John Neumann, Pioneer Saint
Compassion and zeal
John’s first appointment was to a busy Baltimore parish. For two years he divided his time between hearing confessions, preaching, instructing converts, and visiting the many German families scattered throughout the county districts. One vivid story from this period involves a murderer who was sentenced to be hanged for killing two women. A noisy, excited crowd had assembled to witness the execution. As the little black-robed priest mounted the scaffold, a deep hush settled over the crowd. John spoke comforting words to the condemned man and remained by his side until the trap was sprung.
In 1844 John was chosen to be superior of the Redemptorist community in Pittsburgh. As such, he raised funds to complete a half-finished church building and began construction of a rectory. In addition to his regular priestly duties he helped form parish societies to unite his parishioners. He took a special interest in parish schools and the missions.
In his zeal, however, John neglected his health. He developed a racking cough and began to spit up blood. A medical exam underscored his need for rest. The American superior wrote to John’s assistant, "I am very sorry that your otherwise praiseworthy superior has ruined his health through his indiscreet zeal.…If he continues as he is, he may have to face an early death."
John was relieved from his post as superior—for a brief two months.
Forward in hope and love
Father Neumann had been recuperating from his illness less than a week when he received word from Europe that he was to be the next superior of all the Redemptorists in America. He was thirty-five years old. For one who had felt overwhelmed by his responsibilities as a parish priest, it was no small act of obedience to accept the post. But once he had accepted it, he went forward with hope and love.
One of John Neumann’s first projects as superior was to adopt and revive the Oblate Sisters of Providence. This group of black women religious had been founded in 1828 to educate the children of slaves. When their spiritual director died and a number of the Sisters moved, the Archbishop of Baltimore prepared to disband the Order. Father Neumann sent one of his most persuasive young priests to intervene on his knees in behalf of the Sisters. The archbishop gave the Order a second chance.
Thrilled by the success of parish missions and evangelical efforts, John wrote home with enthusiasm, "Protestants are constantly coming for instruction in our holy religion. They generally end by entering the Church. Eighty-five adults, one third of them Blacks, were last year received into the Church."