John Neumann

American Saints

St. John Neumann (1811-1860)

A saint, missionary, Redemptorist priest, fourth bishop of Philadelphia,  John Nepomucene Neumann was born Mar. 28, 1811 in the village of Prachatiz, Bohemia.  His father, Philip Neumann, a native of Bavaria, was a weaver and his mother Agnes Lebis, was the daughter of a Czech harness maker.  He received his early education at the village school in Prachatiz and then attended the gymnasium in Budweis from 1823 to 1831.  Budweis was a German speaking city and he was culturally a German although spoke Czech fluently.

In Nov. 1831 he entered a diocesan seminary in Budweis and two years later won a scholarship in Prague where he completed his studies for the priesthood in 1835. While in the seminary, Neumann developed a desire to become a missionary in America as a result of reading descriptions of missionary activities that were published by the Leopoldinen Stiftung, the Austrian missionary-aid society.  He was also encouraged to pursue a missionary vocation by his spiritual director, Canon Hermann Dichtl, of the Budweis-Cathderal.  Although he passed the canonical examinations for priesthood in the Budweis diocese, the bishop decided to postpone temporarily the ordination of new priests to the priesthood because of a surplus in the diocese.  In Feb. 1836 Neumann left for America with only two hundred francs in his pocket, without saying farewell to his parents, without dimissorial letters from the bishop of Budweis, and without a firm commitment from any American bishop to accept him into his diocese.

Missionary in America-

Neumann arrived in New York City on June 1, 1836 and made contact with Bishop John Dubois, who was trying to provide priests for his sprawling diocese, which included all of New York state and northern half of New Jersey. Within a month of his arrival in the United States on June 25, 1836, Neumann was ordained a priest by Dubois and he celebrated his first Mass the following day in the German church of St. Nicholas.  Two days later he left for his assignment in Buffalo, New York, where he served in the outlying villages of Williamsville and North Bush.

In the summer of 1840 Neumann’s health broke down. His problems may have been as much emotional as physical, for he complained of loneliness and may also have suffered from scrupulosity.  Among other things, he worried about the liceity of his ordination, since he had been ordained without dimissorial letters from the bishop of Budweis.  In Sept. 1840 Neumann applies for admission to the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (the Redemptorists).  He informed Bishop John Hughes, administrator of the diocese of New York of his decision.  When Neumann failed to receive a response from Hughes, he simply left the parish in Oct 1840 to join the Redemptorists in Pittsburgh.  The Redemptorists had only been established in the US for 8 years and Neumann was their first American novice.  His novitiate was a pious fiction because he changed his residence no fewer than 8 times and traveled 3,000 miles.  After six weeks of a real novitiate, he made his first profession in Baltimore on Jan. 16, 1842. His first assignment a Redemptorist was to the Church of St. James in Baltimore, a German national parish.  From 1844 to 1847 he was pastor of another German national parish, St. Philomena’s in Pittsburgh.  In March 1847 he was appointed superior of the Redemptorists in the United States, with the title of vice regent and later vice provincial. He held the post for twenty-two months, but he was unhappy dealing with financial and personnel problems.  In 1851 he received a more congenial assignment when he was made pastor of the still unfinished Church of St. Alphonsus, the main Redemptorist parish in Baltimore, which also included responsibility for two mission churches St. James and St. Michael’s in Fells Point.  One of his major accomplishments as pastor was to obtain the services of the School Sisters of Notre Dame for the parochial schools of all three churches.

Bishop of Philadelphia-

On Feb. 1, 1852 Neumann was appointed the fourth bishop of Philadelphia.  Some American bishops objected to the appointment on the grounds that Neumann was not an effective public speaker in English and that he lacked the social graces that would be expected of a bishop in a sophisticated city like Philadelphia.  The decisive factors in his appointment appear to have been the desire to give the Germans a greater representation in the American Hierarchy and the influence of Rome of Archbishop Francis Patrick Kenrick of Baltimore (who had been Neumann’s predecessor in Philadelphia). Neumann was consecrated in St. Alphonse Church on Mar. 28, 1852, his forty-first birthday.  Only two bishops were present at his consecration; not one appeared at his installation in Philadelphia.

The diocese of Philadelphia contained some 170,000 Catholics spread over 35,000 square miles with 113 parishes and 100 priests to serve them.  Like most German-American clerics, Neumann was a strong advocate of parochial schools, but the claim that he established 100 parochial schools in Philadelphia seems to be a pious exaggeration.   At the time of his death in 1860, Laity’s Directory the diocese contained only 37 parochial schools of which 9 were fewer than sixty students.  He was responsible for bringing seven religious communities to the Diocese of Philadelphia, and he was instrumental in establishing a flourishing local community of Franciscan sisters.  He showed the same distaste for administrative duties as he did when he was Redemptorist superior.  He suggested that the diocese be divided in two and suggested that he be the bishop of the smaller one.  He told the Congregation de Propaganda Fide that Philadelphia “needs someone else instead of myself, who am too plain and not sufficiently talented. Besides, I love solitude.”

Archbishop Gaetano Bedini, after his American tour recommended in 1855 that Neumann be replaced as bishop of Philadelphia. Archbishop Kenrick was also critical of Neumann’s management of his diocese.  As a result Neumann was given a coadjutor, James Wood, who was appointed on Dec. 9, 1856 and consecrated on April 26, 1857.  The relationship between the two bishops was somewhat strained.  Wood was under the impression that Neumann would retire shortly but Neumann showed no disposition to do so.

Even as bishop of Philadelphia, Neumann continued, as far as possible to lead the life of a parish priest, devoting much time to hearing confessions, attending to sick calls, and teaching the Catechism to children.  On one occasion he made a trip of 25 miles over mountain roads in order to administer the sacrament of confirmation to a single child.  A gifted linguist, he was fluent in German, Czech, English, French, Italian, and Spanish and even learned enough Irish to be able to hear confession of Irish-speaking immigrants in that language.

As bishop he continued the daily round of religious devotions, especially those that were focused on the expiation of sin.  He was fond of the Forty Hours Devotion and promoted it in his diocese.  Although his confessor denied it, Neumann may have suffered from scrupulosity. On one occasion he refused to give Holy Communion to an adult covert after baptizing him for fear that the grains of salt placed on the man’s tongue had broken the Eucharistic fast.  His confessor also revealed after Neumann’s death that he had worn a girdle of iron wire that had penetrated his flesh and had chastised his innocent body with a scourge, which he had armed with a sharp nail.

In his own lifetime, Neumann’s indifference to personal honors and to his own comfort was legendary.  As bishop of Philadelphia, he sometimes spent his free days at the local Redemptorist house where he would assist the lay brothers with the kitchen chores.  At the age of forty-nine, Neumann collapsed suddenly on a street in Philadelphia and died, apparently of a heart attack, on Jan. 5, 1860.  He was buried in the Redemptorist church of St.Peter the Apostle, Philadelphia.  He was beatified Oct. 13, 1963 and was canonized by Pope Paul VI on June 19, 1977.  His feast day is celebrated on Jan. 5.



  1. Glenda Canfield  •  Sep 19, 2010 @3:38 am

    Thank you for this great summary of St. John Neumann. Our small Catholic school here in the mountains of Virginia (Blacksburg, home of Va. Tech) is named for him. One of my favorite quotes of his: “Everyone who breathes, high and low, educated and ignorant, man and woman, has a mission, has a work… As Christ has His work, we too have ours; as He rejoiced to do His work, we must rejoice in ours also.”

  2. Vince Vankirk  •  Dec 6, 2010 @12:05 am

    That is some inspirational stuff. Not in any way knew that belief could be this mixed.

  3. Alda Motyka  •  Feb 1, 2011 @4:58 pm

    Have to say – thanks unbelievably for this site!!
    Pretty rare to find a good website which isn’t just full of spam nowerdays :P

    I’ve already saved it so I can come back to it! :D

  4. sandra almazo  •  Sep 23, 2011 @6:33 pm

    well i want to say thank you for the lovely story

  5. cxfcvhn  •  Sep 23, 2011 @6:33 pm

    thank u

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