This first American male saint was born in Prachatitz, Bohemia (Czech Republic) in 1811. He was taken on the same day to the parish church, baptized and named for one of the patron saints of his homeland, John Nepomucene. He was a small and quiet boy with four sisters and a brother. His father Philip, a native of Bavaria, owned a small stocking mill and was a minor village official. His mother Agnes was a Czech, a devout woman who attended Mass daily.
Young John Nepomucene Neumann developed into a keen student with a passion for books and for learning. His schooling began in Prachatitz and continued after he was twelve in the town of Budweis, 22 miles away. He attended high school and a philosophical institute there.
John spent two years at the diocesan seminary in Budweis, then transferred to that of the archdiocese at the University of Prague, where he completed his studies in 1835. His academic record was excellent, and he had an exceptional skill in mastering languages. In addition to his native German and Bohemian, he knew Italian, Spanish, Greek and Latin. In Prague, he undertook to learn English and French as well. In later life, he taught himself Gaelic in order to minister to Irish immigrants.
He was looking forward to being ordained in 1835 when the bishop decided there would be no more ordinations. It is difficult to imagine now, but Bohemia was overstocked with priests. John wrote to bishops all over Europe but the story was the same everywhere - no one wanted any more priests. John was sure he was called to be a priest but all the doors to follow that vocation seemed to close in his face.
John didn’t give up. He was inspired by the missionary writings of Bishop Frederic Baraga in America, and because he had learned English by working in a factory with English-speaking workers, he wrote to the bishops in America. Finally, the bishop in New York agreed to ordain him. In order to follow God's call to the priesthood, John would have to leave his home forever and travel across the ocean to a new and rugged land.
In New York, John was one of 36 priests for 200,000 Catholics. John's parish in western New York stretched from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania. His church had no steeple or floor but that did not matter because John spent most of his time traveling from village to village, climbing mountains to visit the sick, staying in garrets and taverns to teach, and celebrating the Mass at kitchen tables.
Because of the work and the isolation of his parish, John longed for community and so joined the Redemptorists, a congregation of priests and brothers dedicated to helping the poor and most abandoned. In January, 1842, he took the vows to enter the order in Baltimore, Maryland, and became the first Redemptorist in the New World. After six years of difficult but fruitful work with the order, he was appointed the order’s provincial superior in the United States. Neumann was naturalized as a citizen of the U.S. in Baltimore on February 10, 1848.
John was appointed bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. Bishop John Neumann chose the motto of “Passion of Christ strengthen me” in his Coat of Arms. As bishop, he was the first to organize a diocesan Catholic school system. A founder of Catholic education in this country, he increased the number of Catholic schools in his diocese from two to 100, and the number of parochial school students in his diocese grew from 500 to 9,000. He also introduced the School Sisters of Notre Dame to the New World to assist in religious instruction and staffing the orphanage.
John wrote many Catholic newspaper and magazine articles. He also published two catechisms and a Bible history in German. He also introduced many teaching orders to the United States.
In October 1854, Bishop Neumann traveled to Europe to be present in Rome for the promulgation by Pope Pius IX of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Afterwards, he made the only return visit of his lifetime to his homeland.
John never lost his love and concern for the people. On one visit to a rural parish, the parish priest picked him up in a manure wagon. Seated on a plank stretched over the wagon's contents, John joked, "Have you ever seen such an entourage for a bishop!"
In 1860, John Neumann died due to a stroke at the age of 48 while walking down a street in Philadelphia. He was canonized by Pope Paul VI on June 19, 1977, and became the first American bishop to be so honored.