The National Shrine of Saint John Neumann
Managing Editor Elizabeth Herzing interviews Fr. Matthew Allman, CSsR, about the ministry at the National Shrine of St. John Neumann.
Q. What is the history of St. John Neumann?
A. Saint John Neumann, a Bohemian missionary born in 1811, came to the United States in 1836 seeking to serve the growing Catholic immigrant population. As a seminarian for his home diocese, located in the modern Czech Republic, Neumann had read about the plight of German-speaking Catholics in America who were in danger of losing their faith because of a lack of priests and parishes that could serve their spiritual needs. A native speaker of German, he felt God calling him to help. So after completing studies for the priesthood, he sailed to New York. The bishop of New York was delighted to receive this zealous young missionary. He ordained Neumann and sent him to minister to the people settling in the frontier territory around Buffalo. Neumann wandered the northern woods of New York State for four years, ministering among the pioneers.
In the 1830s, as the Cathol ic population in the United States surged, Catholics were met with resistance and resentment by many of their fellow Americans. In fact, the first time that Neumann attempted to celebrate Mass in Williamsville, New York, some of his non-Catholic neighbors tried to break up the celebration by throwing rocks through the unfinished roof of the small wooden church. During the summer of 1840, Neumann fell ill and couldn’t work for three months; he knew something had to change. Some years earlier, during a trip to Rochester, New York, Neumann met the American superior of the Redemptorists, Fr. Joseph Prost, who encouraged Neumann to consider joining the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, the Redemptorists. He relayed the physical, moral, and spiritual support that Neumann could receive living the religious life with the Redemptorist community. Although Neumann wasn’t initially moved by the offer, as time wore on, the suggestion seemed like a message from God. In 1842, Neumann professed his religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and became a Redemptorist. He worked with his new brothers first in their German- speaking parishes in Baltimore and Pittsburgh and then as the superior of their American mission, a post he held from 1847–1849. He was a parish priest again from 1849–1852.
He composed two German-language catechisms and a Bible history. He oversaw the construction of St. Philomena’s Church in Pittsburgh, and he offered vital support to various congregations of women religious, like the Sisters of Mercy, the Oblates Sisters of Providence, and the School Sisters of Notre Dame. In 1852, while Neumann was serving as the pastor at the Redemptorists’ parish of St. Alphonsus in Baltimore, the pope gave him a new mission: to serve as the bishop of Philadelphia.
The choice was a blessing for the people but a challenge for the new bishop. The diocese of Philadelphia was immense, covering eastern Pennsylvania, all of Delaware, and southern New Jersey. Today, five dioceses have been formed from the area where Neumann was in charge. Neumann met the challenge, choosing as his motto, “Passion of Christ, Strengthen Me.” For eight years, John Neumann served the people of his diocese, spending four to six months each year traveling, reaching out to people on the fringes of the Church. Neumann’s apostolic zeal was evidenced through his attempts to reach people in their own languages. Neumann had studied Czech, French, Italian, Spanish, and English while still in Europe. As a missionary bishop, he continued to improve his command of those languages and added Gaelic so he might more effectively reach out to his Irish congregants. He became affectionately known as “Philadelphia’s Little Bishop.”
Two of Neumann’s notable contributions to the American Church were his introduction of the Forty Hours eucharistic devotion into the life of his diocese and his role in helping establish an organized Catholic school “system” with a centralized board to oversee and encourage Catholic education. These successful innovations in Philadelphia were broadly admired and copied by other bishops, becoming regular features of American Catholic life. Neumann died suddenly of a stroke on January 5, 1860. He was only forty-eight years old. Bishop Neumann was buried at St. Peter the Apostle, Philadelphia’s Redemptorist church, where Neumann had regularly visited his brother Redemptorists for retreats and occasional Masses. In fact, he celebrated the Christmas Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s just two weeks before his burial.
Almost immediately fol lowing Neumann’s burial the faithful started to visit his tomb and seek his intercession. Stories quickly arose and spread about favors and healings received by people who asked for the Little Bishop’s assistance. The sense that Neumann’s holiness approached true sanctity grew among his devotees. They collected and treasured stories about the holy, missionary bishop and recommended him as an intercessor to friends and neighbors. His first biography was published in 1882, and his reputation became such that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia began an official investigation into the possibility of his canonization. Begun in 1886, this was the first process for canonization undertaken for someone from the United States.
The cause was completed nearly a century later, after three miracles were confirmed to have occurred through Bishop Neumann’s intercession. All three involved the healing of young people: one from a deadly infection, one from terrible injuries suffered in a car crash, and the last from an aggressive form of cancer. In 1977, St. John Neumann was canonized by Blessed Pope Paul VI at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. His devotees celebrated his canonization with joy around the world, but nowhere was the joy greater than at St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia and in the shrine beneath it. Since the Little Bishop’s burial, the devotees of St. John Neumann had transformed what was once a simple crypt into a full “lower church” that could now become the National Shrine of St. John Neumann.
There, pilgrims visited the saint’s mortal remains on display under the altar,offered their prayers, and requested his intercession. The stream of pilgrims to the shrine has not ended since the canonization, and the church has become known as a place of welcome, healing, and reconciliation where St. John Neumann’s Redemptorist confreres continue to carry on a ministry ref lective of his love for Christ and his care for God’s people.
Q. Explain the mission of your ministry through the church and shrine and its relation to the overall mission of the Redemptorists.
A. Our mission at the shrine is to welcome people to encounter the joy of the Gospel and God’s healing, reconciling love. In the spirit of St. John Neumann and our Redemptorist charism, we invite all people—but especially the most abandoned and the poor—to an extraordinary encounter with grace. Just as St. John Neumann was a friend to the needy and an advocate for a beleaguered immigrant Church, we strive to provide a spiritual home and an oasis for people in need of God’s tender loving care, regardless of their background. And as we welcome pilgrims, we invite them along with us to a continuing conversion, wherein we leave behind what separates us from Christ and become more truly theChurch, his bride and his body.
Q What are some examples of how your ministry has touched or changed lives?
A. Almost daily we get letters from people relaying their gratitude for prayers answered and favors received through the intercession of St. John Neumann. We hear stories about cures from cancer, finding jobs, and relief from addictions. These are dramatic results of St. John Neumann’s intercession, and people love to recount these stories. But when you ask people who come here daily or weekly why, they often answer that they find a peace here that goes beyond what they find elsewhere. Every day at the shrine, at least three times a day we celebrate the Eucharist, and God’s people are fed with his Body and Blood. Every day we hear confessions, and people are forgiven, reconciled, and healed. The shrine is a place of extraordinary encounter with God’s grace, but as St. John Neumann’s own life reminds us, very often the extraordinary comes just by doing the ordinary faithfully and well.
Q. What can visitors expect to see and experience when visiting the shrine?
A. We encourage visitors to check out our schedule before they visit us so they can join us for liturgies or contact us in advance so they can receive a tour when they arrive. There are two worship spaces at the shrine: our “upper” parish church and our “lower” shrine church. The shrine church is open regularly throughout the day. The historic upper church is only open for 12:30 Mass on Sundays, for special occasions, and for the Christmas and Easter seasons. Typically the upper church is not open during the week for the public. But if you ask for a tour in advance, we can usually provide one. Something that surprises many first-time visitors is the fact that St. John Neumann’s body is on display. The saint’s remains are enclosed in glass below the main altar of the shrine church. The saint’s body is not incorrupt. The remains are covered by a mask that faithfully represents the saint’s face and by a bishop’s vestments. We have a small museum featuring items used by St. John Neumann during his lifetime, and we also have a gift shop. Currently we are undergoing some major construction at the shrine in an attempt to make our facilities more attractive and accessible. We are installing an elevator that will provide access to our upper and lower churches, and we’re building an atrium to better receive our pilgrims and parishioners when they first arrive.
Q. What are plans to include a Redemptorist research center at the shrine? Will it be open to the public? What can visitors expect?
A. This winter, the Redemptorists will begin renovating an old warehouse building across the street from the shrine. Plans call for a new hall where we can host events for the parish and shrine and also a new Redemptorist research center. Its primary use will be to serve scholars who are interested in the resources of the Redemptorist archives of the Baltimore Province. However, it will also have an exhibit space. In years to come, we hope to use this changeable space to tell various stories related to Redemptorist and American Catholic history. Our goal is to have the renovation complete by the end of 2015.
Q. What is the future of the shrine’s ministry
A. We foresee the shrine continuing to be a place of healing, peace, and encounter with God’s grace. We hope to keep sharing with people the riches of our Catholic heritage as they are embodied in the life and ministry of St. John Neumann. And we hope to do this in a space that is more beautiful and welcoming to all who wish to visit. In addition to the renovations, we have plans to move and remodel our museum and gift shop, install a film room, and create a space where groups can share meals so that they can more easily make a day out of their pilgrimage to the shrine.
Q. What are some of the shrine’s biggest needs?
A. Our biggest needs are personnel and money. We’re blessed with many wonderful employees, volunteers, and Redemptorists, but we could certainly use more people to help us carry on the ministry here, especially as we continue to expand the physical capabilities of our facilities. Finances are always an issue. Although we’re blessed by the generosity of current benefactors and donors and those who have supported us in the past, we continue to rely on the generosity of those who visit and are touched by our ministry. We are constantly working to expand the knowledge of and financial support of the shrine’s mission.
Q. How can people support your ministry and become involved
A. For those who live close by, we are always grateful for volunteers who can help us with the day-to-day hospitality work at the shrine. There are also plenty of ways for individuals who don’t live in the area to support our work. We love it when people call or write to make donations. Ask to be added to our mailing list. We invite people to participate in our candle initiative; donors can have their intentions remembered at the shrine with candles that burn on a weekly, monthly, or annual basis. Folks are invited to enroll themselves, friends, and family as members of the St. John Neumann Guild. Guild members are remembered in seventy-f ive Masses annually here at the shrine. Annual or perpetual enrollments are available. People can also have loved ones memorialized at the shrine by donating to have their names inscribed on our Benefactor Boards or our Giving Tree. For more information, visit stjohnneumann.org.
Fun Facts about St. John Neumann
Is the only canonized male U.S. citizen.
Was the first priest to enter the Redemptorist Congregation in North America.
Knew seven modern languages (German, Czech, Spanish, Italian, French, English, and Gaelic) and studied three ancient languages: Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
Is considered a father of the Catholic school system in America.
Was the first bishop to promote the Forty Hours eucharistic devotion in America.
Was fascinated by the sciences and considered becoming a doctor before becoming a priest. He had a lifelong interest in botany and astronomy.
Was stationed with Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos at St. Philomena’s parish in Pittsburgh, so those parishioners had a saint and a blessed working together in their parish.
Before he was a saint, he was a “shabby” bishop In 1854, when Archbishop Gaetano Bedini visited the United States on behalf of the Roman Propaganda Fidei, the bishop criticized Neumann as being too “shabby” for such an exalted post as that of the bishop of Philadelphia. “I dare to mention the bishop of Philadelphia,” said Bedini, “who is not up to the importance of that great city. The question is not doctrine or zeal or piety, but rather his personal shabbiness and disregard for fashion. The truth is that he is evidently holy and zealous, but more as a missionary than a bishop. One should not forget the very modest ways of the order to which he belongs, and Philadelphia [is] a city that is populous, rich, intelligent, full of life, and of an importance that clearly calls for a different style of bishop.”