Monday, January 5, 2009

Saint John Nepomucene Neumann

John Nepomucene Neumann was born on March 20, 1811, in the province of Bohemia, then a part of the Austrian Empire, now in the Czech Republic. He attended school in Budweis, and entered the seminary there in 1831. After two years, he transferred to the University of Prague, where he studied theology. In 1835, the bishop decided there would be no more ordinations, because there were already a large number of priests in Bohemia. He wrote to other bishops in Europe, but always received the same answer: all of the dioceses in Europe had a surfeit of vocations to the priesthood. Having learned English by working in a factory with English-speaking workmen, he wrote to bishops in the United States, requesting to serve as a missionary here. In 1836, he arrived in New York, was ordained, and assigned by the bishop to work with German immigrants in the western part of the state. His parish extended from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania. Father Neumann visited the sick, taught catechism, moving from town to village, staying in hostels or homes, and celebrating Mass on kitchen tables, since there was only one church in the entire parish.

After four years of missionary activity in New York, Father Neumann began to his need for community life, and applied to the Redemptorist Fathers, who accepted his candidacy. He entered the novitiate at Pittsburgh, and in January 1842, took vows to enter the order in Baltimore, Maryland. He was the first Redemptorist admitted to the order in this country. After six years, he was appointed the order’s provincial superior in the United States, and was naturalized a citizen in Baltimore on February 10, 1848.

In March 1852, Father John Neumann was chosen to become Bishop of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He organized a diocesan Catholic school system and increased the number of schools from 2 to 200. He introduced the School Sisters of Notre Dame to assist in religious instruction and staffing the diocesan orphanage.

Bishop John Neumann lived and ministered at a difficult time in the history of the Church in the United States. In the first half of the 19th century, the Know Nothing party was determined to deny foreigners, and especially Catholics, of civil rights. They burnt down convents, schools and churches. Discouraged, Bishop Neumann wrote to Rome, asking for someone to replace him, so that he could return to the peace of the Redemptorist residence. His request was not accepted. On January 5, 1860, he died of a stroke while walking down a street in Philadelphia. It was not until after his death that people began to realize what a heroic and holy man he was.

John Nepomucene Neumann was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1962, and canonized by him in 1977. His feast day is January 5.

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