By Mary Howell, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Bohemian-born Father John Henry Neumann, new to this country and newly ordained, traveled to Virginia from Philadelphia in 1842 to minister to immigrants working here. He had already forged a reputation as a priest known for performing works of mercy. A hundred-thirty-four years later, he would be named a saint.

Later this month, 175 years after he first came to the Diocese of Richmond, Saint John Henry Neumann, the first American man and first canonized U.S. bishop, will return to Virginia — by way of his relics. And should Grayle Hunley’s dream be realized, hundreds of the faithful from Virginia and surrounding states will make a modern-day pilgrimage to the Richmond area Sept. 22-24. That weekend, the first-class relics of the saint will be on display at the Church of the Redeemer in Mechanicsville.

A parishioner at Redeemer with a deep devotion to Saint John Neumann, Hunley was instrumental in working with the Redemptorist priests at the National Shrine of Saint John Neumann in Philadelphia to arrange this unprecedented visit, which marks the first time the Saint’s newly restored reliquary will travel south of the Mason-Dixon line.

“Grayle mailed invitations to every parish within a 320-mile radius,” said Fr. Jay Wagner, Redeemer’s pastor. Fr. Anthony Michalik, C.Ss.R., the Redemptorist priest accompanying the relics, will celebrate a Healing Mass on Friday evening, Sept. 22, with visiting priests welcome to concelebrate.

“During the Mass, Fr. Michalik will speak about the life of this saint and offer a blessing to anyone who wishes using a cross containing a first-class relic,” Fr. Wagner continued. “Both of us will be available before and after the Mass for the sacraments of reconciliation or anointing of the sick.”

As a young man, in 1836, John Neumann left his homeland of Bohemia – the modern day Czech Republic – hoping to realize his goal of becoming ordained. He later joining the Redemptorist order. During a time when waves of immigration led to competition for jobs and tensions with native-born residents, marked by anti-Catholic riots in the 1830s and 40’s, Fr. Neumann became known for his works of mercy toward immigrants and the poor. Fluent in several languages, he often ministered to newcomers in his native German and also Italian. He came to the Diocese of Richmond to minister to immigrants who’d come to work on the James River and Kanawha Canal.

A decade later, after being named the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852, Neumann led the establishment of the first Catholic diocesan schools in the United States. In his own words, “Since every man of whatever race is endowed with the dignity of a person, he has an inalienable right to an education corresponding to his proper destiny and suited to his native talents, his cultural background, and his ancestral heritage. At the same time, this education should pave the way to brotherly association with other peoples, so that genuine unity and peace on earth may be promoted.”

Frugal throughout his life, he owned a single pair of boots that he wore for years. On January 5, 1860, Bishop Neumann died unexpectedly at 48 after suffering a stroke on a Philadelphia street.

Almost immediately, devout souls were drawn to his grave at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Philadelphia. Many claimed extraordinary acts of grace, as if the bishop were continuing his works of mercy. Following decades of the faithful traveling to venerate his remarkably well-preserved remains, and with many incontrovertible miracles attributed to his intercession, John Neumann was declared a Saint by Pope Paul VI in 1977.

At Redeemer in Mechanicsville, Loraine Tracy, adult faith formation coordinator, led planning this event to support of the parish’s evangelization efforts.

“Visitors will be asked to observe a respectful silence while in the worship area, but can share their experiences and purchase religious items in our commons area, where a reception will be held on Friday evening,” she explained. “There is no charge or admission, but we’ll have a special collection during the Friday mass and accept donations to aid in covering the cost of transporting the relics from Philadelphia and Fr. Anthony’s expenses.”

Located just off Interstate 295 north of Richmond, the Church of the Redeemer has ample parking and room for up to 500 attendees. “We welcome everyone, including parishioners, priests from nearby dioceses, returning Catholics and those considering our faith, to join in an event that can bring peace and hope to those suffering mentally, physically or spiritually,” Fr. Wagner concluded.

The visitation schedule for the St. John Neumann relics is below, with more information online at www.churchredeemer.org or by calling 804-746-4911.

Friday, Sept. 22:                10 a.m. – 6 p.m.                 Public Visits and Veneration

                                                      6 p.m. – 7 p.m.                  Sacrament of Reconciliation

                                                      7 p.m. – 8 p.m.                   Eucharist

Saturday, Sept. 23            10 a.m. – 5 p.m.                 Public Visits and Veneration

                                                      4:30 p.m. – 5 p.m.             Sacrament of Reconciliation

                                                      5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.      Eucharist

Sunday, Sept. 24                8 a.m. – 9 a.m.                     Eucharist

                                                      9 a.m. – 10 a.m.                  Public Visits and Veneration

                                                      10 a.m. – 11 a.m.               Eucharist

                                                      11 a.m. – 12 Noon             Public Visits and Veneration