Friday, January 05, 2007

What Kind of a Name is Nepomucene? If You Knew Neumann ...

"Passio Christi, conforta me."
"Passion of Christ, strengthen me!"
St. John Neumann's episcopal motto

Going from the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame to the Bishop who brought the School Sisters of Notre Dame to teach at the newly established United States parochial schools, St. John Nepomucene Neumann was an American saint very into education, and one I'm happy I finally became educated about.

Born in Bohemia (present day Germany) in 1811, John was born to a German dad and Czech mom, the third of six children. Educated in the public school, John was soon determined to be a "real man of genius" (especially with languages), so he was sent to Budweis (the Seminary, not brewery) to study. Given the tonsure in 1835, John was actually turned down for the priesthood by Budweis' stodgy old bishop, Dr. Ruzicka in 1835 "because I have enough priests." Undaunted, John took it as a sign to follow his dream to become a missionary in America where John Dubois, the Bishop of New York, gladly ordained him in 1836.

John worked virtually alone for the first four years of his priesthood in the Diocese of Buffalo/Rochester ministering mostly to German immigrants and Native Americans, which meant visiting remote villages and climbing mountains, while celebrating Mass in homes with kitchen tables or mud furniture for altars.

Missing the community life, John joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (the Redemptorists) in 1842, and quickly became their American Vicar. John was an immensely popular preacher, and the fact that he mastered eight languages meant he could preach to just about every American, native or otherwise. In fact, when stationed in Baltimore, the Irish started arriving in droves, so John picked up Gaelic -- and spoke it so well that some of the Irish were actually fighting about Neumann with the German immigrants, claiming John knew their language so well he must be from Ireland!

John also spent a great deal of energy founding schools in Baltimore (which he staffed not only with the Notre Dame Sisters, but also with the Oblate Sisters of Divine Providence, an order of "women of color" that most spurned but John embraced), but this success brought him to where he did not want to go (John 21:18) and John was elected, against his wishes, as Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. Here John not only built churches (establishing 40 Hours Devotion to all Diocesan parishes), but established the country's parochial school system. In his eight years in Philly, Neumann increased the number of Catholic schools from two to 100, and founded an Order (the Sisters of St. Francis) to staff them. And, though now a U.S. citizen, John still had a special fondness for the natives of his homeland, and managed to find time to write two German Catechisms as well.

While a few men can learn eight languages, no man can do eight jobs for long, and under the strain of being Bishop of Philadelphia, Redemptorist Vicar, preacher, founder, builder, translator, writer and almsgiver, John collapsed on the streets of Philadelphia on January 5th, 1860 and died at the age of 48. John was canonized in 1977, the first male American saint (yesterday's hero, St. Elizabeth Seton, was the first American saint, canonized two years previous to Neumann), and in those 30 years since has had parochial schools in every corner of America named after him.


As a young Catholic, I read the Catholic classic Apologia Pro Vito Sua and, not being a very good speller and hearing there was a "St. John Neumann" who lived in the 19th Century, I mistook this book's famous author, John Henry Cardinal Newman, to be that saint. So today, I figure I have two John Neumann/Newmans to pray to; one the actual saint, to help me balance my many roles (including one full-time job, two part-time employments, not to mention writer, speaker, husband and father) without dropping dead as well as the virtual saint (of last report, John Henry Newman was declared Venerable but why this great convert hasn't moved up the saintly ladder yet baffles me) for my writing.

John Neumann/Newman, Pray for Us!!

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