Managing Editor Elizabeth Herzing interviews Fr. Matthew Allman, CSsR, about the ministry at the National Shrine of St. John Neumann.
Q. What is the history of St. John Neumann?
A. Saint John Neumann, a Bohemian missionary born in 1811, came to the United States in 1836 seeking to serve the growing Catholic immigrant population. As a seminarian for his home diocese, located in the modern Czech Republic, Neumann had read about the plight of German-speaking Catholics in America who were in danger of losing their faith because of a lack of priests and parishes that could serve their spiritual needs. A native speaker of German, he felt God calling him to help. So after completing studies for the priesthood, he sailed to New York. The bishop of New York was delighted to receive this zealous young missionary. He ordained Neumann and sent him to minister to the people settling in the frontier territory around Buffalo. Neumann wandered the northern woods of New York State for four years, ministering among the pioneers.
In the 1830s, as the Cathol ic population in the United States surged, Catholics were met with resistance and resentment by many of their fellow Americans. In fact, the first time that Neumann attempted to celebrate Mass in Williamsville, New York, some of his non-Catholic neighbors tried to break up the celebration by throwing rocks through the unfinished roof of the small wooden church. Dur ing the summer of 1840, Neumann fell ill and couldn’t work for three months; he knew something had to change. Some years earlier, during a trip to Rochester, New York, Neumann met the American superior of the Redemptorists, Fr. Joseph Prost, who encouraged Neumann to consider joining the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, the Redemptorists. He relayed the physical, moral, and spiritual support that Neumann could receive living the religious life with the Redemptorist community. Although Neumann wasn’t initially moved by the offer, as time wore on, the suggestion seemed like a message from God. In 1842, Neumann professed his religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and became a Redemptorist. He worked with his new brothers first in their German- speaking parishes in Baltimore and Pittsburgh and then as the superior of their American mission, a post he held from 1847–1849. He was a parish priest again from 1849–1852.