Tuesday, August 9, 2016

John Neumann, Buffalo's Footsore Saint

There are eleven men and women who have been canonized as Catholic saints for their work in America. Several saints were canonized for founding American religious organizations, while others have been honored for missionary work that ultimately led to their deaths. These eleven saints played critical rolls in the story of American Catholicism and one of the saints has an important connection to Western New York. His name is John Neumann.

John Neumann who was born in Bohemia in 1811 and entered the seminary in 1831, later transferring to Charles University in Prague where he studied theology. Neumann’s ultimate goal was to be ordained a priest, however the German States were filled with young men who’d heard the call of the priesthood and the Bohemian Catholic Church refused to ordain Neumann. Rebuffed, Neumann immigrated to America and approached the Bishop of New York, John Dubois, about ordination and in 1836, in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, John Neumann became a priest.

It is important to understand that at this time American dioceses encompassed huge swaths of territory. In 1836 the Diocese of New York encompassed New York State and half of New Jersey. This massive territory was thinly seeded with Catholics eager to have a local priest. With this in mind, John Dubois sent Neumann west, to the forests around Niagara Falls where German Catholics were immigrating in substantial numbers.

When he arrived in Western New York, Neumann was confronted by some pretty harsh conditions. First, there were no parish churches outside St. Louis Church in Buffalo, save for a tiny log chapel called the North Bush Chapel in present day Kenmore, where frontier Catholics came together for Sunday prayers. Neumann made the North Bush Chapel (now St. John the Baptist Church) the base for his missionary activities and proceeded to minister to Western New York’s frontier Catholic families.
St. John the Baptist's Church today
taken from Google maps

Neumann’s flock was widely dispersed. People lived in squat huts in the woods or in small hamlets around local creeks and rivers. The challenge of ministering to all these people was only compounded by Neumann’s inability to ride a horse. Some accounts suggest that Neumann was too short to properly sit in a saddle, making him a fearful unsteady rider, while others suggest that he was embarrassed by his awkward riding style and chose to walk. Other claims suggest that he simply didn’t like horses and refused to ride them. If Neumann refused to ride horses because he disliked them, then his equine disdain must have been white-hot hatred. Without a horse Neumann walked to all his parishioners, traveling in a one hundred mile radius to preach. Neumann offered sermons to Catholics in Williamsville, Lancaster, Alden, Pendleton, Lockport, Tonawanda, Eden, Niagara Falls, Sheldon, and Java. Neumann was also the first Catholic priest to visit Batavia. All this walking was done along game trails and paths cut from the brush by hunters or Native Americans. Following these backwoods trails, Neumann gathered up Catholics from across the frontier, praying in private homes, administering last rites, baptisms, and celebrating holy days. As he was doing this, Neumann was also creating parishes and modest parochial schools for the communities he led.

John Neumann worked in Western New York between 1836 and 1840 before requesting a transfer to Philadelphia where he was very influential in the formation of the city's Catholic community. In 1852 he was made Bishop of Philadelphia and he died in the city eight years later at the age of 60. He was canonized in 1977, the fourth American to be named a saint. 

Though he was in Western New York for only four years, John Neumann’s legacy is undeniable. Catholics outside Buffalo can often trace the founding of their parish to Neumann’s activities. He provided the first semi-regular Catholic ministering the countryside had seen. In the late 1830s few Catholic priests could be found in Western New York outside Buffalo. Those priests operating outside the city were Jesuits working with the Native American population. John Neumann, walking from village to village, and even farm to farm, was the first man of the cloth many settlers had seen since arriving in Western New York. Footsore though he was, Neumann offered these people comfort in the wilderness and created the building blocks of the Catholic Church in Western New York as we know it today. For that reason and his work in Philadelphia, Neumann was canonized, giving Western New York its first and only canonized saint.
John Neumann looking extra holy
Image taken from sosf.org

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