John Neumann, Pioneer Saint
In the Gospel story of the widow’s mite, Jesus is unimpressed watching the rich put large offerings into the temple treasury. He praises instead the poor widow who put in only two copper coins. "I assure you," he said to his disciples, "this poor widow has put in more than all the rest."
Saint John Neumann reminds me of that poor widow. He was a short, shy, back-country immigrant priest. In the eyes of some he was an unimpressive, awkward little man; but in God’s eyes John was peerless, and his mite was a priceless gift. All that he had and was he willingly offered to God.
The "little bibliomaniac"
John was born on March 28, 1811, in Prachatitz, a small town in Bohemia (now part of Czechoslovakia). He was the third child of Philip and Agnes Neumann. Philip ran a small stocking-knitting business, which adequately supported his growing family.
John was a quiet child with a few close friends. He liked to draw, play the guitar, and take long walks. He was such a voracious reader that his mother affectionately called him "my little bibliomaniac." One concerned relative thought the boy was too quiet and told him, "John, go out and throw a brick through a window!"
He was a faithful Catholic and a good student, but not outstanding among his peers. As a teenager he was dissatisfied with his studies. He wrote, "We were assigned to a teacher who was addicted to drink, and so we made little progress with our studies. I was even less satisfied with the religion teacher who was dryness· and dullness personified. He was obsessed with every word, and I had a poor memory for words, so that my two religion classes were the most boring ones."
John was captivated by the natural sciences, particularly astronomy and biology. On clear nights he brought a telescope outdoors and studied the stars and planets for hours. Other evenings he spent in his room, scrutinizing plant life under a microscope. He was leaning toward a career in medicine when a certain book of meditations influenced him deeply. He later claimed this book led him to God.
When John told his mother he was wavering between the priesthood and the study of medicine, she encouraged him to apply to the seminary. He took her advice and was accepted. He later wrote, "From that moment on I never gave a thought to medicine."