Pilgrims visiting the National Shrine of St. John Neumann in Northern Liberties typically sit in an atmosphere of quiet reflection before the glass coffin holding his body.
That is, until the buses arrive.
Then, the faithful’s silent pleas for intercession are interrupted by the chatter of tourists and the discourse of priests on the life of Philadelphia’s fourth Roman Catholic bishop and America’s first male saint.
Next comes a video.
“It wasn’t very spiritual,” said Patrick Hayes, an archivist for the Redemptorist priests who run the shrine.
At 10 a.m. Monday, Neumann’s religious order will dedicate — and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will bless — a $4.5 million renovation that has not only returned the shrine to being a place of peaceful refuge, but has added a new, separately housed museum.
The changes are intended to illustrate the life of the saint in a 21st century-worthy display of history, design, and technology, said the Rev. Raymond Collins, rector of the shrine. “Just talking about” the clergyman who helped shaped the foundation of America’s Catholic Church isn’t enough, he said.
The shrine, which draws 50,000 visitors a year, is on the lower level of St. Peter the Apostle Church at Fifth Street and Girard Avenue. There, the body of Neumann, who died nearly 160 years ago, lies in the glass coffin.
The renovation of the six-building campus, which took five years to complete, includes a new atrium lobby, gift shop, cafe, media room, and museum. All are on the former first floor of St. Peter the Apostle School, which now occupies part of a convent building in addition to its school building. A warehouse has become a parish hall and office for the Redemptorist archives.
Inside the 1,700-square-foot museum, interactive exhibits stand alongside Neumann’s Bibles, chalice, vestments, eyeglasses — and a noose given to him to commemorate the deaths of two prisoners hanged at the old Moyamensing Prison. Neumann performed their last rites.
Many of the items in the 100-piece collection have never been on public display, such as a 1790 Mathew Carey Bible, the first Roman Catholic version of the Bible printed in the United States. About 500 copies were made; an estimated 40 remain.
The opening will be celebrated with a week of activities including Chaput’s visit and open house on Monday, as well as a poetry reading, a concert, and a documentary on the migration and refugee crisis made by a Redemptorist priest. All events are free and open to the public.
The project was funded mostly by the Redemptorists, officially the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. Nine priests live in the rectory, with four managing the shrine, which has an annual budget of $600,000. The Redemptorists serve as missionaries to “the poor and spiritually abandoned.” Ministry to immigrants is also a significant part of their calling, one famously lived out by Neumann.
The diminutive clergyman known as “the Little Bishop” was born in 1811 in what is now the Czech Republic. He studied for the priesthood, but when his bishop refused to ordain him because of an overabundance of priests, Neumann sailed to America. He disembarked in 1836 with one dollar and one suit of clothes, and within weeks was ordained in New York. He went on to work in parishes there and in Pittsburgh, Ohio, and Maryland. In 1852, he was appointed bishop of Philadelphia.
With its rapidly growing immigrant community of Catholics, the city proved a fitting place for Neumann, who spoke 11 languages.
He arrived in Philadelphia less than a decade after churches and homes were burned during riots fueled by anti-Catholic sentiment, said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, an associate professor at the University of Notre Dame and author of A Saint of Our Own: How the Quest for a Holy Hero Helped Catholics Become American. Neumann was instrumental in changing the populace’s perception of Catholics, and made Philadelphia a more welcoming place for immigrants. Many view him as not only a holy person but also a patriot, said Cummings, who will discuss her book Thursday during a presentation at the shrine.
During his eight-year tenure, Neumann helped establish the Catholic school system, with 100 schools launched or completed while he was bishop, Hayes said. About 80 new churches also were established, including St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi in South Philadelphia, the nation’s first Italian national parish. He was a catalyst in the founding of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, who later started Neumann University in Aston, Delaware County.
On Jan. 5, 1860, Neumann died of a heart attack at age 48 while walking home from a post office in the snow. He had gone there to pick up a chalice for a fellow priest. He was declared a saint in 1977.
The marble stoop on which Neumann collapsed and died sits at the entrance of the new museum below a white marble effigy of him dressed in his vestments.
The Redemptorists are hoping the museum attracts more visitors who will spend more time at the shrine.