The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – John Nepomucene Neumann

photograph of Saint John Nepomucene Neumann, date unknown, photographer unknownJohn Nepomucene Neumann, bishop of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was by birth an Austrian. He was born on 23 May 1811, and was the son of a municipal official in the little town of Prachatitz in Boehmer Wald. His boyhood foretold the future saint. He served Mass with extraordinary love and devotion. Once, when he saw a poor schoolmate begging, John besought his parents to be permitted to collect alms for the boy. At the age of twelve, having manifested his desire to become a priest, he was sent to the gymnasium of Budweis. Eight years later he began the study of theology in the seminary of Budweis and continued it afterward at Prague. During this time a fellow-student wrote an anonymous letter full of bitter calumnies against him, which brought John a severe public reprimand. He knew who the writer was, but, far from seeking revenge, he endeavored to win his calumniator by showing him greater love and friendship. While a student, John Neumann had read the reports of the Leopold Society on the foreign missions. This enkindled his zeal for souls. He determined to take Saint Francis Xavier as his model and to go off to the missions as soon as possible. After completing his studies he resolved to proceed immediately to North America. Before leaving he desired first to be ordained priest for the consolation of his parents; but this petition was not granted. As he left home he consoled his weeping father and mother, saying that he was not born to strive after honor and renown but to seek out the lambs that had gone astray.

On his landing in New York in 1836, Neumann was kindly received by the bishop and sent to help the pastor of the German church of Saint Nicholas in preparing the children for first Communion. Shortly after this, the bishop ordained him and appointed him pastor of Williamsville, near Buffalo. All the privations of a missionary there awaited the newly-ordained priest, but the sight of so many forsaken souls and their deplorable ignorance of religion made the sacrifice light for his zealous heart. Restless, he hastened with long and toilsome journeys through pathless wilds seeking the forlorn sheep, while at home he had absolutely no one to serve him or to prepare a lodging to shelter him sufficiently from the severe colds of winter.

For a long time Neumann had been deliberating on joining a Religious Order so that he might labor more efficiently as a missionary. Finally, in the year 1840 he obtained permission to enter the Congregation of the Redemptorists. But the novitiate did not give him much rest from his apostolic labors, for the need of priests was very great. A year after taking his vows Neumann became superior at Pittsburgh. Later on he was chosen to govern the whole province and after this was made rector in Baltimore. While occupying this position he was assailed by calumny and as a consequence deposed from his office. He said nothing in his defense, but it was only a short time before his innocence came clearly to light. His superiors did all they could to make amends for the injustice done him and reinstated him in his former office. Then came the unexpected news to the humble priest that he was nominated bishop of Philadelphia by the Propaganda. He used every effort to avoid this dignity, but Rome was inexorable.

Now that he was bishop, Neumann’s zeal could be exercised almost without limit. He was indefatigable in preaching, in hearing confessions, in visiting his far-extended diocese. Philadelphia owes to him its cathedral and its ecclesiastical seminary. He took care to establish Catholic schools everywhere.

At the desire of Pius IX he went to Rome for the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. He took the opportunity of visiting his home, to the great joy of his father, who was still living. They prepared a splendid reception for him, but it was his modesty and deep piety that made the greatest impression on the entire population. The ever active bishop was only forty-eight years of age. But he had already wasted his strength in the service of the Lord. On 5 January 1860, he was stricken with apoplexy while in the street, and the stroke brought about his death. He still wore his penitential girdle even on his death-bed. The apostolic process of his beatification was begun in 1896.

– this text is taken from The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century: Saintly Men and Women of Our Own Times, by Father Constantine Kempf, SJ; translated from the German by Father Francis Breymann, SJ; Impimatur by + Cardinal John Farley, Archbishop of New York, 25 September 1916

MLA Citation

  • Father Constantine Kempf, SJ. “John Nepomucene Neumann”. The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century, 1916. CatholicSaints.Info. 21 February 2018. Web. 17 November 2018. <>