Watch the birthday celebration video here

By Christie L. Chicoine
CS&T Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA – Confetti and cake, colorful streamers, big balloons, hats, horns, a piñata – and, perhaps, a round of the childhood game pin the tail on the donkey – are just some of the elements of a festive party that may have surrounded St. John Neumann as he celebrated his 200th earthly birthday in heaven earlier this week.

That’s what a third-grade boy and a fifth-grade girl from St. Peter the Apostle School in North Philadelphia think.

Tyler Velazquez, 9, and Jasmine Rosario, 11, celebrated the bicentennial birthday of Philadelphia’s first saint, fourth bishop and founder of the Catholic school system at a prayer service Monday, March 28 at the National Shrine of St. John Neumann. {{more}}

Velazquez was among the thousands of grade school and high school students from across the Archdiocese who participated in the celebration through an Internet video link. Rosario joined approximately 500 others, representing all the Catholic school students, at the shrine located next door to St. Peter the Apostle School.

“It is amazing that he is already 200 years old,” Velazquez said. “I think he’s a great role model for the younger kids and the older kids.”

Rosario said the prayer service was fun and faith-filled. “It was just such an honor to St. John Neumann that we celebrated his birthday. He was probably very happy,” she said.

She was certain he enjoyed how the students raised their voices to heaven with the hymn, “Sing Praise to St. John Neumann.”

One lesson St. John Neumann wanted children of all ages to remember throughout their lives was to “love one another,” Rosario said.

A number of Catholic adults from across the Archdiocese also attended the prayer service, and afterward joined the children in paying their respects to the beloved little bishop whose remains are interred below the shrine’s altar.

The prayer service was streamed live on the archdiocesan web site for the school children and adults not in attendance.

Auxiliary Bishop Timothy C. Senior presided at the 10 a.m. prayer service. Also in attendance in the sanctuary were Father John J. Ames, the Archdiocese’s Deputy Secretary for Catechetical Formation, and two Redemptorist priests from St. Peter the Apostle Parish: Father Arthur Gildea and Father Robert Harrison, both parochial vicars.

A native of Bohemia who served first as a diocesan priest then as a Redemptorist priest, St. John Neumann shepherded the Diocese of Philadelphia from 1852 to 1860. He died at age 48 after collapsing on an icy step near 12th and Vine Streets in Philadelphia on Jan. 5, 1860.

Addressing the state of the Catholic school system across the country, Father Harrison said in his homily at the birthday prayer service that it is “both heartening and challenging to remember that Catholic churches and schools were originally built on the small donations of immigrants who sacrificed nickels, dimes and dollars to make their children Catholics who are both well educated and fully American.”

The entire Church suffers when Catholic schools disappear, continued Father Harrison. “St. John Neumann, intercede for our Catholic schools that they may continue to educate our children, to become faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Joseph Gorman, 17, a junior at SS. John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School in South Philadelphia, was one of the altar servers who assisted with the liturgy.

“It was reverent, and pretty cool to witness a very spanerse group of people of all different ages” celebrating St. John Neumann, Gorman said. A 2008 alumnus of Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in South Philadelphia, Gorman is a member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish.

Being a student at a school that bears the saint’s name is a source of pride and a great privilege, Gorman said. “Our mascot’s the Saints. They expect us to act like saints. Each day, whatever we do – whether it’s schoolwork, homework or a sports activity, we take that pride and respect and try to live it out to the best of our ability.”

As junior class president, or while pitching or playing center field on the varsity baseball team, Gorman strives to make his school’s saints proud.

Richard McCarron, Secretary for Catholic Education, believed the prayer service befitted the courage and vision of St. John Neumann in his establishment of the Catholic school system.

He said his constant mantra is a fervent, focused prayer that St. John Neumann “would continue to bless our efforts.”

Despite the closures of a number of Catholic parochial and secondary schools in recent years, McCarron said the future of Catholic schools in the Philadelphia Archdiocese is not bleak.

He concedes there is a challenge to maintain Catholic schools in the midst of addressing a demographic shift, an economy yet to fully recover from the financial recession and a decreased church attendance rate.

McCarron is, however, hopeful that the recently named Blue Ribbon Commission “will be able to provide a firm foundation so that we will have a secure base going forward.”

He was referring to the strategic advisory group recently appointed by Cardinal Justin to chart the future course of Catholic education in the Archdiocese.

Before the conclusion of the St. John Neumann birthday prayer assembly came the announcement of the winners of a Redemptorist-sponsored national essay contest for students in honor of St. John Neumann’s bicentennial.

A first-place and two honorable mentions were awarded to three from the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

In the middle-school category, first place was awarded to Julianna Kardish, a seventh-grader at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Doylestown. She won a $300 scholarship.

Receiving an honorable mention award and a $100 scholarship are John Battagliese, a junior at Bishop Shanahan High School in Downingtown who belongs to SS. Simon and Jude Parish in West Chester and Julie Bevilacqua, an eighth-grader at St. Anastasia School in Newtown Square, Delaware County.

“I couldn’t believe it – I was stunned,” Bevilacqua said. She described the saint’s birthday prayer service as beautiful. That night, she planned to tell St. John Neumann “Happy Birthday and thank you for the opportunity because Catholic school has made me the person that I am now.”

Next year, on what would have been his 201st birthday, another milestone of St. John Neumann will be marked. March 28, 2012, denotes the 160th year that St. John Neumann was ordained a bishop for the Diocese of Philadelphia.

This past Jan. 5, St. John Neumann’s feast day, marked the official opening of the Neumann Jubilee Year. It officially closes June 23, 2012.

For more information about the National Shrine of St. John Neumann, visit or call 215-627-3080.

CS&T Staff Writer Christie L. Chicoine may be reached at 215-587-2468 or