Today is the memorial of St John Nepomucene Neumann, Philadelphia’s fourth bishop and our country’s first male saint.
In celebration of his memorial, I’d like to introduce you to the National Shrine of St John Nepomucene Neumann, one of Philadelphia’s five shrines, and one of my favorites (they’re on Facebook, too!).
The Life of St John Nepomucene Neumann
St. John Nepomucene Neumann is one of those saints who must have never slept. His list of accomplishments, just here in the city of Philadelphia, are mind-boggling and are sure to make you feel like you’re wasting your time just reading this post. (haha!) You’re not.
John was born in Prachatitz, Bohemia in 1811 and was named after the national saint of the Czech Republic (then Bohemia), St John Nepomucene (or Jan NepomuckÃ½ in the native tongue). When he was 20 years old, he joined the seminary and began to dream of America, where he wanted to be a missionary.
In New York City, he was ordained a priest on June 25, 1836, at St Patrick’s Cathedral, today called the Basilica of Old St Patrick’s Cathedral. He celebrated his first Mass at the German parish of St Nicholas, then travelled to the Niagara Falls area, where he ministered to the largely German-speaking immigrants.
New York was mostly wilderness at this time, and dioceses spanned many rough acres. John often had to cross wooded countryside to minister to his flock. Once, he collapsed in the forest from exhaustion, and some friendly Native Americans carried him to the nearest home, where he recovered his strength.
John was very lonely out there in the wilderness without any brother priests. Through reading the works of St Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, he became convinced that community was what he needed. So in 1840, he travelled to Pittsburgh, where he joined the novitiate for the Redemptorist Order. In January, 1842, he became the first man on American soil to join the Redemptorists.
As a Redemptorist, he travelled the country, ministering to Catholics of a great many languages. He eventually learned about 10 different languages, specifically so he could provide the sacrament of confession to his flock (how awesome was he?!) Aside from reading and writing in ancient Greek and Latin, he spoke German, Czech, English, Italian, Dutch, French, Gaelic, and Spanish!
He was Provincial Superior of the Redemptorists for three years, parish priest at St Alphonsus Church in Baltimore (watch our episode on that beautiful church). In 1848, he became a citizen of the United States, and in 1852, at the age of 41, he was made the fourth bishop of Philadelphia.
Here in Philadelphia, he built 89 churches, and some hospitals and orphanages for good measure, he introduced 40 Hours Eucharistic Devotion to the United States, and founded the first Catholic diocesan school system in the country, increasing the number of Catholic schools in the diocese from 2 to 100 in just 8 years. He invited a number of religious orders to the city, including the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the School Sisters of Notre Dame,
and he encouraged existing orders like the Sisters of Mercy, and the black order of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. He even founded his own order: the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis of Philadelphia. In 1854, he traveled to Rome to witness Pope Pius IX declare the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and he continued to spread its devotion upon his return.
On January 5th, 1860, as he was running an errand, the 48-year-old Bishop collapsed on Vine Street and died. He was canonized by Pope Paul VI on June 19, 1977.
The National Shrine of St John Nepomucene Neumann
Today, people come from all over the world to pray before his body, located underneath the altar in the lower level of the shrine at the church of St Peter the Apostle, where the bishop would often celebrate Mass and hear confessions.
Visitors can admire the beautiful stained glass windows that illustrate his life,
One of my favorite things at the shrine is this beautiful mosaic of St John
The upper church is equally beautiful, but the special thing about it is that here, St John celebrated Mass and heard confessions.
This side chapel is one of my favorite places to pray, as it has some particularly beautiful windows of the Redemptorist saints and of Jesus.
When Pope St John Paul II came to this shrine on October 4, 1979, just two years after St John had been canonized, he said that, as he stood in the church, he was reminded of the one thing that motivated St. John Neumann throughout his life: his love for Christ. He said that the prayer that St John Neumann prayed since childhood, revealed this love:
“Jesus, for you I want to live; for you I want to die; I want to be all yours in life; I want to be all yours in death.”
The pope said that this should be the lesson we learn from the life of St John Neumann: that “what really matters in life is that we are loved by Christ, and that we love him in return. In comparison to the love of Jesus, everything else is secondary. And without the love of Jesus, everything else is useless.”
If you have to chance to ever visit this shrine, don’t miss it. Right now, they’re finishing up some beautiful renovations, in preparation for the upcoming World Meeting of Families. Who knows? Maybe our new papa will follow in his successor’s footsteps and come here on his first visit to our country?!
Art: Photo of St John Nepomucene Neumann, courtesy of the National Shrine of St John Nepomucene Neumann. All other pictures: copyright Diana von Glahn and “The Faithful Traveler”, all rights reserved, used with permission.