John Neumann, Pioneer Saint
Even while he was bishop, John enjoyed doing little chores. When an overflow crowd was expected for mission services, he was in church at 4:00 a.m. opening the doors, lighting lamps, preparing the altars, and picking up stray bits of litter from the church floor. One elderly lady exclaimed, "Oh, to see that humble little creature, you never would think he was a bishop."
John’s simplicity was the very thing that irritated or worried some people. In a report to Rome of the conditions in America, Archbishop Bedini wrote, "The Bishop of Philadelphia seems a little inferior for the importance of such a distinguished city, not in learning nor in zeal nor in piety, but because of the littleness of his person and his neglect of the fashions."
It was true that Bishop Neumann owned only one habit and one pair of shoes, and he often wore an out-of-date hat, but this criticism would not have bothered John had he heard it. The personal defects that concerned him are candidly revealed in a letter he wrote to a cardinal in Rome:
"Day and night I am filled with uneasiness and perpetual fear. The debts left me by my venerable predecessor cause me much anxiety. Because of circumstances here, a man of sharp insight—brave and accustomed to directing temporal affairs—is required. I, however, am timid, always hesitating, and possess a horror of business and pecuniary transactions."
John requested a transfer. Instead he received a consultor, Bishop Wood. Eventually they traded places, and John became Bishop Wood’s consultor for the remaining few years of his life.
Death of a saint
John Neumann died suddenly of apoplexy on January 5, 1860, at age forty-nine. He had been out on an errand when he collapsed in the street. Two men rushed to help him and carried him into a nearby home. The bishop was dead within minutes.
John Neumann was canonized in 1977—the first male American citizen to be declared a saint. Many miracles have been attributed to his intercession.
This article originally appeared as a two-part series in the January and February 1990 issues of Liguorian. For more information on this Redemptorist saint, visit www.stjohnneumann.org.