“St. John Neumann Was Here” — Philadelphia’s Bishop and America’s Saint
The impact of St. John Neumann’s priestly ministry is still felt throughout New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio.
Before he became the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, St. John Neumann spent a considerable amount of time in my hometown of Niagara Falls, New York, as the founding pastor of St. Mary’s parish, and then 30 miles south in Buffalo, where he built Sts. Peter and Paul in Williamsville.
It’s remarkable enough that both churches are still standing, but that they are both thriving is almost nothing short of a miracle — especially considering the fact that Niagara Falls alone went from 15 parishes to just five in the last round of belt-tightening, and the fact that the population has dwindled from 102,000 souls in 1960 to about 47,000 in 2020.
St. Mary of the Cataract church, which is less than a mile from the thundering triumvirate (Horseshoe Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and the American Falls) collectively called “Niagara Falls” — is the primatial church of the Power City. And to make the point absolutely unforgettable, its builder and first rector, St. John Neumann, made sure that the cross of gold on top of the steeple was exactly as high as the colossal cataract itself — 170 feet from ground level.
Back in Buffalo, at Sts. Peter and Paul, with its dual mirrored steeples, has engraved on its brand-new sidewalk: “St. John Neumann was here.” Funny but fitting for a man who considered his name written in the ground, not unlike so many biblical analogies.
For as much as Philadelphia has every right and reason to honor St. John as “their saint” inasmuch as he was indeed “their bishop,” it is worth remembering that he was the bishop of that city for only the last eight years of his life. Most of his pastoral work was done in New York State in general and the diocese of Buffalo in particular, spanning almost a dozen years from Manhattan to Rochester to Buffalo and Niagara Falls, as well as many of the surrounding towns.
Of course there is no competition here. The point is that, even before the Civil War, when travel in the United States was arduous, St. John Neumann — who had immigrated from Bohemia, his home diocese having the “problem” of too many priests — managed to traipse all over New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio. Also, it was in America that he not only joined the Redemptorists but rose to become provincial of the congregation — and was joined by his brother, Wenzel, who became a Redemptorist lay brother.
In a city that has lost four Super Bowls (in a row), a couple of Stanley Cup finals, and an entire NBA franchise in the span of eight years — along with something like half of its population — a city like Buffalo needs to be reminded that St. John Neumann not only came here to minister especially to the German-speaking Catholics, but built outstanding edifices that still soar today. And in a country where we still lack a canonized native-born diocesan priest, St. John Neumann, who was ordained in New York City, fits the bill nicely. (He joined the Redemptorists only later in life.)
And while he is indeed the glory of the City of Brotherly Love, and one of the many glories of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, he can rightly be claimed by Niagara Falls and many other places.
Both St. Mary’s and Sts. Peter and Paul hold novenas to St. John Neumann and one line of the nine-day prayer always sticks with me:
“Teach us, O Divine Master to be like your servant, the holy bishop, intent on pleasing only you and performing our good actions free from the desire to be seen and glorified by men.”
Note that it doesn’t say that our good works must not be seen — there are many times when doing a good work can and does set a very good example to others — but the “desire to be seen and glorified.” This vainglory is as old as the teachings of Jesus Himself: that those who do so have “already received their reward.”
But St. John Neumann knew his reward was not here — in this newly-hatched Republic where Catholic-immigrants were viewed not only with suspicion, but with outright hatred. If one reads his letter contained in the Liturgy of the Hours — and he could never have known that it would ever be published, let alone widely disseminated in the Divine Office as the second reading at Matins, one finds a man of the utmost extreme humility and obedience. He his ready to resign the office of Bishop and go back to work as a simple parish priest — if that is what the Holy Father wanted. He has no ambitions for higher office: only for service, especially in that of educating the poor, marginalized and forgotten not only of his vast diocese, but to all those he had previously come into contact with from New York to Ohio, whether as a parish priest or a member of the Redemptorists.
On one of the (many other) prayer cards one finds at the Churches founded by St. John Neumann, there’s a simple but trenchant statement which we would all be wise to emulate: “Make me as selfless as St. John Neumann.” This example of selflessness is as unforgettable and impressive as any of the many churches he built and still rise with the rainbow of Niagara Falls arching over them.