Born in the city of Prague in what is today the Czech Republic and named after local hero John Nepomucene, John Neumann came to America to seek ordination in 1836. (In what may seem to us as an anomaly, he couldn’t be ordained there because there were too many priests that year). After he realized his dream, being ordained by Bishop John Dubois in New York City, he was sent to the Buffalo area to serve the German immigrant population there. He later joined the Redemptorists and travelled throughout the Mid-Atlantic region – spending time in New York, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and eventually being consecrated the fourth bishop of Philadelphia.
Neumann was especially dedicated to the poor and the newly arrived on our shores, learning German, Italian and Gaelic so as to be better equipped to hear confessions and give spiritual guidance to the many members of his flock who did not speak English. He is particularly associated with Catholic education, establishing the first diocesan school system in the country. Because of this commitment to the classroom, Our Lady of the Angels College in Aston, Pa., adopted him as a patron in 1980 and is today known as Neumann University.
Neumann was in Rome in 1854 when Pope Pius IX solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception ex cathedra. This is one of very few times in the history of the church when a pontiff invoked his full charism to teach infallibly. Neumann vigorously supported the doctrine, which stated that Mary was conceived without the inherited brokenness that predates personal sin, which the early church fathers came to call “original sin.”
A few short years after his return to America from the promulgation ceremony and his continuing work with Catholics in the face of the vitriolic Know-Nothing party’s discrimination against them, Neumann died suddenly on the streets of Philadelphia near Logan Square. Almost immediately after his death, miracles began to be attributed to those honoring his remains and seeking his intercession. Many of these involved the healing of children on the very brink of death. Scores of believers still pray for his aid before his glass life-size reliquary at his National Shrine on North Fifth Street. Even Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage there when visiting Philadelphia.
Neumann was eventually beatified during the Second Vatican Council, and then became the first American man to be canonized in 1977. His feast day is on the anniversary of his death, Jan. 5. He was closely associated with the organization of both the Sisters of St. Francis and the School Sisters of Notre Dame, as well as the 40 Hours Devotion in our country.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.