BLESSED John Nepomucene Neumann, the former Bishop of Philadelphia who is to be canonised by Pope Paul this Sunday, was the founder of one community of nuns and saved another from dissolution.
A member of the Redemptorist Order, I3ishop Neumann brought to Philadelphia seven orders not previously working in the diocese and throughout his life showed appreciation of the importance of religious communities in the life of the Church.
Born in what is now Czechoslovakia in 1811, Neumann graduated from a seminary in Prague and went to the United States before his ordination in 1836 in New York City. After four years in the sparsely settled farm country of western New York State, he decided that he could accomplish more as a member of a religious order.
He entered the Redemptorist novitiate in Pittsburgh and made his final vows in Baltimore in 1842, becoming the first Redemptorist professed in the United Slates. After serving as Redemptorist Superior in Pittsburgh and Superior of all Redemptorists in the United States, he became Rector of St Alphonsus Church in Baltimore.
There he became aware of the plight of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Founded almost 20 years earlier by a French priest, the Oblat.es were originally French-speaking black refugees from Santo Domingo and Cuba. They organised and conducted a school for black children and were quite successful during the lifetime of their founder and spiritual director.
By 1847, however, the priest had died and they had been without a spiritual director for four years. The community's funds had declined to the point that the sisters had to take in laundry for income. Some had left Baltimore. Archbishop Samuel Eccleston of Baltimore decided to dissolve the community.
But Fr Neumann, who had met the sisters coming to St Alphonsus for Mass and confession, interceded and assigned Fr 'Thaddeus Anwander to be their spiritual director. He sent Fr Anwander to ask the Archbishop for a reprieve.
When it was granted, the community began to grow. Now more than 200 sisters conduct schools, day nurseries and eatechetical centres in 12 states. In 1979, they will celebrate the community's 150th anniversary.
Fr Neumann became Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. Two years later, while in Rome for the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, he discussed with Pope Pius Ilk his intention of inviting one ol the European congregations of sisters to Philadelphia to help care for the poor of the diocese.
The Pope approved, but thought that the purpose might be better served by training a new group of religious specifically for the work. He suggested a member of the Third Order of St Francis, placing the foundation under the patronage of St Francis. At that time word reached Rome that three women who had established a hospice for working girls in Philadelphia were seeking permission to form a Franciscan community. Bishop Neumann promptly obtained authorisation to receive them and to found the new community.
On April 9, 1855, Bishop Neumann invested the three women with the habit of novices of the new order. All Bavarian immigrants, they were: Anna Boll Bachmann, 30 a widow, who became Sister Mary Francis, the first Superior: her sister, Barbara Boll, 28, who became Sister Mary Margaret: and Anna Dorn, 21, who became Sister Mary Bernardine.
On May 26, 1856, they pronounced their final vows before the altar of the chapel in Bishop Neumann's residence. The altar is preserved in a shrine in the grounds of the community's motherhouse in Aston, Pennsylvania.
Bishop Neumann wrote the first rule for the community, which is now known as the Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia. He indicated that the community was to combine contemplation with apostolic works. As their spiritual director, he visited the sisters frequently.
In 1857, he arranged to have a group of Conventual Franciscan Fathers go to Philadelphia and placed the sisters under their guidance. Soon afterwards, the Conventual Franciscans asked Mother Mary Francis, the Superior General, to send sisters to New York State.
In 1860, Sister Mary Bernardine• Was named Superior General of the foundation in Syracuse, New York State, which became independent. That foundation has now become a community of 508 members, which has been engaged in the care of lepers on Molokai, in, the Hawaiian islands.
At the death of Mother Mary Francis in 1863, a foundation in Buffalo, New York State, with Sister Mary Margaret at its head, separated from the Philadelphia community. Thus, in eight years, each of the founding sisters had become superior general of a separate religious community.
Three other branches have developed from the Buffalo foundation. Today, the Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia, also known as the Glen Riddle Sisters, from the location of their motherhouse, have about 1,500 members in 24 dioceses in the United States. Sister Corda Marie Bergbauer is the present Superior General.
Religious communities brought to Philadelphia by Bishop Neumann included the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the Sisters of the Holy Cross, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Brothers of the Christian Schools, the Holy Cross Brothers and the Benedictines.
During the eight years from his installation as bishop until his death in 1860, Bishop Neumann visited weekly the Redemptorist Church of St Peter the Apostle and made his monthly and annual retreats at the presbytery there. He was buried in the church.