Twenty-five years after Neumann's death, in 1885, Philadelphia Archbishop Patrick J. Ryan instituted a diocesan investigation of his virtues. Eleven years later the cause was formally accepted for study by the Congregation of Rites, now called the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The body was exhumed and examined by Church commissions. Relics were obtained. In 1921, the Christian virtues of Philadelphia's fourth Bishop were proclaimed to be of heroic degree by Pope Benedict XV, who said: "Works even the most simple, performed with constant perfection in the midst of inevitable difficulties, spell heroism in any servant works, we find in them a strong argument for saying to the faithful of whatever age, sex or condition: 'You are all bound to imitate the Venerable Neumann'."
A baby boy was born on March 28, 1811 in the centuries old village of Prachatitz in Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia). He was taken the same day to the parish church, baptized and named for one of the patron saints of his homeland, John Nepomucene. The baby was the third child and the first son in the family of Philip and Agnes Neumann. His father, a native of Bavaria, owned a small stocking mill and was a minor village official. His mother was a Czech, a devout woman who attended Mass daily. Young John Nepomucene Neumann developed into a keen student with a passion for books and for learning. He was gifted with a quick mind for study and a rare ability for languages. His schooling began in Prachatitz and continued after he was twelve in the town of Budweis, twenty-two miles away. He attended the Budweis Gymnasium (high school) and a philosophical institute there. At age seven, the boy began to receive the sacrament of penance. At eight, he was confirmed by the Bishop of Budweis on the occasion of the first episcopal visit to Prachatitz that villagers could remember. Neumann had no strong inclination for the priesthood in childhood, and at twenty he was still undecided about the choice of a career. The story of how he came to enter seminary is told in his own autobiographical sketch: "When the time came, at the end of the philosophy course, for me to decide either for theology, or law or medicine, I felt more of an attraction for the last. This was all the more so because, out of eighty or ninety applicants for theology, only twenty were to be accepted. For this, along with the best scholastic transcript, recommendations were also required, and I wanted to have nothing to do with them. In this uncertainty about the choice of a profession, I came home in the autumn vacation of 1831 and found that my father was not against letting me study medicine in Prague, even though the expenses involved were great. My mother was not too happy with this. Even though I pointed out to her that I did not know anyone who would back my request for admission into the institute for the study of theology, nevertheless she thought that I should give it a try. I then wrote a letter of application and sent it to Budweis by a special messenger ... Shortly after that I received the letter of acceptance into the Budweis Theological Seminary. From that moment on I never gave another thought to medicine and I also gave up completely the study of physics and astronomy on which I preferred to spend time, and this without any great difficulty."
John Neumann spent two years at the diocesan seminary in Budweis, then transferred to that of the archdiocese at the University of Prague, where he completed his studies in 1835. Some of his textbooks and theological papers, transcripts of his marks and written reports of his instructors are all still in existence.
His academic record was excellent, and he had exceptional skill in mastering languages. In addition to his native German and Bohemian, he knew Italian, Spanish, Greek and Latin. In Prague he undertook to learn English and French as well. In later life he taught himself Gaelic in order to minister to Irish immigrants. At the seminary, Neumann made up his mind to become a missionary in America. Tens of thousands of German Catholics had emigrated to the United States. Whether living in crowded eastern cities or in the sparsely settled farm country to the west, most of them spoke only German and were out of communication with their Church. Urgent appeals for the assistance of German-speaking priests were being received in the homeland, and Neumann dedicated his life to that service. "My resolution was so strong and lively," he wrote, "that I could no longer think of anything else."
He met only disappointment at first. After passing his examinations, he learned that no new priests would be ordained in his diocese that year. He then attempted, even before ordination, to obtain an assignment to a diocese in the United States. This required his receiving a formal request from one of the American bishops. Neumann tried to procure such an invitation and waited in vain for months at Prachatitz. Finally, he set out for America on his own-without knowing when he would become a priest or where he would undertake his missionary service. He knew only that he faced a life of hardship and lonely separation from his family. After a long, slow journey from Prachatitz, Neumann reached the French port of Le Havre. Along the way he hoped to receive a request for his presence from one of the bishops in the United States; but none reached him. Discouraged but stoutly determined, he bought passage to New York from the captain of the Europa, an American three-master engaged in transport of immigrants. It had no comforts for its passengers. The young priest-to-be had to supply his own food for the voyage and to buy a pot to cook it in. He purchased a straw mattress on which to sleep on deck. For ten days he lived uncomfortably on the vessel until the captain had attracted enough passengers to make the voyage profitable. Finally, on April 20, 1836, the Europa sailed for a rough, forty-day crossing of the Atlantic.
John Neumann could not wait for the ship to dock. While it was delayed several days at quarantine, be found a ride in a row boat to Staten Island and reached Manhattan by a small steamer. It was June 2. All that afternoon he tramped the streets of New York alone looking unsuccessfully for a Catholic Church. He was 25 years old, not yet a missionary, not yet a priest, and so far as he knew not wanted by anyone in America. But next day all his uncertainty was ended. He was welcomed to the Diocese of New York by Bishop John DuBois and told that
a letter had been sent to him shortly before, gratefully accepting his service as a missionary.
In the whole New York Diocese with its thousands of immigrants, there were only three priests who could speak the German language. "I can and must ordain you quickly," said the Bishop. "1 need you." He sent the young man to the German Church of St. Nicholas on Second Street in Manhattan to prepare for ordination. It was most appropriate that Neumann's first assignment in America was to teach catechism in German to the group of children soon to receive first Communion. All his life he was deeply concerned for the religious education of young people in church and in school.
On Saturday, June 25, 1836 in old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mott Street in New York, John Neumann was at last ordained by Bishop DuBois. The very next day he celebrated his first public Mass at St. Nicholas and gave ' first Holy Communion to the group of children he had prepared. The church overflowed with families, friends and parishioners who shared the joy of their German-speaking priest. That night. in his journal the new Father Neumenn poured out to God his resolution for the days and years to come: "I will pray to You that You may give me holiness, and to all the living and dead, pardon, that some day we
may all be together with You, our dearest God." Two days later, Neumann set out for Erie County at the far western edge of the New York diocese. He traveled by Hudson River steamer, railroad, stage coach and canal boat, headed for the remote area of the state where an inrush of immigrants had followed the opening of the Erie Canal. It was exactly the type of missionary duty to which the newly-ordained priest had dedicated himself.
For four years, 1836 to 1840, Neumann served as missionary in the farm country near Buffalo, New York. Much of the land was just being cleared of woodland and put into cultivation for the first time. Families were poor and widely scattered; towns were no more than a handful of houses; roads were bad, sometimes non-existent. The priest walked many miles from house to house, village to village, in good weather and foul. His duties took him as far northwest as Niagara Falls and as far east as Batavia. It was scarcely less fatiguing after he learned with some difficulty to ride a horse.
In his diary he describes his life: "Only a poor priest, one who can endure hardship, can labor here. His duties call him far and near ... he leads a wandering life. There is no pleasure, except the care of souls the Catholic population is continually increasing, many are in extreme poverty. They live in miserable shanties, some with not even a window."
His headquarters at first were at Williamsville, which consisted of half a dozen houses and a stone church still roofless when he arrived. Since there was no rectory, he boarded with a Catholic family in an apartment over the village tavern. One of his first tasks was to dismiss a schoolmaster addicted to alcohol. For months he taught the children himself until a new instructor was found.
After a year, the young priest moved his base to North Bush, a settlement near the present Kenmore, New York. There he was guest in the cabin of a farmer. He had to walk a mile and a half through muddy woods to reach his church--a small log chapel which he helped to complete. Later the people of the community gave him a five-acre lot near the chapel and built a two-room log cabin for a rectory. For some time he lived alone, cooking his meals, doing the housework, and often neglecting both in order to attend his priestly functions. But in September, 1838, his younger brother, Wenceslaus, came from Bohemia after many invitations to live in North Bush. Thereafter, Wenceslaus took over the chores of the rectory household and taught in the local school.
In New York state, Neumann observed the missionary work being done among German immigrants by several priests of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. Although the Redemptorist Order had been established in Italy a century before, missionaries had not been sent to America until 1832. Father Joseph Prost, Superior of the small group then in the country, had been active at a church in Rochester, New York, and Neumann was particularly impressed by the religious devotion he found among parishioners there.
He came to feel that he might be more effective in nourishing the spiritual life of the people if he were a member of a religious community rather than a lone missionary-pastor. He recalled the saying: Vae soli! Woe to the one who is alone!
He decided to apply to Prost for admission to the Redemptorist Congregation. A factor in this decision undoubtedly was the complete physical collapse which left him unable to attend to his duties for three months in the summer of 1840. ”I think this is the best thing I can do for the security of my salvation," he wrote to his family.
After receiving prompt acceptance for admission and after asking relief from his responsibilities in the New York Diocese, Neumann left Buffalo for the Redemptorist foundation in Pittsburgh in October, 1840. His brother, "Little Wenzel" remained behind only long enough to gather up their few possessions. Then he, too, traveled to Pittsburgh and became a Redemptorist lay brother, serving for the rest of his long life.
John Neumann took the habit of the Redemptorist Congregation on November 30, 1840 in Pittsburgh at old St. Philomena's Church, at that time called "The Factory Church", because it was located in an old industrial· building. As a novitiate, his experience was unique. Instead of a quiet period of reflection and community prayer, he found himself repeatedly transferred from foundation to foundation, city to city, as need arose for interim pastors for German congregations. A Redemptorist chronicler reported: "The first novice of our American Province did not enjoy the advantages found in the regular instruction and careful discipline of a well-regulated novitiate. He was entrusted with duties which usually fell to the charge of a professed religious only; nevertheless he distinguished himself by a faithful observance of rules, unaffected love for the Congregation, and the practice of eminent virtues."