hundreds of thousands. He was a poor priest unafraid to hardship, who built up the Church of God.