John Neumann, Pioneer Saint
The bishop of New York was overjoyed to see John. Poverty-stricken emigrants had been swarming across the Atlantic and settling in his diocese in increasing numbers. His most pressing need was for more priests. He ordained John immediately and assigned him to the Buffalo district. On June 28, wearing a new suit of clothes and new shoes, Father Neumann left for his first assignment.
Only one other priest served the nine hundred square mile district of Buffalo. For four years John traveled the rugged terrain in every kind of weather, visiting rural settlements. "O God," he wrote in his diary, "how melancholy is the spectacle in this part of your kingdom! The children are in a sad state. The poor little creatures have had few advantages. They speak both German and English badly, and have little idea of religion. Yet a school cannot even be thought of."
In a letter home John wrote, "Many of our Catholics are in extreme poverty. They live in miserable shanties, some of which have not even the luxury of a window. As a general thing, chairs and bedsteads are unknown. I have seen the dying stretched on a bundle of straw or moss."
Not everyone took kindly to the immigrant priest. John came to America in an era of intense anti-Catholic feeling. Some people thought Catholics were ignorant and superstitious. They believed allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church, a foreign institution, threatened the American ideals of liberty and democracy. On one occasion a particularly hostile non-Catholic tried to engage John in public debate. John had capably defended the Church on previous occasions, but this man was in a frenzied state. John chose to ignore the provocation. As he walked past, the enraged man drew his gun and screamed, "You damned priest, if you don’t turn around and talk to me, I’ll shoot you!" John continued walking. Happily, the man did not shoot.