Not many people would suspect that America’s first male saint would be buried in a neighborhood church on the corner of Fifth and Girard, but it is this famous bishop that has brought some international attention to the area.
St. John Neumann, originally from the Czech Republic, came to Philadelphia in 1852 when he became the fourth bishop of Philadelphia. It was at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Ludlow where St. John Neumann spent the remainder of his religious life. He was canonized a saint for the miracles he performed and a shrine was built beneath the church in his honor. Neumann rests peacefully inside the altar in a see through glass coffin. Parishioners maintain he is still performing miracles today.
“I also had throat cancer and they told me I was going to lose my voice. They prayed over me here and when I went back to the doctor this time they said they didn’t really see anything so I’m doing great,” said parishioner Carmen Cruz. Cruz comes week after week to pray the shrine because she believes in the power of St. John Neumann’s miracles.
Rev. Robert Harrison has only been a pastor at the church for a few years. He told a story about how just a few years ago there was an electrical fire in the shrine where the pulpit caught on fire during the night, but no alarms went off. He said the doors had been locked the night before and when he opened them back up in the morning the pulpit was burned to ashes, but not one other part of the shrine was harmed.
Harrison said when he spoke with the firefighter who said, “I’m not Catholic or religious or anything. but this church shouldn’t be here today.”
No one could explain what happened that day. The body of St. John Neumann was located right beside that same pulpit. His body was never touched.
Harrison, as well as many of the other members of the church, can go on and on about what they have witnessed.
The parish has been creating miracles of its own by bringing people from all over the area to worship as one community. Those who come to Mass each week may be from different parts of Philadelphia or even just down the street, but St. Peter the Apostle and the National Shrine have helped them become one big church community.
People of all cultural groups walk through the doors each week. Some said they feel more welcome at shrine than other places of worship because St. John Neumann himself was an immigrant. The community surrounding the church is diverse and rich with cultural traditions. The people of the neighborhood seem to relate to St. John Neumann and have built a strong relationship with the church and its members because of this.
St. Peter the Apostle embraces this diverse mix of people within the parish. With a strong presence of Mexican and Latino influence in the community the church has created an additional Spanish Mass. This has helped to make the church community grow even wider and more affluent.
The church also adds to this growing and diverse community by educating the children in the area at the St. Peter the Apostle grade school for students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. The grade school goes hand in hand with the shrine to St. John Neumann because Neumann himself started the first diocesan school system in the United States. The school is located right next door to the shrine and is full of students not only from around the neighborhood but all over areas of Philadelphia.
Visitors have traveled from far and wide to worship at the National Shrine of St. John Neumann, hoping to experience one of his miracles themselves.
Students, children, adults, and elderly men and women come by the busloads to just catch a glimpse at this world-renowned shrine.
“We just had a bus come up here from the Right for Life March in Washington, D.C., and the other week we had a tour bus with a group of students visiting from a university in Wisconsin,” said Harrison.
He receives phone calls and e-mails from all over the globe each week.
“We have his 200th Jubilee Mass coming up on March 28 and I just received an e-mail from the Czech Republic with people asking how they can be a part of the celebration,” said Harrison.
Even 200 years after his birth, St. John Neumann is still bringing people of the community and the world together.