Saturday, January 5, 2008

St. John Neumann


January 5, St. John Neumann


b. 1811 d. 1860

This American saint was born in 1811 in Bohemia (which later became Czechoslovakia).

<~~ This is a painting of young John Neumann done by an itinerant artist. (source: The Mission Church)

Young John Nepomucene Neumann developed into a keen student with a passion for books and for learning. He was gifted with a quick mind for study and a rare ability for languages. His schooling began in Prachatitz and continued after he was twelve in the town of Budweis, twenty-two miles away. He attended the Budweis Gymnasium (high school) and a philosophical institute there

At age seven, he began to receive the sacrament of penance. At eight, he was confirmed by the Bishop of Budweis on the occasion of the first episcopal visit to Prachatitz that villagers could remember.

Old print of town and church of Prachatitz. ~~~~>

He was looking forward to being ordained in 1835 when the bishop decided there would be no more ordinations. It is difficult for us to imagine now, but Bohemia was overstocked with priests. John was sure he was called to be a priest but all the doors to follow that vocation seemed to close in his face.

But John didn't give up. He had learned English by working in a factory with English-speaking workers so he wrote to the bishops in America. Finally, the bishop in New York agreed to ordain him. In order to follow God's call to the priesthood John would have to leave his home forever and travel across the ocean to a new and rugged land.

On April 20, 1836, the Europa sailed for a rough, forty-day crossing of the Atlantic. John Neumann could not wait for the ship to dock. When it was delayed several days at quarantine, be found a ride in a row boat to Staten Island and reached Manhattan by a small steamer. It was June 2. All that afternoon he tramped the streets of New York alone looking unsuccessfully for a Catholic Church. He was 25 years old, not yet a missionary, not yet a priest, and so far as he knew not wanted by anyone in America. But next day all his uncertainty was ended. He was welcomed to the Diocese of New York by Bishop John DuBois and told that a letter had been sent him shortly before, gratefully accepting his service as a missionary.

In the whole New York Diocese with its thousands of immigrants, there were only three priests who could speak the German language. "I can and must ordain you quickly," said the Bishop. "I need you." He sent the young man to the German Church of St. Nicholas on Second Street in Manhattan to prepare for ordination. (photo to left) It was most appropriate that Neumann's first assignment in America was to teach catechism in German to the group of children soon to receive first Communion. All his life he was deeply concerned for the religious education of young people in church and in school.

In New York, John was one of 36 priests for 200,000 Catholics. John's parish in western New York stretched from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania. His church had no steeple or floor but that didn't matter because John spent most of his time traveling from village to village, climbing mountains to visit the sick, staying in garrets and taverns to teach, and celebrating the Mass at kitchen tables.

In his diary he describes his life: "Only a poor priest, one who can endure hardship, can labor here. His duties call him far and near... he leads a wandering life. There is no pleasure, except the care of souls... the Catholic population is continually increasing... many are in extreme poverty. They live in miserable shanties, some with not even a window."

Because of the work and the isolation of his parish, John longed for community and so joined the Redemptorists, a congregation of priests and brothers dedicated to helping the poor and most abandoned.

John was appointed bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. As bishop, he was the first to organize a diocesan Catholic school system. A founder of Catholic education in this country, he increased the number of Catholic schools in his diocese from two to 100.

John never lost his love and concern for the people -- something that may have bothered the elite of Philadelphia. On one visit to a rural parish, the parish priest picked him up in a manure wagon. Seated on a plank stretched over the wagon's contents, John joked, "Have you ever seen such an entourage for a bishop!"

The ability to learn languages that had brought him to America led him to learn Spanish, French, Italian, and Dutch so he could hear confessions in at least six languages. When Irish immigration started, he learned Gaelic so well that one Irish woman remarked, "Isn't it grand that we have an Irish bishop!"

Once on a visit to Germany, he came back to the house he was staying in soaked by rain. When his host suggested he change his shoes, John remarked, "The only way I could change my shoes is by putting the left one on the right foot and the right one on the left foot. This is the only pair I own."

John died on January 5, 1860 at the age of 48.


Prayer
Saint John Neumann, you helped organize Catholic education in the United States. Please watch over all Catholic schools and help them be a model of Christianity in their actions as well as their words.

Amen

sources:
Catholic.org
CatholicCulture.org

The Mission Church

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