Updated: Jan 4, 2021
Saint Neumann was born on March 28, 1811, in a town called Prachatitz, which at the time was part of the Austrian Empire. His father was Philip Neumann a stocking knitter. He was baptized the same day of his birth and began his education in the town school, earning the nickname "little bibliomaniac" from his love of learning from his mother. He began learning Latin at home from the catechist of Prachtitz and passed the entrance exam for a school in Budweis operated by the Piarist Fathers when he was just 10.
After passing the gymnasium course in 1829, Saint Neumann began two years of study in philosophy under the Cistercian monks of Hohenfurth Abbey. Though officially labelled philosophy, the two years of course work also included religion, higher mathematics, natural sciences and Latin philology. When graduation came in 1831, Saint Neumann had to decide between becoming a physician, lawyer or priest. Initially, he leaned towards the medicinal route, believing seminary admission would be too difficult with no friends to recommend him. His mother though, knocking his real desire for the priesthood, convinced him to apply to the seminary anyway - much to his surprise he was accepted, even without testimonials or recommendations from influential people in the town.
On November 1, 1831, Saint Neumann entered the seminary of the Diocese of Budweis and spent the next two years studying theology with much join. He was one of only a few men in his class allowed to take tonsure and minor orders. In his second year, Saint Neumann began to read the reports of the Leopoldine Society. The Society had been sending out reports attempting to fill the need of the German-speaking communities in the United States that were desperately short on priests. When the directory of the seminary gave a lecture on the missionary activities of Saint Paul, Saint Neumann and his friend Adalbert Schmidt decided together they would travel to the United States after completing their seminary studies.
At the end of his academic year in 1835, Saint Neumann expected to the ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Ernest Ruzicka, but the Bishop became extremely ill so he returned to Budweis for his examinations to the priest hood. Tough he passed, his ordination was cancelled because the diocese had more priests ordained that it needed for parishioners - some were still waiting for orders having been ordained the previous year. This was a crushing blow for Saint Neumann though he continued to look for a path to become a missionary in the United States still. For a year he travelled Europe, reaching out to Bishops and merchants for funds, permissions and ordination for his journey.
He wrote to the Bishop of New York but when no word had been received for sometime, he decided he could no longer wait to travel to the United States and that if he arrived in New York to find he was rejected , he would just travel to any of the other major German population centers. Saint Neumann departed France on April 7, 1836 aboard the largest vessel sailing out of France, the Europa. The ship caught site of land on May 28th, 1836, the eve of Trinity Sunday. He stepped ashore with one dollar in his pocket and immediately found a Catholic Church. He was then given the address of Bishop Dubois and Father John Raffeiner, the vicar-general of Germans in New York.
At the residence he found with joy that the Bishop had indeed sent a letter three weeks ago accepting him as a priest for the Diocese. The Bishop told him to prepare immediately for ordination. Saint Neumann was ordained at Saint Patrick's old Cathedral to the sub diaconate on June 19th, the diaconate on June 24th, and the Priesthood on June 25th. He celebrated his first mass the morning after at Saint Nicholas saying:
"Oh Jesus, You poured out the fullness of your grace over me yesterday. You made me a priest and gave me the power to offer You up to God. Ah! God! This is too much for my soul! Angels of God, all you saints of heaven, come down and adore my Jesus, because what my heart says is only the imperfect echo of what Holy Church tells me to say." He resolved, "I will pray to You that You may give to me holiness, and to all the living and the dead, pardon, that some day we may all be together with You, our dearest God!"
Saint Neumann was one of 36 priests (only three of which where German) for over 200,000 Catholics. Because the area was so new the area was still regarded in the Catholic Church as mission territory. Initially, Bishop Dubois assigned Saint Neumann to help Germans in the Buffalo territory. On the way there, he stopped in Rochester. When he administered his first baptism, Saint Neumann wrote in his journal:
"If the child I baptized today dies in the grace of this sacrament, then my journey to America has been repaid a million times, even though I do nothing for the rest of my life."
It was here too that he met with German Redemptorist Joseph Prost, sparking a conversation about potentially joining the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. The church he celebrated Mass in at Williasmville had no roof but was packed full of Germans desperate to celebrate Mass. The isolation and work of the parish began to take a toll and so he began reaching out to Father Prost about potentially joining the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer. He resolved to join the group and presented himself to the Redemptorists in Pittsburg on October 18th, 1849. He took his religious vows on January 1842 to the order and served at Saint Alphonsus Church in Ohio for five months before returning to New York. In Baltimore, he was naturalized as a United States citizen and spent 1841-1851 as a priest priest there.
On February 5th, 1852, the Holy See appointed Saint Neumann Bishop of Philadelphia. The town had a massive Catholic immigrant population full of Germans fleeing the Continental wars and Irish fleeing the Great Famine. He found the town difficult at first to serve as tensions were high in the city between immigrants and native born residents fighting over job opportunities. Even worse, the city was a stronghold of the Know-Nothing party, a anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic political group.
Under his administrator, new churches were completed at the rate of one per month, a mutual savings bank was created to help meet the financial needs of Catholics and the very first diocesan school system in the country was formed. Parochial schools in his diocese went from only one to 200. During a trip to Rome in 1854, Saint Neumann was present when Saint Pope Pius defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
On Thursday, January 5 1860, while completing errands, Saint Neumann collapsed and died on a sudden heart attack. Pope Benedict XV declared him venerable in 1921, and Pope Paul VI beatified him during the second Vatican council in 1963. Pope Paul VI also officially and formally canonized him on June 19, 1977.