St. John Neumann, the first United States bishop to be canonized, is near and dear to me. As Bishop of Philadelphia (1852–1860), he worked with underserved, marginalized communities and organized the first Catholic diocesan school system in the U.S.
Born in 1811, in what is now Czechoslovakia, the humble, frugal Neumann immigrated to New York in 1836 with one suit and a dollar in his pocket. Three weeks later, he was ordained. In 1848, he became a U.S. citizen.
In Philadelphia, he found anything but a City of Brotherly Love. He arrived to a burgeoning industrial mercantile hub rocked by anti-Catholic riots, as prejudiced, native-born residents clashed with waves of European Catholic immigrants who didn’t speak English and competed for jobs in a dire economic climate.
Fluent in several languages, Neumann endeared himself to the new immigrant community, establishing a foundation of parishioners who feared Protestant discrimination and wanted their children educated in the Catholic tradition. During his tenure, the number of parochial schools in his diocese increased from one to 200.
Neumann supported the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia to help facilitate social services, along with the School Sisters of Notre Dame from Germany who aided in religious instruction and staffed an orphanage. He also advocated on behalf of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a congregation of African-American women founded by Haitian refugees.
Neumann was canonized in 1977.
Father Scott Donahue is the president of Mercy Home for Boys and Girls.