Philadelphia celebrates 150th anniversary of saintly bishop’s death

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

Bishop John Nepomucene Neumann, C.SS.R., was just 49 when he dropped dead on the street at 13th and Vine Jan. 5, 1860. He was given a grand funeral of course, befitting his ministry as bishop.

According to his biography, there was a police escort followed by a rifle company, various Catholic societies and hundreds of prelates and clerics. They knew how to do things in those days.

He’d been bishop of Philadelphia less than eight years but in that time had gained quite a reputation for holiness. Some thought he was a saint, not that any American had ever been canonized at that time.

Very few would have said he was a great administrator. As a matter of fact, three years earlier he’d been given a coadjutor, Bishop James Frederic Wood, a former banker, to take over the financial matters of the diocese.

In keeping with his own wishes, his final resting place was not among Philadelphia’s other bishops, past and future, in the crypt of the great cathedral being built, but rather at St. Peter the Apostle Church with his brother Redemptorist priests. He had not aspired to the episcopacy, but rather accepted the office in humility and obedience.

An immigrant missionary born in Bohemia, he didn’t fit the mold of most bishops, according to Redemptorist Father Kevin Moley, pastor of St. Peter the Apostle Parish, where Cardinal Rigali celebrated the 150th anniversary Mass of St. John Neumann on Jan. 5.

“He was too short, he didn’t have perfect English and didn’t dress elegantly,” Father Moley said. “His greatness was as an ordinary man who did extraordinary things. He was focused on God’s people.”

But there was that unquestioned holiness. Year after year members of the faithful visited his grave seeking his intercession, and many reported receiving his help.

The cause for his canonization was a painstaking process begun in 1886 by Archbishop Patrick J. Ryan. The Rome process began in 1897, but it wasn’t until 1921 that Pope Benedict XV solemnly declared his virtues were of a heroic degree.

“Perhaps the very simplicity of these virtues has been misunderstood by those who thought there was no heroic degree in the virtues of the Servant of God,” the Pope said, “because in their eyes the good works and holy deeds performed by Neumann are the holy and good deeds every good religious, every zealous missionary and every good bishop should perform. We shall not pause to remark that works even the most simple, performed with constant perfection in the midst of inevitable difficulties, spell heroism in any servant of God.”

The cause proceeded slowly but surely. Bishop Neumann was beatified in 1963 and canonized as a saint in 1977. A key part of the process is the acceptance as authentic miracles attributed to the intercession of the candidate for beatification and canonization. These are the only miracles attributed to St. John Neumann with official recognition. But many, many people firmly believe they have received favors through his intercession.

Father Moley cites the case of Janice Bender. Her husband, noted forensic sculptor Frank Bender, fashioned the face mask for St. John Neumann’s body that is venerated in a glass sarcophagus beneath the altar of his shrine in the lower level of St. Peter the Apostle Church.

Janice Bender had what was considered terminal cancer, but after Father Moley applied a relic of the saint to her body she underwent complete remission. After the fact, both husband and wife went through RCIA at St. Peter’s and became Catholic.

“I think that is the greater miracle,” Father Moley said. “People are still being blessed by him. We should all ask the saints and the Blessed Mother to intercede for us.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.