Visitors and pilgrims to the Saint John Neumann Shrine at St. Peter the Apostle Church will find an attractive monastery-like setting. 

Besides the chapel, resplendent in gold, marble and a Byzantine icon of the Virgin Mary in place of a statue, there’s a café that can seat 50, an atrium with piped in Georgian chant, and a gift shop with a rich selection of rosaries and unusual statues of Our Lady of Fatima. Capping the complex is a museum devoted to the life and work of St. John Neumann. 

The museum has attracted the attention of roving urban reporters who would otherwise not report on religious topics. The “more-hip-than-thou”, for instance, informed its readers that the shrine is where St. John Neumann, “is dressed in a miter and vestments, and resembles a big rifle bullet inside a glass-sided gun barrel.”

This description, despite its military industrial complex analogy, indicates that the writer was to some degree mesmerized by what he saw. The writer continues: 

“When Neumann was exhumed in 1962 it was reported that he was remarkably well-preserved for someone who had been buried for over 100 years. His body has nevertheless been given a wax face, to remain presentable.” 

Some time ago, Patrick J. Hayes, Ph.D, archivist for the Redemptorist Archives of the Baltimore Province, guided me on a tour of the museum. 

Hayes never mentioned bullets, though he did point out the hangman’s noose that was used to hang two brothers at Moyamensing Prison. The story goes that many clergy had failed to convert the two brothers prior to their execution. One clergyman did succeed, however, and that was Bishop Neumann. There’s no record of what Neumann said to the brothers although we can surmise that it probably had something to do with Heaven’s bipolar opposite — and that eternity is a long, long time.

The hood that was placed over the condemned men’s heads is also prominently displayed, creating a kind of Mütter Museum chill.

The noose and hood were both presented to Neumann sometime after the executions, not that he needed a keepsake of the event. In this museum these instruments of death come across as reminder “relics” that allow viewers to recall eleventh-hour conversions, the most famous in history being the salvation of the Good Thief on the cross.

RoadsideAmerica reported that when Neumann was exhumed in 1962 he looked remarkably well preserved. 

That’s not quite the case, however. 

“They first brought him up out of the ground in 1902. The coffin he was in was found to be water-damaged, but the Bishop himself was looking pretty good close to 40 years after his death,” Hayes said, adding that he was redressed and placed in a second coffin and put back in the ground. 

In 1962 the body was exhumed again. 

“The coffin was okay but Neumann was looking like he’d been dead for 100 years… in all that time you get a little leathery, kind of mummified,” Hayes remarked. 

Hayes said he has the photographs of the exhumed 1962 body “in a folder.” 

In 1962, the decision was made to reconstruct Bishop Neumann’s face forensically. When the old death mask was removed it was put in a vault because it is considered a second class relic. 

In the years before the Second Vatican Council, Bishop Neumann’s body was in a glass altar set back in the sanctuary under the tabernacle. After the revolution in church architecture — a revolution that I still deplore — Neumann was redressed in period vestments under the direction of Cardinal Rigali and placed in front of the altar so he could be easily seen. 

“The Redemporists,” Hayed noted, “decided to get him out of the 1962 apparel then prevalent, which made him look like he was covered in aluminum foil.” 

The “little bishop,” just 5’2” tall, loved to walk everywhere. “But he had a lot of self doubt. He thought of quitting and asked a number of American bishops about the possibility of taking a smaller diocese. He wanted out of the limelight in the worst way,” Hayes said.

Neumann advised his parishioners and others to live lives of hidden sanctity. 

From his student days at the University of Prague, he was the ultimate egghead and nerd intellectual. Hayes recounts how as a seminarian the future bishop could detect the slightest bit of heresy coming from his professors.

“This caused many of them to be brought down for their ideas,” Hayes added. “But it also made him tremendously humorless.” 

The museum contains Neumann’s books, documents, letters, prayer books and papers. A nature lover, his collection of botany books are also on display as well as a copy of the Douay Rheims Bible, printed in 1870 by Philadelphia publisher Matthew Carey. 

According to Hayes, the museum’s copy of the first English language Catholic Bible is the best preserved of the 40 remaining copies worldwide. 

You’ll also find a simple pale wooden altar with a small tabernacle on top where the saint used to say Mass. The paleness of the wood makes it look more like a chest of drawers than an altar. Inside the small tabernacle door, which is not easy to open, is where some leave prayer requests. Nearby is another chest of drawers of darker wood where the saint once said Mass for a family named Kelly. A hole that looks as though it had been crudely carved by a knife mars the long countertop. Hayes said that when Neumann was celebrating Mass for the Kelly family one of the candles caught on fire and burnt a hole through the wood. The hole now acts as a drop off point for prayer petitions. 

A large monstrance reminiscent of the one used by actor Jeremy Irons in the film, ‘The Mission,’ casts a resplendent light out onto the museum floor, illuminating the bishop’s encased vestments, especially his cope, which he would have used at Benediction. 

I asked Hayes if there was ever a problem with people confusing Cardinal Newman with John Neumann. 

“A classic example,” he said, “is the statue of St. John Neumann in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. When the Italian sculptor was finishing the job he had only the label to make, so he turned to a Redemporist and asked how the saint’s last name was spelled. ‘N-e-w-m-a-n-n,’ the Redemporist answered, so Saint John Neumann is mislabeled in Rome.”

The marble stoop originally at 13th and Vine Streets where Bishop Neumann collapsed and died stands at the entranceway to the museum. Philadelphia’s Archbishop Chaput stood in front of the stoop when he blessed the museum on April 29, 2019. 

The story of Neumann’s death has become the stuff of legends, but how many know that when he died he had just left the post office to check on the whereabouts of a chalice he had restored for another priest. The chalice, as it turns out, had been placed on a shelf for insufficient postage. After paying the postal clerk, Neumann continued on his rounds, collapsing from a stroke in front of a house owned by a Jewish couple who were the first to discover his body.

A glass stained window in the museum shows an idealized image of the bishop in spotless clerical garb after his fall.

Far from an ending, Neumann’s death was really the beginning of his legacy.

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.

One thought on “Thom Nickels: The life and death Philadelphia’s first saint”

  1. While doing errands on Thursday, January 5, 1860, Neumann collapsed and died. He was 48 years old and had been bishop in Philadelphia for 8 years. He is considered, by most in this region, to be saintly PRECICELY BECUASE HE DID NOT make his mostly immigrant parishioners assimilate.
    During Neumann’s administration, new parish churches were completed at the rate of nearly one per month. To encourage savings and to support the financial needs of the Catholic community in Philadelphia, he directed the creation of a mutual savings bank, Beneficial Bank, in 1853. As many immigrants settled in close communities from their hometowns and with speakers of the same language, churches became associated with immigrants from particular regions. They were known as national parishes. Their parishioners often did not speak English or know how to obtain needed social services.
    Neumann was particularly committed to providing educational opportunities to immigrant children. He became the first bishop to organize a diocesan school system, as Catholic parents wanted their children taught in the Catholic tradition. They feared Protestant influence and discrimination in public schools. Under his administration, the number of parochial schools in his diocese increased from one to 200. His 1852 catechisms became standard texts.
    Neumann’s fluency in several languages endeared him to the many new immigrant communities in Philadelphia. As well as ministering to newcomers in his native German, Neumann also spoke Italian fluently. A growing congregation of Italian-speakers received pastoral care in his private chapel, and Neumann eventually established in Philadelphia the first Italian national parishes in the country.
    Neumann actively invited religious institutes to establish new houses within the diocese to provide necessary social services. In 1855, Neumann supported the foundation of a congregation of religious sisters in the city, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. He brought the School Sisters of Notre Dame from Germany to assist in religious instruction and staff an orphanage. He also intervened to save the Oblate Sisters of Providence from dissolution; this congregation of African-American women was founded by Haitian refugees in Baltimore.
    The large diocese was not wealthy, and Neumann became known for his personal frugality. He kept and wore only one pair of boots throughout his residence in the United States. When given a new set of vestments as a gift, he would often use them to outfit the newest ordained priest in the diocese. Discouraged by conflict as well as anti-Catholic riots and arson of religious buildings, Neumann wrote to Rome asking to be replaced as bishop, but Pope Pius IX insisted that he continue.

Leave a (Respectful) Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *