Revisiting Philadelphia’s Saintly Bishop
St. John Neumann's spirit lives on in the city of brotherly love
BY Joseph Pronechen
November 30-December 6, 1997 Issue | Posted 11/30/97 at 1:00 PM
Philadelphia is most famous for being the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence, but it is also noteworthy for its historic churches and shrines. Some are within the downtown's old city where tourists take in sights like the Liberty Bell in Independence National Historic Park while others reach into outlying neighborhoods.
From Fifth Street, the entrance to the historic district, the trip up to the shrine of St. John Neumann is only a mile away. The shrine occupies the lower level of St. Peter the Apostle Church, at the corner of Gerard Avenue. (From downtown, it's easier to take Broad Street to Gerard Avenue, and then right to the church.)
When Bishop John Neumann died in 1860, the fourth ordinary of Philadelphia, he was buried in the basement of the church he had dearly loved. The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists) had built St. Peter's in 1842 for the German immigrants pouring into the city. Then-Father Neumann, a native of Bohemia and a priest of the Diocese of New York, joined their order Jan. 16 of that year, becoming the first Redemptorist to profess in the New World.
Even after being elevated to bishop, his heart was always at this church, the only local one staffed by his order. He would visit St. Peter's weekly to hear confessions, monthly for a day of recollection, and yearly for a retreat. He celebrated Christmas Midnight Mass there shortly before he died. It seemed only fitting that he was buried in St. Peter the Apostle church.
During the process of his June 19, 1977, canonization as the first American male saint, his body was raised from under the floor of a devotional area that had begun to take shape around his tomb. While the coffin's zinc lining had deteriorated completely, his body remained almost completely uncorrupted.
Dressed in his bishop's vestments, he was put to rest in a glass crypt under the small, elaborately decorated shrine altar. A mosaic, depicting him as a bishop, recalls his works in the diocese. On the low, flat ceiling above the altar there is a large painting of Jesus greeting the saint. The work hung from the facade of St. Peter's in Rome during his canonization.
A small museum on the premises holds many photos, artifacts, and personal belongings that tell the story of the saint and his remarkable reign in the city and diocese.
Bishop Neumann was always concerned about the many new immigrants and how they could be served. He learned to speak eight languages fluently to communicate better with them. In his eight years as bishop, he built more than 90 churches and 40 schools—opening a new church facility on an average of every 25 days. He is remembered as the founder of the diocesan school system in the United States, of the Glen Riddle group of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, and of St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi Church—the mother church of all Italian speaking people in the country.
Additionally, he first established 40 Hours eucharistic devotion in the diocese, and he somehow found time to write two catechisms and start Beneficial Bank for immigrants.
Nearly exhausted at age 48, he died while on an errand not far from the downtown cathedral. The stone step on which he collapsed is also in the museum, as is his original, restored coffin.
The shrine is a fully working parish church. There are daily Masses, a perpetual novena to the saint, and blessings of the sick with his relic. The saint has quite a continuing history of intercession and miraculous answers to prayers. His name is often invoked in prayers for children and cancer sufferers.
Although the upper church is used primarily for special occasions and during Christmas and Holy Week, visitors at other times shouldn't miss seeing it. Ask at the gift shop or adjoining offices for tours, which are readily given.
The upper church is nearly in its original (1842) state, except for padded kneelers, carpeting, and electricity replacing gaslights.
St. John Neumann would surely recognize it. As bishop, he could be found in any one of the confessionals too. Above them, along both sides, the imported Viennese stained glass windows with their intricate designs are a rarity since most of this kind were destroyed in World War II. The organ, with nearly 3,000 pipes, is the secondlargest in the state of Pennsylvania.
Carved into the main altar is a marble bas relief of the Last Supper. The high, elaborately painted baroque ceilings were added in 1902, and a side chapel was built in the 1890s in thanksgiving after a plague of yellow fever ravaged the east coast. The parishioners held novenas to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and prayed for the intercession of John Neumann during the plague. No one from the parish died during it.
Under the blue vaulted ceiling of this chapel of our Lady of Perpetual Help, her image is above the marble altar's tabernacle. Stained glass windows focus on Christ the Redeemer, as he is flanked by St. Alphonsus Ligouri, St. Clement Hofbauer, St. Gerard Magella. Bishop John Neumann, not yet beatified at the time of the shrine's construction is fittingly honored in the lower shrine.
“The most important thing here,” says Rita McGuigan, one of the shrine's managers, about the constant devotion of pilgrims here, “is that we're never finished with the miracles of St. John Neumann.” They keep the shrine in continuous bloom.
After your visit, treat yourself to the varied arrays of flowers at Longwood Gardens, a 30-mile drive west of the city in Kennett Square, Pa. Hundreds of acres, include a conservatory for both lavish outdoor and indoor displays, especially worth seeing during the Christmas season. Nearby, and closer to the city, is King of Prussia with many hotels and motels. Valley Forge is close by too.
Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Conn.
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