New Museum In The Works For America’s First Male Saint

January 18, 2019 | by John Henry Scott


John Neumann was the first Catholic bishop to be canonized in the United States. His body, preserved inside a glass casket, is the centerpiece of a shrine dedicated to the priest within the lower sanctuary of St. Peter the Apostle Church in Northern Liberties. | Photo: Michael Bixler

At the intersection of 5th and Girard, two heavily-trafficked, arterial roads meet, making it the kind of place you pass by on your way to somewhere else. But what you may not know is that each time you pass by the large, granite church towering over the southeast corner, you’re passing by the 160-year old body of the first American bishop to achieve sainthood.

The Shrine of St. John Neumann is located in the lower church of St. Peter the Apostle. Neumann, born in 1811, was a Redemptorist priest who served as the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia and was later canonized by Pope Paul VI. Neumann collapsed on Vine Street from a heart attack and died on a granite stoop in 1860. For more than a century people have come from all over the country to visit the saint, pray to him, and pay their respects.

“You don’t know who’s going to come by on any given day,” said Father Raymond Collins, director of the Shrine. “One of the more extraordinary stories involved a young man who was ill, who flew with his whole family overnight from California, attended two or three masses on Sunday morning, and flew back that night.”

Neumann’s body is on display in a glass casket where it may be observed by those who visit the shrine. He is dressed in traditional 19th century vestments. Covering his face is a life-like mask designed by a forensic scientist and a funeral director.  

Inside the main sanctuary of St. Peter the Apostle. The church’s organ was once the largest functioning organ in the city until John Wanamaker purchased and installed his Grand Court organ in 1909 in his new department store. | Photos: Michael Bixler

The shrine is part of a campus that includes the church, St. Peter the Apostle School, a pre-kindergarten through 8th grade Catholic school, and the St. John Neumann Center, an auxiliary building which hosts a banquet hall as well as the Redemptorist Archive which serves to document the history of the Catholic congregation in the United States since 1832.

This campus will be getting a new addition early next year. The first floor of the school is being converted to host a Shrine Museum, which will document the life of Neumann as well as the history of Catholicism in the United States. The tentative, soft opening date for the museum is March 28, which is Neumann’s birthday. A new gift shop and canteen just opened on January 5 coinciding with the saint’s feast day.

The Shrine Museum will feature the permanent display of hundreds of historical objects relevant to the life of Neumann and United States Catholic history. There will also be rotating exhibits made possible by collaborations with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and religious communities throughout the country with whom Neumann had a relationship.

“There are no other museums of this type in the city,” said Dr. Patrick Hayes, lead archivist for the Redemptorists. “We’re going to put out things that no one has ever seen.”

Dr. Patrick Hayes, lead archivist of the Redemptorists, displays a rare Carey Bible, one of 500 of the first Catholic Bibles printed in the United States by an Irish-born publisher in Philadelphia. | Photo: Michael Bixler

One of Hayes’ favorite objects in the museum is a Carey Bible. The edition was published in Philadelphia at the end of the 18th century by Mathew Carey, an Irish-born publisher and economist. It is among the first Roman Catholic bibles to be printed in the United States. According to Hayes, there were only 500 copies of the Carey Bible printed and only 42 of those remain in existence today. Beyond the rarity of the book, Hayes is enthusiastic because the museum’s copy is exceptionally well-maintained. “I’ve seen 10 or 11 of these,” he said. “Ours is superior in every respect.”

Hayes cannot confirm this, but he has reason to believe this particular copy of the Carey Bible belonged to Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. Pages of the Bible will be scanned and displayed on a tablet computer so visitors can flip through without the risk of damaging the original volume.

The floor plan of the museum is laid out so that as visitors walk through the exhibits they progress chronologically through the life of the saint–from his beginnings in the Czech Republic (known then as Bohemia), to his immigration to the United States and the early years of his priesthood in Buffalo, New York, to his joining of the Redemptorists, to his appointment as Bishop of Philadelphia, and finally, after his death, the process of his canonization.

Some of the objects from Neumann’s life on display will include school records (in which he earned praise such as “eminent in progress and diligence” and “first in dogma and morals”), a letter home from his seminary in Prague to Prachatice where his family lived, a map of the United States drawn by Neumann to familiarize himself with the country he was traveling to, some books (he had an interest in botany), a well-used pocket Bible (printed in Greek), and a translation of the Lord’s Prayer into Arabic, done by Neumann for fun as a young boy.

The Shrine Museum’s gift shop and canteen opened earlier this month on first floor of the church’s school. The museum itself will hold a soft opening on March 28. A marble monument that once laid atop the tomb of St. John Neumann leads visitors down the hallway towards the gallery space. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Arabic translation is especially significant because it outlines a key detail about Neumann. He was a polyglot with an extraordinary aptitude for learning different languages. According to Hayes, at the time of his death Neumann spoke 11 languages including Gaelic. This ability to quickly pick up languages informed Neumann’s entire career as a priest. He came to America because he wanted to minister to the recent influx of German immigrants. His command of different languages allowed him to function as an important bridge between these immigrants and much-needed social services.

Neumann’s focus remained on helping recent immigrants for the duration of his career. After he came to the United States the Germans he ministered to were quickly joined by Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine. He is remembered today as a patron saint of immigrants. This patronage continues to be represented in the services at St. Peter the Apostle.

“Pilgrims come [to the shrine] from all over the place,” said Hayes. “This has impressed me since I’ve lived here. It’s a very international crowd. I go to church here on Sundays. It’s like going to the U.N.”

For more information about the St. John Neumann, the shrine, and the new museum, visit: stjohnneumann.org


About the Author

John Henry Scott John Henry Scott is a journalist and freelance writer living in Fishtown. He is a frequent contributor of Spirit News. Feel free to solicit or harass him at jhscott42@gmail.com


  1. John M says:

    Excellent article, however, there are multiple references in the photos to St Paul the Apostle Church which is incorrect.

  2. Harry Kyriakodis says:

    Great piece! Here’s what I have about St. John Neuman’s shine in my book, Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012):

    Chapter 14: Religious Life (III of IV): The Saint and the Sinner of NoLibs
    Two incredibly interesting men spent time in Northern Liberties in the mid-nineteenth century. One was beloved, while the other was bedeviled. Both worked and lived on opposite ends of NoLibs, in a sense showing their respective dichotomies. Both died young, one mysteriously and the other tragically. Their legacies loom large today.
    Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) was born in Boston and died in Baltimore, but he had a substantial relationship with Philadelphia beginning in 1832 when the Philadelphia Saturday Courier published five of his stories. Poe later lived in the Philadelphia area at six different addresses from 1838 to 1844. This turned out to be his most creative period.
    ********************* ***********************
    The Roman Catholic church of St. Peter the Apostle, on the other side of the Liberties at Fifth and Girard, is intimately connected to a pious story that is polar opposite of Poe’s.
    John Nepomucene Neumann (1811–1860) was the first Catholic male saint in the New World and the third American citizen to be canonized, as well as the first American bishop to be canonized. He was born in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) and studied theology before traveling to America with the hope of being ordained. The Diocese of New York received Neumann and ordained him in 1836. Four years later, the Redemptorist Fathers (i.e., the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer) accepted him as the missionary order’s first candidate in America.
    John Neumann was appointed bishop of Philadelphia by the Holy See on February 5, 1852. He accepted this position with trepidation, for the Diocese of Philadelphia was then one of the largest and most important in the United States. Neumann rose to the occasion, and his accomplishments as Philadelphia’s fourth bishop were many:
     He established one new church virtually every month of his tenure.
     He organized the first Italian parish in the country.
     He initiated a new religious community, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.
     He saved the Oblate Sisters of Providence (a group for African American women) from dissolution.
     He brought the School Sisters of Notre Dame from Germany to aid in holy instruction.
     He established the national system of parochial schools in Philadelphia.
     He founded the first archdiocesan school system in America.
    Neumann’s holiness and humility were renowned. He preferred to dine with the immigrant poor than with the rich and famous. A cleric once scolded him for his shabby appearance and asked that he change into a better coat. “What shall I do?” the bishop answered. “I do not have another.” This was true, as he had just given his best coat to a beggar. Prelates registered complaints with Rome, belittling Neumann’s German accent and mannerisms. On the other hand, parishioners nicknamed him (with the utmost affection) “Our Little Bishop” due to his height (five feet two inches).
    The feast day of John Neumann is on January 5, the date of his sudden death in 1860 at age forty-eight. He collapsed from a stroke on the front steps of a house at 1218 Vine Street and died in the front parlor. Thousands came to see him for the last time at two funeral masses. He was buried in the crypt of St. Peter the Apostle Church.
    In 1885, Bishop Patrick Ryan instituted a diocesan investigation of Neumann’s Christian virtues. Pope Benedict XV proclaimed these virtues to be heroic in 1921, thus declaring the Philadelphia bishop as “venerable.” Neumann was beatified by Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council after two miraculous cures were certified as being attributed to him. In 1976, the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints recommended to Pope Paul VI that John Nepomucene Neumann be enrolled in the calendar of saints of the Roman Catholic Church. After a third miracle was certified, the Pope signed the decree on November 13, 1976, establishing the following June 19 as the canonization date.
    The National Shrine of Saint John Neumann was constructed at St. Peter’s subsequent to this. The bishop’s body now lies in repose within a glass altar in the lower level. The face is a fiberglass/wax mask—an authentic likeness. Countless worshipers have visited to seek the holy man’s intercession in the century and a half since his death. A museum displays exhibits relating to the saint’s life.
    The shrine and the church are under the care of the Redemptorist Fathers, the sacred community of which John Neumann was a member. This order celebrated the 200th anniversary of Neumann’s birth in 2011; the “Neumann Year” concluded on June 23, 2012.
    Ground for St. Peter’s was purchased in 1842 for $11,700 so as to erect a Catholic house of worship. The site may have been chosen to take advantage of fresh water provided by Cohocksink Creek, then running by the church’s eastern side. Napoleon LeBrun, known for several notable Philadelphia churches, was the architect. The magnificent baroque church could seat 1200 people and was consecrated on February 14, 1847. John Neumann preached there often. Built of bricks, St. Peter’s was re-clad with granite in the 1890s. 034
    As a German parish, the church had German-speaking priests, offered German holy instruction, and served as the religious and social center for German Catholics who were moving into the area. At least one-third of German immigrants settling in NoLibs and Fishtown were Catholic in the late 1800s. They were usually employed in the breweries, tanneries, and machine shops of booming North Philadelphia. Their kids likely attended St. Peter the Apostle School, a neighborhood fixture for as long as the church.
    With the loss of industry in that locale, the ward around St. Peter’s was a scene of abject poverty and ruin by the 1970s—hardly the setting for a shrine for America’s first male saint. Residents recall that when Pope John Paul II visited the church on October 4, 1979, the city government swept nearby streets in advance. They jokingly refer to that as another miracle attributable to the “Little Bishop.”
    Things have improved dramatically since those days, reflecting the neighborhood’s succession of newcomers. St. Peter the Apostle Church is a thriving metropolitan parish serving a diverse congregation, including a contingent of Puerto Ricans—services are now often in Spanish. In front of the church is a statue of John Neumann surrounded by children and welcoming all.

  3. Around 1971 our class went to a church in Baltimore & viewed the body of a priest in his glass casket I don’t recall the name of the church or the priest can U help fill in the gaps

  4. Dan jeminey says:

    I went to Saint John Neumann shrine today.
    I have been there at least three or four times in the past 12 years or so. Each time I’ve been more moving than the last time and I would highly recommend for anybody to go and feel the presence of God whether you’re Catholic or not you will be touched by God’s love. Enjoy the love peace my friend.

  5. William Jeffrey Jr says:

    My Wife and I visited the Shrine Of Saint John Neumann yesterday, I was praying for the recovery of my Uncle John who has gastrointestinal cancer. I was very moved by his presence, it was so peaceful, we were alone with the Saint and I was very happy

  6. richard zappasodi says:

    My Dad loved st John, he frequently would go there whenever something was troubling him. He gave me a relic of St John and a small picture of the saint which I have kept near. I live in Florida but I often remember being at his srine and seeing the many people praying there, a true blessing of Philadelphia.

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