People called him the stubby priest and laughed when they saw him riding his horse, because his feet did not touch the stirrups. He was not very good-looking – a square face, a square body. He was quiet, not a man with a vivacious personality, not one to charm a crowd or draw attention to himself. He was not the type of Church leader who pleased influential people. But John Nepomucene Neumann was a man of God who was also true to himself and he did the best job he could do.
Born and educated in Bohemia, John was interested in botany and astronomy as well as Church matters. By the time he was twenty-five, he knew six languages and was a trained seminarian. Since there were many priests in his country, and since he longed to be a missionary in America, John came to the United States in 1836 – with one suit of clothes and one dollar in his pocket.
The bishop of New York ordained John and sent him to the hard-working German-speaking people who were clearing the forests around Niagara Falls. He traveled on horseback from one mission station to another, visiting the sick, teaching catechism, and training teachers to take over when he left. He was busy with his many responsibilities, but very lonely at times. He felt the need for the fellowship of community life and for the spiritual challenge that living with other priests might bring.
So John entered the Redemptorist Order. As a novice, he was sent to different places so frequently that he wondered if his superiors really wanted him. Finally they allowed him to make his vows, and he became the first Redemptorist to be professed in the United States. He helped in parishes until he was made the superior of the American branch of the order. While John felt very unqualified in this position, it was due to his direction that the Redemptorists became leaders in the parochial school movement. He served as a parish priest in Baltimore until he was made bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. There was great opposition to his appointment at that time.
The influential, wealthy Catholics wanted someone who would make a good impression: one who would speak eloquently and act the part of a refined, polite gentleman. They wanted a bishop who would look the other way when he saw their unchristian practices. The Irish wanted a bishop who was Irish, who was one of their own kind. Those who were unhappy with John did not seem to care that he was a prayerful, sincere follower of Jesus. They disliked his thick Bohemian accent, plain speaking style, and the fact that he was very quiet and strict. He received a very cold reception when he went to Philadelphia. While it hurt him deeply, John decided that he would just be himself and do the best job he could. He knew that God would not ask any more than that. But his resolution did not make the criticism stop.
He also found himself confronted by the Know-Nothings, a powerful political group determined to deprive foreigners and Catholics of their civil rights. To achieve their goals, they burned convents and schools. Between the Catholic and the non-Catholic attacks, John became so discouraged that he wrote to Rome requesting to be transferred to a smaller diocese. He thought maybe someone else could do a better job in this position. But the highest Church authority in Rome told him to stay at his job – which he did! He stayed and contributed a great deal to Catholic education. In eight years, Philadelphia grew from two Catholic schools to one hundred schools, and was organized on a diocesan basis. Every year he made a visit to each parish and mission station, hoping to start a Catholic school in each place. He brought in many teaching orders of nuns and Christian brothers. For the German immigrants, he published two catechisms and a Bible history in German. He wrote many articles for Catholic newspapers and magazines.
In 1860, he died of a stroke while walking down the street taking care of errands. After his death, people publicized his many hidden virtues and penances. This short, unassuming, often unpopular man who worked so hard for God was declared a saint on June 19, 1977.