John Neumann was a bishop of Philadelphia and, to date, the only fully American male citizen to be canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. As bishop of a major American city during one of the great immigration booms, Neumann was instrumental in serving Catholics arriving from all over Europe, founding new churches to accommodate them, and working to champion his faith against persecution. His National Shrine is in Philadelphia, where his body is fully displayed under glass, a rarity in the United States.
John Neumann was born in 1811 into a Catholic family in Bohemia, then a part of the Austrian Empire. Throughout his young life he pursued religious studies, receiving a degree in thrology in 1835. However, due to an excess of priests in Central Europe at the time, Neumann had difficulty becoming ordained. So he emigrated to the United States which was in need of new parishes and priests.
In 1836 he was ordained at the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. For the next sixteen years he worked in Upstate New York and other areas, establishing churches, helping the sick and teaching. During this time he also became a member of the Redemptionist Fathers and was elevated the position of Provincial Superior for the United States. He became a full citizen in 1848.
By the mid-19th century, the city of Philadelphia had a burgeoning Catholic population, primarily German and Irish in origin who had fled from wars and famine respectively. They were later joined by Catholic immigrants from other areas, notably Italy. Neumann, who was fluent in many languages, was made Bishop of Philadelphia due to that city’s special needs. He became renowned for his ability to minister to almost any local community in their native languages.
John Neumann spent the rest of his life working diligently to improve the lives of the parishioners in Philadelphia. He organized the first diocesan school system in the United States and founded over a hundred new schools, as well as orphanages. He looked after the Catholic community in the years leading up to the American Civil War, when anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment was at an all-time high. Neumann died of a stroke in 1860, and was canonized as a saint in 1977.
The National Shrine of St. John Neumann is located in the Church of St. Peter the Apostle in Philadelphia. St. Peter’s, built in 1843, is one of the oldest Catholic churches in Pennsylvania. The white brick edifice, run by the Redemptionist order of which Neumann was a member, is actually home to two churches: the main sanctuary, or upper church, and the shrine, or the lower church. The shrine also houses a small museum with exhibits on Neumann’s life and work.
At the time of his death in 1860, John Neumann was buried beneath the high altar of the original church. Since then, the area beneath the main sanctuary has been redeveloped into a chapel. This is where the body of St. John Neumann, no longer buried, is preserved under glass. Interestingly, a fire in 2007 badly damaged much of the church interior, but the body of Neumann was spared by mere inches.
The National Shrine of St. John Neumann is located approximately one mile north of Philadelphia’s historic district. It is open daily from 7:00am-6:00pm (4:30pm on Sundays). There is no cost of admission. Web: www.stjohnneumann.org (official website).
The grandest Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia is the massive Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, home to the Archdiocese, the only basilica in Philadelphia and the largest church in Pennsylvania.
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