Philly’s Bohemian Bishop

Today is the Feast of St. John Neumann (1811-1860), Philadelphia’s fourth bishop (1852-1860). Born in Bohemia, he studied for the priesthood in Prague, where he got interested in the American missions (the U.S. was officially classified as mission territory until 1908). When he finished studies, his diocese had too many priests (there was such a day, and not that long ago), so in 1836 he went to New York, where he was ordained shortly after his arrival. For four years Father Neumann worked in upstate New York until he joined the Redemptorists, an order then working mainly with German immigrants. He worked as a pastor and administrator until he was named Bishop of Philadelphia on February 1, 1852. A major reason for his appointment was to increase the German presence (he was culturally German) in an increasingly Irish hierarchy (aka “hibernarchy”). One historian writes that “Neumann’s indifference to personal honors and to his own comfort was legendary.” On one occasion he traveled 25 miles through mountain roads to administer confirmation to a single child. He spent his free days at the local Redemptorist house, where he helped with the kitchen chores. (In this unretouched photograph, he’s seen wearing his Redemptorist habit with a bishop’s pectoral cross). It was Neumann who brought to America the Forty Hours devotion, where a prayer vigil is kept for forty hours before the exposed Eucharist. He seems to have worked himself into an early grave. On January 5, 1860, he dropped dead of a heart attack on the streets of Philadelphia. He was beatified in 1963 and canonized in 1977, the first member of the American hierarchy to be so honored.

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