John Neumann, Pioneer Saint
Committed to the people
John was barely able to keep up with the needs of his scattered parishioners. He carried Mass gear from one place to the next, administered the sacraments, slept on the floors of strange, cold cabins, and ate sparingly. On one long journey he developed excruciating blisters on his feet. After miles of travel he collapsed in the forest. Within minutes he was surrounded by a band of Seneca Indians. He was naturally alarmed. But when the Indians saw his blistered feet, they spread a blanket on the ground, gently lifted him onto it, and carried him to his destination.
Eventually a thoughtful parishioner gave John a horse for his travels. Many humorous anecdotes are told about the little priest and his spirited horse, Geraldine. The little priest had to climb onto a rail to hoist himself into the saddle. Sometimes Geraldine would not hold still. Once he got his foot into the wrong stirrup; the horse started at a gallop and John managed to get on her back, but facing backward. Fortunately a passerby stopped the horse and prevented a serious accident.. Another time he spent the better part of a day gathering medicinal herbs and plant specimens. Without warning Geraldine put her head into his cache and gulped down a large quantity.
When time permitted, John taught the children in makeshift classrooms: reading, writing, arithmetic, and singing. He even set aside an hour of his busy day to play with the children. The children thrived on his loving attention.
In search of peace
In time John was given five acres of land. He cleared the land to plant vegetables and, with the help of his parishioners, built a simple rectory. In the fall of 1839, John’s brother Wenzel joined him in America, eager to serve as his co-worker. Wenzel helped with chores, cooked, and taught the children.
Life was settling down for Father Neumann, but he was not at peace. He was tempted to desert his sprawling parish with its never-ending problems. "In my faintheartedness, I indulged wild dreams," he wrote in his journal. "To escape the terrible responsibility resting upon me, I sometimes thought of abandoning my flock and of fleeing to some distant solitude where I might lead a hidden, penitential life, or hire myself as a laborer in the fields."
In the summer of 1840 John’s health broke down completely. He was bedridden for three months. The warning lights were flashing: He had to make a change.
It was not his vocation to the priesthood that Father John Neumann questioned, but his ability to be happy in the independent existence of a diocesan priest. He longed for spiritual friendship and for the support of community life. A handful of German-speaking Redemptorist priests had arrived in America in 1832. John had visited their parish in Rochester and was drawn to the Redemptorist rule and spirit. In 1840 he applied and was admitted to the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. His brother Wenzel later followed in John’s footsteps and served the congregation as a lay Brother for over fifty years.
The American Redemptorist community was so new that John did not have a normal novitiate. Instead of the customary year of prayer and spiritual direction, he was shuttled from one place to another, changing his residence eight times that year and ministering incessantly. He became discouraged, and he worried that he was being bounced back and forth because his own brethren didn’t want him. He also heard persistent rumors that the Redemptorist communities in America would soon be dissolved.
"What will my future be?" the harassed novice wondered. "A year ago I took a step forward indeed, as I believed, but perhaps without sufficient reflection." Despite his doubts John stuck with the Redemptorists and made his profession on January 16, 1842.