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Memorial of St. John Neumann

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sitting at the bar

It’s USA week in the Roman calendar. Yesterday we honored native-born St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and today we honor St. John Neumann, a European-born American immigrant.

John was born in what is today the Czech Republic in 1811. When he was just 25 he landed in New York harbor. He wanted to settle in America and he wanted to be ordained a priest. He got both wishes.

The “Know-Nothings,” whipped up fear about an alien race, the Roman Catholics, invading the country.

John arrived here knowing Latin, Greek, Hebrew and eight modern languages. Soon, the bishop of New York set him to work in Buffalo, where he ministered to immigrant parishes. His people were from Germany, Ireland, France and Scotland. Though he was not a kinsman to them, he could speak their languages. It must have been a great comfort to hear one’s own tongue so far from home.

He labored among the Catholics in upstate New York, visiting the sick, training teachers and teaching himself. It was an exhausting, lonely life. After four years, he entered an order, the Redemptorists, so that he might know the strength and solace of a community.

Soon John became the head of the order in America. In 1852 he was appointed bishop of Philadelphia, which was, at that time, the largest diocese in the country. He came into the episcopacy when anti-Catholic sentiment was at a peak. The political party, the “Know-Nothings,” whipped up fear about an alien race, the Roman (emphasis on the “Roman”) Catholics, invading the country. He also faced opposition from influential Philadelphia Catholics who wanted a more polished bishop than the one they’d been given.

But John worked hard and won over his people. He set about building and staffing Catholic schools. He personally visited every parish and mission in the large diocese at least once every two years. He wrote articles for the local newspapers and prepared catechisms and Bible histories for parishioners in various languages.

He died at the age of 50, a beloved bishop. He is buried where he served so well, in Philadelphia, inside St. Peter’s Church.

Beer (pivo) is considered the national drink of the Czech Republic. Hoist one tonight in honor of St. John Neumann. Consider having a Pilsner Urquell (Plzensky Prazdroj in Czech), the grandfather of all lager beers. Its roots go back to the city of Pilsen, where it was first brewed in the 13th century the thirteenth century. Na zdravi!

– Melissa Musick