The faithful still bring their cares to the fourth bishop of Philadelphia.
St. John Neumann, vested in white for Mass and wearing his miter, lies encased in a glass-sided altar at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church at Fifth Street and Girard Avenue in Northern Liberties.
When he died in 1860, Neumann had such a reputation for holiness that supplicants began coming to his burial place to pray. They beseeched the late bishop, whom they regarded as a special friend of God, to seek divine favor for them. And they still come, more than a century and a half later, a few hundred a week.
"Many people - most people, really - are seeking healing of some kind, be it emotional healing or physical healing," the Rev. Raymond Collins, director of the National Shrine of St. John Neumann, said after celebrating Mass at St. Peter's on a recent Sunday afternoon.
"Healing, consolation, hope: That's why people pray. They feel that coming to the shrine of a saint, their prayer will be answered."
The answers come in different ways, according to Collins.
For some, the answer comes as physical healing. Pope Paul VI declared Neumann a saint in 1977 after church officials concluded that three otherwise inexplicable healings were the result of the bishop's intercession with God. Although the church has officially recognized only those three as true miracles, the shrine's website says that hundreds of other miracles have been attributed to St. John Neumann's intervention. The website describes one of those at length.
Not all prayers are answered with a miracle. "There may not be a healing, but there can be greater hope, greater depth" in the supplicant's relationship with God, Collins said.
The shrine staff expects a surge of visitors during the World Meeting of Families. "About 30 groups have already signed up" for tours of the shrine, Collins said.
St. John Paul II visited the shrine when he came to Philadelphia in 1979, and members of the shrine staff hope Pope Francis may do the same, although a visit is not on his schedule. "We're hoping he might," Collins said, noting the pope's spontaneity.
Visitors to the shrine, located in the lower church of St. Peter's, can find Neumann's story in the stained-glass windows, from his baptism in his native Bohemia in 1811, to his canonization in 1977. There is also a small museum, with artifacts and documents connected with the saint.
Catholics would have good reason to remember St. John Neumann even if he had not had a reputation for heroic holiness. Consecrated bishop of Philadelphia in 1852, he led a major expansion of the diocese, which would be elevated to the status of archdiocese under his successor, James Wood. Neumann also founded the first unified system of Catholic schools in the U.S.
The saintly prelate collapsed and died while running errands in January 1860. A member of the Redemptorist order, he had asked to be buried in St. Peter's because he wanted to be with his fellow Redemptorists, who, then as now, administered the parish.
And he still draws people to St. Peter's. Some of the parish members come from far outside Northern Liberties, Collins said, because a saint is there: "As the banners hanging outside say, 'You are on holy ground.' "