St. John Neumann: Saint In Glass
In Europe it seems as if every cathedral displays a revered body part, organ, or other holy relic of some long-departed Roman Catholic saint. America has accumulated far fewer of these remains, most of them in reliquary collections of saint relics from -- surprise -- Europe. But with the passage of time the U.S. has fostered a handful of semi-complete saints of its own, which anyone can visit. One is in a church altar in Philadelphia.
John Neumann was a 19th century bishop of that city. He founded schools and at least one order of nuns, tended to those in need, and in 1860 he collapsed and died of a stroke at the age of 48.
For most mortals that would have been the end of it. Yet, decades later, people were miraculously recovering from fatal illnesses and injuries, and attributing it to the long-dead John Neumann.
An Italian girl survived peritonitis. A Villanova University student recovered completely from a car wreck. A Philadelphia boy defeated bone cancer. The Vatican studied these cases and eventually agreed that miracles had taken place. John Neumann was declared a saint in 1977.
St. John Neumann lies in a glass encasement beneath the altar in Saint Peter the Apostle Church. The bishop is dressed in a miter and vestments, and resembles a big rifle bullet inside a glass-sided gun barrel. When Neumann was exhumed in 1962 it was reported that he was remarkably well-preserved for someone who had been buried for over 100 years. His body has nevertheless been given a wax face, to remain presentable.
A small museum to one side of the sanctuary documents the Saint's life and accomplishments. One case displays his personal instruments of mortification: a sharp-edged cilicium (wire necklace) and a disciplina (a whip for self-flagellation). Next to these is a noose that was used to hang two brothers in a Philadelphia prison. Neumann was able to get these "stubborn men" to repent just before their deaths. "By his prayers and meekness," reads a sign resting on the noose, "their hard hearts were softened."
The museum also exhibits the marble step on which Neumann collapsed shortly before dying (A similar though secular relic is the Death Rock of Alexander Hamilton).
Another memorable display is John Neumann's coffin, the one hoisted out of his crypt in 1962. Like Neumann's body, it is sealed in a clear-sided box. Displayed atop its lid are lucite paperweights that each contain a splinter of wood from the coffin. You can buy these inspirational paperweights in the gift shop.
On a visit to the Shrine in the 1990s we noticed that visitors could purchase actual tiny bone chips of St. John Neumann -- official first class religious relics, carefully splintered and glued to pendants by a special order of nuns in Rome. But a subsequent Vatican ban on the sale of first class relics has ended that practice.