Bohemian born priest John Neumann who became US saint

The remains of St. John Neumann in the altar of the National Shrine of Saint John Neumann, Philadelphia, photo: Dgf32, CC BY-SA 3.0

A humble man born in South Bohemia later became one of the first saints in the United States. John Neumann actually studied for the priesthood in what was the then Bohemia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but he could not get ordained in his homeland and so emigrated to the US. Even after becoming bishop of Philadelphia, he stuck to the modest ways he had adopted as a priest, and was sometimes ridiculed for that. But his popular following fuelled the demands he be made a saint. The director of the St John Neumann shrine in the centre of Philadelphia, Father Raymond Collins, spoke to us on the phone about the life and significance of the Czech-born saint. He outlined first of all Neumann’s Bohemian background.

Young John Neumann,  photo: Public Domain
ʺHe was born on March 28, 1811, in Prachatice, Bohemia. He was one of six children and he did very well in school. He did so well that his father thought he should become a doctor, but his mother favoured him giving the seminary a try and so he did. And briefly he went off to Budweis [ České Budějovice ] for his seminary training. His last two or three years before becoming a priest and coming to America was spent in Prague because he wanted to learn more languages. So he went to seminary in Prague and he wanted to especially learn English. He learnt it from some of the crystal workers, he spoke to the workers making crystal at that point in time. So he spent some two, two-and-a-half years of his seminary training in Prague and then he came to the US, he was not ordained in Bohemia. "

I understand there was a problem there because they thought there were too many priests and in effect he could not get work?

"That’s correct. He and some of his classmates had to go and basically and, as we say today, find a bishop who would ordain him. And it was something that he had dreamt about for a long time, becoming a missionary to the German-speaking immigrants who were flooding the shores of the US at that time. So that’s what he did, he took the refusal of being ordained in his homeland as a further sign that he should do this. At the end of April, 1836, he finally came to the US on a boat. He arrived in early June.ʺ

Sorry, did he know that there was work there or was it just luck…did he have some inclination that there was work?

He took the refusal of being ordained in his homeland as a further sign that he should do this.

ʺHe just had one letter transmitted to him that there were a number of bishops in America at that time who would be willing to receive him because of his skill in German. German was like a second first language for him at that time. The first person that he met in New York was the pastor of a Catholic church and the pastor said ‘Let me take you to the Bishop of New York.’ And the bishop was very excited that Neumann could speak German as fluently as he did. And the bishop said ‘I will ordain you in New York as soon as possible.’ He had some initial communication about the need for German-speaking priests but he stopped in New York and that is where he was ordained. And then he went to minister in what was called the Niagara frontier, about 400 miles from New York city. That’s where he spent his initial years of priesthood."

Maybe you could describe that area and the circumstances because that was not quite frontier country but it was almost that. It was sparsely populated, that’s one of the reasons they did not have many priests there or maybe not many churches either, a vast area for a priest to cover in effect…

John Neumann,  photo: Public Domain
"Yes, it was absolutely was. There were many German settlements but they were small in western New York state or the frontier region or the frontier of the state. Neumann’s approach to the ministry was incredibly simple. He was a simple man but a smart man at the same time but a very simple guy. All that he wanted to do was to communicate with people and proclaim to them about the love and mercy of God and enable them to understand the tradition and the Catholic faith a little bit more. He did that for about four years over a vast area. But he reached a point where he said I like being a priest and I like my ministry but I don’t want to work alone. I think I would be better, I think I would be a holier person, and that was a big concern of his, by working in a religious community with other priests. He had known one Redemptorist from some of his travels and he asked about the possibility. So to make that part of the story short, on January 16, 1842, Father John Neumann became Father John Neumann Redemptorist.ʺ

Can I just stop you there. Redemptorist, many people will not know what they means, could you explain the significance of that movement and what it was about?

ʺThe Redemptorists are one of the many, many religious orders in the world. We were founded in 1732 in Naples, Italy, by Saint Alphonsis Liguri. And Alphonsis was a great doctor of the church, a very bright man and left us a great body of writing. So the Redemptorists were found in Italy and then they spread east, especially by virtue of Klement Hoffbauer of Austria. And so we spread into Austria, Germany, and Poland later on and into Eastern Europe. We came to the United States in 1832, about four years before Neumann himself came here. To this day there are still around 5,000 of us in 76 countries worldwide."

And what are the main principles of the movement?

He asked convents of sisters to pray against his becoming a bishop.

"The basic charism of our religious community is proclaiming the gospel to the poor and most abandoned, especially the materially poor. That is stated in our rule, our special charism.ʺ

As we left it, he is in Baltimore and he is working with other priests. What happened from there?

ʺNeumann’s reputation continued to grow as a very holy man and as a good spiritual director, a good spiritual advisor. And one of the people who came to him for confession Archbishop Patrick Kenrick of Baltimore. And on one of his visits to Baltimore and Neumann he said to him ‘John Neumann I think you would make a very good bishop. And Neumann, not being one for the spotlight, was totally horrified by the idea of becoming a bishop for Philadelphia but Kenrick was the main man in that part of the country at the time. So Neumann denied it and he even asked people to pray against it. He asked convents of sisters to pray against his becoming a bishop. But we know the rest of that story. And so on March 28, the date of his birthday, 1852, he was consecrated fourth bishop of Philadelphia in Baltimore and then went up to Philadelphia a couple of days later."

St. Peter the Apostle Church,  Philadelphia,  photo: Library Company of Philadelphia
Over his time as a bishop he did a tremendous lot in establishing new churches and also a diocesan education system at the time. This was against a backdrop of quite a lot of discrimination against Catholics because there was a wave of immigration into the United States because of the famine in Ireland. These were not easy times were they?

"These were not. In the middle of the 19th century there were the Nativists and the Know-Nothings, those were the names of the groups at that time. And they literally burnt down churches, two of them not far from here. It was a very strong movement especially in the Philadelphia area. One church two blocks from here and one about eight blocks away were burnt down as a result of the discrimination at that time. And Neumann had experiences of that at churches where he was celebrating mass had rocks thrown through the windows and different incidents like that. The anti-Catholic discrimination was very obvious during Neumann’s time. I would say that his ministry in the diocese come down to certainly initiating the first centralised Catholic education system in the country which was in Philadelphia. And his rationale for that was that this was the way that the Catholic faith could be best transmitted by teaching young people. He was also steeped in the care of the immigrant church to the point where he learnt seven languages. ‘If you speak Italian, Ill learn Italian.’ But the biggest reach that he had was with the Irish that you mentioned. And Gaelic is not an easy language to learn.ʺ

He spoke the original Gaelic?

He made the effort to learn Gaelic in addition to the basic Latin languages of French, Spanish, and Italian.

ʺYes, he made the effort to learn Gaelic in addition to the basic Latin languages of French, Spanish, and Italian. German was his second first language as I have said and then he went on to learn Gaelic as well. He did that because he felt this was the way to proclaim the gospel to people. He was truly passionate at what he did. But he was not just a simple, holy man, he was obviously a good administrator because from the sources that we have it is said that about 80 parishes were begun during his eight year reign as bishop and about 40 parish schools during that period. That is pretty consistent in the biographical data about Neumann that we have. He made tremendous progress. He was a man that was short in stature – so much so that people called him the little bishop. He was 5.2-5.2.5 in height. He was pretty short, but little people tend to get a lot done and Neumann is a good example of that. "

From what I read, he was famed for his modesty. He was so modest in fact that he wore clothes with holes in and some people mocked him saying that he should not be wearing poor clothes but rich ones that befitted a bishop?

"Yes, absolutely, that is correct that he definitely was ridiculed for the way that he dressed. The people of Philadelphia felt that and even at the start of his ministry that was a concern. The people of North bush and Williamsville in New York and later in Philadelphia felt ‘We have to get you another pair of shoes. We have to get you some clothes.’ But that was not a big concern of his and he knew that there were many people in his care, be it in New York or the Philadelphia area, that had a lot less than he did. He felt that was one of the ways, a clear way, of identifying with the people he was serving.ʺ

The remains of St. John Neumann in the altar of the National Shrine of Saint John Neumann,  Philadelphia,  photo: Dgf32,  CC BY-SA 3.0
He died very early at the age of 48. Maybe the work and his modest living standards took their toll in the end?

ʺHe did. The biographies that we continue to use today tell us that he had very deep coughs and I would say in this age that he had lung-related problems. We don’t really know the cause of his death. Some biographies take a guess at what he died of but we don’t know, it would just be a guess. He had a number of illnesses where he had to rest for two and three weeks at a time, where he had terrible coughs, terrible breathing problems, things like that. He had his share of illness and he maybe did not perhaps take as good care of himself as he should have or as he could have."

And what happened afterwards? There is a shrine now to him but I’m not sure when that happened…

"Neumann said in his will that he wanted to be buried with his Redemptorist brothers in the crypt of St. Peter’s Church. So the parish of St. Peter’s began first before the shrine. The Redemptorists had begun to bury around four or five Redemptorist confreres there. But a few days after he was buried in the crypt, basically a dirt crypt at that point in time under the main church, people came to visit. So much so that the pastor wanted to discourage people from coming. The pastor said ‘You should be praying for him, not to him.’ So the cause of his holiness and sanctity really came from the people. As quiet a man as he was, the people were, I am fond of saying, really the ones proclaiming him a very holy man. The calls for sanctity really began then. It came from the people and I think that is significant for everyone to hear. He was declared a Servant of God in the 1940s and that ws the first time that his body was exhumed in 1941. And then it was permanently exhumed and placed under the alter when he was beatified in 1963. Then he was canonised in 1977.ʺ

The first American, or US citizen, to be made a saint..

He is a very appealing saint because of his modesty, humility, and simplicity. I think that’s a big part of who he is and the saint that he is.

ʺYes, definitely. We continue at the shrine to have tours. I do not want to pretend that we have many thousands each day, no, but we do have a busy tour schedule through the year. We are in a tight urban centre, it’s not like some sprawling campus. We are in the middle of the city and we have to use the space as best we can. St John Neumann to this day has many devoted people who come here. They come up to us and begin to speak to us and they say ‘I come here whenever I can whether it is one a month, once a year, or once a week.’ People continue to have a very good devotion to him. He is a very appealing saint because of his modesty, humility, and simplicity. I think that’s a big part of who he is and the saint that he is. I don’t think it’s because I boast that he created 80 parishes or 40 parish schools. I think that people started to visit his tomb shortly after he died because of what they saw in the person more than because of what he achieved. "