St. John Neumann, Promoter of Catholic Education in the U.S., is Celebrated Today

Once, in one of his articles, he wrote: “I have never regretted having dedicated myself to the mission in America.”

The National Shrine of St. John Neumann at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Philadelphia.
The National Shrine of St. John Neumann at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Philadelphia. (photo: Credit: Farragutful, CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons)

Every Jan. 5 the Church celebrates the feast of St. John Neumann, Redemptorist missionary, fourth bishop of the city of Philadelphia, and organizer of the first Catholic education network in the U.S.

John Nepomucene Neumann was born in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, in 1811. He attended school in Budweis and years later, in 1831, entered the seminary in that same city. Upon completing his preparation for the priesthood, he presented himself to his diocese but suffered an unexpected setback.

The local bishop had fallen ill and priestly ordinations in his diocese were suspended until further notice.

Neumann, eager to serve the Lord, wrote letters to the bishops of the neighboring dioceses, but none of them wanted to accept him. Despite the obstacles, the saint was not discouraged.

To earn his living, he went to work in a factory where he met a few Americans from whom he learned some English. Later, he contacted some bishops in the United States. Neumann had a missionary soul and was ready to move to America.

Priest and Missionary in North America

The archbishop of New York agreed to receive and ordain Neumann, so he left his family and friends to embark on the adventure of proclaiming the Lord in a distant land. After being ordained in the U.S., Neumann joined 36 other priests who were to assist the almost 200,000 Catholics living in the U.S at the time.

The newly ordained was entrusted with the administration of a parish. The first pastoral difficulty he faced was the vast territory entrusted to him: His parish stretched from Ontario, Canada, to Pennsylvania.

Given the immense need, Neumann spent most of his time visiting villages and towns. He had to cross inhospitable territories, walk long distances in extreme cold and sweltering heat, and trek high mountains and majestic landscapes — all in order to watch over his flock and to assist those in need.

These were long years of providing catechesis, administering the sacraments, and celebrating the Eucharist. It was common to see Neumann preach both in churches and in abandoned huts. He even preached outside taverns, refuges for impenitent souls.

Neumann often had to celebrate Mass in dining rooms and kitchens.

Redemptorist

With time and continued difficulties, the missionary priest discovered the need for the support of a religious community. He knew the Redemptorists well so he applied to join the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. When the time came, he took his vows at the congregation’s house in Baltimore in 1842.

Neumann was noted for his piety and kindness as well as his versatility in understanding and accompanying his parishioners, most of whom were European immigrants. Neumann knew up to six languages, so it was not difficult for him to communicate with Catholics who did not speak English well.

In 1847, he was appointed visitator of the Redemptorists in the United States. At the end of his service, the Redemptorists were ready to form an autonomous “province or religious province,” which became a reality in 1850.

Promoter of Catholic Education in the U.S.

Neumann was then ordained bishop of Philadelphia, and from that city he organized the diocesan system of Catholic schools, becoming a great promoter of religious education in the country. He also founded the congregation of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, dedicated to teaching in schools, and was the promoter of the construction of more than 80 churches throughout the country.

Neumman was a simple man, short in stature and reportedly good-natured. Although he never had robust health, he carried out great pastoral and literary activity. He wrote many articles in magazines and newspapers, and published two catechisms and a history of the Bible for school children. 

Once, in one of his articles, he wrote: “I have never regretted having dedicated myself to the mission in America.” 

On Jan. 5, 1860, when he was just 48 years old, he suddenly collapsed in the street and went home to the Lord. He was beatified in 1963 and canonized in 1977 by Pope Paul VI.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA. 

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