In 1841, a 29-year-old priest was sent by his bishop into the sparsely-settled and heavily wooded Portage County, Ohio wilderness. His mission? To settle a squabble among German Catholic settlers in the community of Randolph.
The strife amongst the families of St. Joseph’s Church had reached the boiling point. A wood frame church building, erected in 1838, had been burned to the ground.
The young priest was Father John Nepomucene Neumann, born in 1811 in Prachatitz, Bohemia. Father Neumann apparently did a good job of settling the dispute between the parishioners. He remained only 10 days in Randolph, preaching and baptizing two residents.
St. Joseph’s was the first Catholic parish in Portage County.
But the story of Father Neumann doesn’t end at St. Joseph’s in Randolph.
Father Neumann graduated from the seminary in Prague (in what is now Czechoslovakia), then emigrated to the United States in 1836 at age 25. He was ordained in New York and did some missionary work in New York state for four years.
Bishop Purcell of Cincinnati had visited the argumentative congregation at the church in Randolph on Nov. 12, 1841, with the intention of settling the ongoing quarrel. The church had been founded by immigrants from a German-speaking part of Alsace-Lorraine in France, and who had come to Randolph in 1826. The bishop decided it was a better assignment (and perhaps a test) for the young Father Neumann.
Father Neumann’s peace-making efforts at St. Joseph’s did not go unnoticed – or unrewarded.
In 1852, he became bishop of Philadelphia, serving until his death in 1860 at age 49. Though Bishop Neumann’s life was short, he accomplished a tremendous amount of work for the children in the city he served.
He was particularly interested in providing a Catholic education for Philadelphia’s children. When he became bishop in 1852, there were only two Catholic schools in Philadelphia. When he died, there were almost 100 Catholic schools in the city. He also helped to bring several European orders of Catholic nuns to America to staff the schools as teachers and administrators. He also founded a branch of the Sisters of St. Francis in Philadelphia.
Father Neumann became a U.S. citizen in 1848. In 1963, he was beatified, and in June 1977, he was canonized – and became the first male American citizen to become a saint.
The information in this post was taken from the book Portage Pathways by Loris Troyer, a retired editor of the Kent Record Courier. You can read more about the history of Portage County in Troyer’s book. It is available at Amazon by clicking here.
You can also read more about the life of Father Neumann at a website maintained in his honor by the Friends of St. John Neumann organization.
I understand that my grandfather helped build the grotto at St Joe’s. I am a great grandchild of John and Mary May. I never met Cletus May as he died before I was born and my mother didn’t give me any details or how-why he died. My grandmother was Josephine (May) Wolf. One of John and Mary May’s 9 children.