Before he became the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, St. John Neumann spent a considerable amount of time in my hometown of Niagara Falls, New York, as the founding pastor of St. Mary’s parish, and then 30 miles south in Buffalo, where he built Sts. Peter and Paul in Williamsville.
It’s remarkable enough that both churches are still standing, but that they are both thriving is almost nothing short of a miracle — especially considering the fact that Niagara Falls alone went from 15 parishes to just five in the last round of belt-tightening, and the fact that the population has dwindled from 102,000 souls in 1960 to about 47,000 in 2020.
St. Mary of the Cataract church, which is less than a mile from the thundering triumvirate (Horseshoe Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and the American Falls) collectively called “Niagara Falls” — is the primatial church of the Power City. And to make the point absolutely unforgettable, its builder and first rector, St. John Neumann, made sure that the cross of gold on top of the steeple was exactly as high as the colossal cataract itself — 170 feet from ground level.
Back in Buffalo, at Sts. Peter and Paul, with its dual mirrored steeples, has engraved on its brand-new sidewalk: “St. John Neumann was here.” Funny but fitting for a man who considered his name written in the ground, not unlike so many biblical analogies.
For as much as Philadelphia has every right and reason to honor St. John as “their saint” inasmuch as he was indeed “their bishop,” it is worth remembering that he was the bishop of that city for only the last eight years of his life. Most of his pastoral work was done in New York State in general and the diocese of Buffalo in particular, spanning almost a dozen years from Manhattan to Rochester to Buffalo and Niagara Falls, as well as many of the surrounding towns.
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