The Bishop Neumann Shrine
Sts. Philip and James Church
Sugar Ridge, PA 1997
Photo by Lynn Franklin

THE BISHOP NEUMANN SHRINE IN SUGAR RIDGE

by Sister Mary Laurena Cullen, I.H.M. **
Oyster Bay, New York 11771
1977

Early Settlers

It is such a beautiful story -- that of Bishop John Nepomucene Neumann and the founding of the Catholic Church in Sugar Ridge.

We Cullen children delighted in hearing our mother, Agnes Leahy Cullen, tell of the bishop’s coming to Sugar Ridge in the 1850’s and his visit to the home of our great grandparents, Patrick and Ellen Flynn Leahy.

Sugar Ridge straddles the boundary line between Bradford and Sullivan counties in northern Pennsylvania and is not named on contemporary road maps. Part of the Endless Mountains, this former land of maple trees and virgin forests is about twenty miles from Towanda, twelve from Dushore, and five from Overton. Today the nearest post office is in New Albany.

Many Irish families bought land there in the 1830’s and 1840’s about the time of the potato famine in Ireland. History books date the beginning of the potato blight in 1845 in Wexford when potato stalks died and half the crop was lost. The whole crop died in 1846 and 1847. At that time most of Ireland’s eight million people lived in abject poverty and the potato was their main food. Those who survived lived on cabbage, seaweed, and turnips. In 1848 and 1849 the famine desisted, to be followed by cholers. When famine ended in 1851 the Irish population had dropped to six and one half million. Thousands had sailed to America but only the strongest endured the passage and the first years of settlement.

I do not know when the Leahys came to Sugar Ridge but the church records in Ireland give witness to this information about my great grandparents: Patrick Leahy and his wife Ellen Flynn were married on February 10, 1834 at St. Joseph’s Church, parish of Knocklong, Limerick, in the diocese of Cashel and Emly by Rev. L. Bourke. Their son William was baptized there August 15, 1835 and daughter Mary on June 15, 1840.

After arrival in Sugar Ridge, Patrick bought 66 acres of land from Edmond Green. This small farm in Sullivan county was bounded on the north by the Bradford county line and the farm of Daniel Cusick. The property was bounded on the east by a creek and the land of Daniel Kelly (great grandfather of Edward, Daniel and Sister Kathleen Kelly, I.H.M.) The Powell Norton farm was to the south while Judge Bedford lived at the west. The newcomers cleared the land of trees and rocks, built homes and barns, and spent their days at lumbering and farming.

The closest chapel to Sugar Ridge was on Ed McGovern’s land, one mile north of Overton. The well-educated and well-to-do McGoverns arranged for a chapel in their house soon after they came in 1835. The McGovern church, named St. Patrick’s was built by Rev. John Vincent O’Reilly in 1847. Occasionally it was visited from Towanda by one of the priests, Rev. Jeremiah Ahern and Rev. Patrick McGuiggan.

It is interesting to note that Ed McGovern’s son Thomas was ordained a priest in 1861 and became Bishop of Harrisburg in 1888. Bishop McGovern died in 1898.

The Bishop’s Visits

And so it happened that my great grandmother Ellen Flynn Leahy heard the good news that Bishop John Nepomucene Neumann was coming visit St. Patrick’s Church. Over the dirt road hills she walked to attend his mass at McGovern’s. After mass she told him there were several people over on the sugar maple ridge who needed his spiritual help. Later that afternoon he walked the four miles home with her. In no time some of the nine Leahy children were sent to all the neighbors to invite them to Leahy’s home for mass on the morrow.

My Mother said that Great grandmother scrubbed the kitchen table and was overjoyed that it would suffice as the altar of sacrifice for the bishop’s mass.

In the early morning the woodsmen brought their broad-axes while the women brought all the children. Soon the house was filled to capacity and many had to stand out doors. Mass was offered and the bishop spoke to his people, encouraging them to build their own church.

After mass he walked outside and blessed the fields now cleared of trees. With the men he searched for a strip of land appropriate for the new church.

They picked a spot donated by Daniel Cusick. (A few years later Daniel’s son Daniel was ordained a priest and his daughter Annie became Sister M. Ambrose, I.H.M. This nun had four half-sisters who also entered the convent. They were all O’Keefes.)

Bishop Neumann helped the men start the church that very day, as they set their broad-axes to the task of construction.

The new church was named Sts. Philip and James.

According to the Metropolitan Catholic Almanac and Layman’s Directory for the Year of Out Lord 1855, pp. 178-183, the diocese of Philadelphia included the eastern district of Pennsylvania plus Delaware, and was governed by the Rt. Rev. John Neumann, C.SS. R., who was consecrated on March 28, 1852. This edition lists the newly dedicated Sts. Philip and James Church, Sugar Ridge, Bradford County, Pa., as the location of his July 27, 1854 visit. The bishop wrote: "Corner stone blessed by me on July 27. Confirmed 78".

Bishop Neumann returned two more times to Sugar Ridge -- on September 10, 1856 when he confirmed ten and on June 25, 1858 when sixteen received the sacrament of confirmation. Through his sermons he instilled in his listeners a reverential love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. In 1853 he was the first American bishop to institute the Forty Hours devotion on a diocesan-wide basis.

He told the people of his attendance at Rome for the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. Due to his proposal, the feast of the Immaculate Conception became a holy day in the United States.

The Bishop promoted devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in all the parishes, encouraging the recitation of the rosary and the litany of the Blessed Virgin. In churches these were recited on Sundays before high mass.

But the growing community’s biennial visits of the saintly bishop ended when he was only 48 years old. A heart attack caused his death in Philadelphia on January 5, 1860. He was buried within St. Peter’s Church, Fifth and Girard Streets, in Philadelphia.

The Church

After its establishment as a parish, the Sts. Philip and James Church was attended one Sunday in a month by Rev. James McNaughton from St. Basil’s in Dushore, and in later years by Father Kaier who came on horseback. In the 1900’s the resident priest of St. Francis Xavier Church in Overton came every Sunday to say mass in the Ridge.

Within a few years the original church was too small for the growing parish; in 1883 another was built about 200 feet further back on the property. The parish cemetery lies in front of the church. Many of the beautiful old wooden markers and tombstones have fallen through the years. At present the most ancient one marks the grave of Bridget, aged 13, the daughter of Tom and Mary Leahy. She died on June 12, 1848. Her parents were the brother and sister of Patrick and Ellen Leahy.

Patrick Leahy’s tombstone reads that he died on September 3, 1888, aged 78 years. My mother said he died while saying the rosary on his knees. (The recitation of the rosary was always a nightly ceremony in the Leahy house.) Although the name of his wife Ellen is chiseled onto the same tombstone, Ellen was actually buried a few feet away under the big tree and her name is on a marker there. Ellen’s life span was from 1806 to 1891.

One of Patrick’s great grandsons was my little brother Patrick Cullen who died at birth, January 19, 1924, and interment was in the Sugar Ridge cemetery.

The Leahy Descendants

The nine children of Patrick and Ellen were William, Mary, Thomas, Anne, Johanna, Catherine, Ellen, Margaret and Francis. They did not remain in Sugar Ridge in adulthood but carried with them the treasurers of the Catholic faith and the joyful spirit of adventure. Among them they had 47 children who could cherish the memory of their grandmother Ellen’s stories about Bishop Neumann.

Francis, youngest of the nine, remained on the farm of his parents. He increased his acreage by buying more fields and married Catherine Dorsey ** who came from Ireland by way of Canada and Batavia. A large new home was built about midway between the church and the old homestead to house the twelve Leahy children and several Irish boys who came from New York. Thomas Burke was one young man who lived with the Leahys. (His daughter Kathleen married my brother Joseph Cullen; today they own and live on this historic property with their ten children.) The Leahys went to the one-room schoolhouse and then went elsewhere to further their education. Eight became school teachers: Mary Byron, Margaret Mowry, Joseph, John, Agnes Cullen (my mother), Teresa, Nell Broschart, and Irene Coveney (author of the pamphlet, The Story of Sugar Ridge). Later Mary and Margaret became nurses. Rosemary died aged one and a half years. Railroad life appealed to Dennis and Frank. Hugh, the eldest, a carpenter and machinist, kept the farm.

Hugh Leahy married Agnes Byron and raised on daughter, Anne. After his death in 1940, his wife conducted the farm for many years then sold it to Joseph Cullen, youngest son of Hugh’s sister Agnes. Joseph and Kathleen Burke Cullen became owners on July 13, 1962.

The Church Deed

Throughout all these past hundred years, the church property actually was part of the Leahy estate. Previous to the sale of the farm to Joseph Cullen, Mrs. Agnes Leahy thought it wise to have the site deeded to the bishop of Scranton.

Recorded on January 17, 1962 in the Towanda courthouse in book 558, page 586, the document reads in part:

"This deed, made the fourth day of December, in the year of Our Lord one thousand nine hundred and sixty-one, between Agnes B. Leahy Grantor, and the Most Rev. Jerome D. Hannon, Roman Catholic Bishop, of Scranton, Pennsylvania, his heirs and assigns forever, as Trustee for said Church Grantee Witnesseth, that in consideration of one dollar, love and affection ... all that certain lot, piece or parcel of land ... Said tract hereby conveyed having been used as a Catholic cemetery and the building thereon is a Catholic church for more than one hundred years last past. It being part of the farm known as the Hugh Leahy farm ..."

The Cullen Celebration

Joseph Cullen’s mother was Agnes, the sixth of Francis Leahy’s twelve children. As a teacher she studied art at State College, Pa. On June 30, 1915 she married Lawrence Cullen from St. Basil’s parish. She told me that the altars of Sugar Ridge Church were banked with mountain laurel for the wedding. My parents resided for fifty years on their Cullen farm four miles from New Albany. Baptized Rita I was their oldest child (now Sister Mary Laurena, I.H.M.). My six brothers were named Francis, James, Patrick (deceased), John, Larry, and Joseph. My brothers married lovely ladies and all have been blessed with happy children, -- twenty-three young Cullens!

When it came time to celebrate our parents’ golden wedding, we planned a family gathering for Memorial Day in May 1965. Knowing that my mother was so fond of Bishop Neumann, I wrote to the Bishop Neumann Center in Philadelphia and told the Redemptorist Fathers about Mother’s stories of Great grandmother and the Bishop. I asked the priests for a first class relic of Bishop Neumann for my parents. The Redemptorists sent the relic with its official papers, and thus increased my parents’ golden joys.

During that same summer of 1965 Mother had a stroke and died July 30.

The Shrine Dedication

A few days later while I was still home after my mother’s funeral a Redemptorist, Rev. Adam J. Otterbein, came from Philadelphia, inquiring about the location of the church founded by Bishop Neumann. We directed him to Sugar Ridge. Since the parishioners had moved from the ridge long years ago, the Sunday masses stopped. Annually one mass was offered in the summer. Members of an active cemetery guild kept the cemetery clean and the church in good order. The property fell under the jurisdiction of the Overton parish.

When Rev. John O’Neill was pastor in Overton, the Redemptorist Fathers from Philadelphia requested the bishop of Scranton, Most Rev. J. Carroll McCormick, to permit the church at Sugar Ridge to be dedicated as a shrine to Bishop Neumann. The permission was granted. A framed picture of Bishop Neumann was hung on the outside of the church and a memorial panel erected beside it. Rev. Francis J. Litz, C. SS. R., Vice-Postulator of Bishop Neumann’s cause, dedicated the shrine September 4, 1966. People came from near and far.

Father Litz told his listeners of the highlights in the life of John Nepomucene Neumann. He mentioned that in 1921 Pope Benedict XV declared him "venerable" because of his "heroism in virtue".

He told about the two miracles that preceded the Bishop’s beatification. The first was the cure of Eva Menassi, aged eleven, of Milan, Italy, in 1923.

The second was the cure of J. Kent Lenahan, Jr., from Villanova, Pa., --a music teacher and band leader who was crushed in an automobile accident in 1949. His lungs had been punctured.

After papal approval of these two miracles, Bishop Neumann was given the name "Blessed" by Pope Paul VI in 1963 during Vatican II.

After mass those present had the opportunity to venerate a relic of Bishop Neumann. Father Litz offered special prayers in front of the church, petitioning God’s blessing upon the people, the fields, and the animals, as Bishop Neumann had done in the 1850’s.

The Diocesan Pilgrimage

The following year Bishop McCormick invited residents of the Scranton diocese to make a pilgrimage to the shrine, for the special mass of August 5, 1967. He was accompanied by Msgr. James C. Timlin who would become one of Scranton’s bishops in 1976.

Rev. Adam J. Otterbein came with Father Litz. Rev. Alcuin Shields, O.F.M., from Wilkes-Barre, many diocesan priests attended. Sisters of various religious communities were also in the group; Mother M. Beata Wertz, superior general of the I.H.M. sisters, came from Marywood, Scranton. To name a few of the local non-Catholic ministers, their group included Rev. Jeliff, Rev. Giles, and Rev. and Mrs. Harrison.

Pilgrims came by cars and buses from Philadelphia, Scranton, Long Island, Buffalo, and other sections. Several former residents of Sugar Ridge were so pleased to be present at such an august affair. Three ladies who used to live "next door" on the Leahy farm were there, -- Aunt Irene Coveney, Aunt Nell Broschart, Aunt Agnes Leahy, among others. And my brothers’ families, cousins, and friends!

Bishop McCormick presided at the mass offered by Father Litz. Bishop McCormick’s words included this remark:

"I understand I am the bishop who has succeeded Blessed John Neumann, who founded this church, and that I am the only bishop to visit here in a long time. Evidently bishops do not pass this way too often".

Most of the approximately 300 present received Holy Communion at the mass. After veneration of the relic and the novena prayers, everyone chatted out on the church lawn while cameras clicked away. A picnic luncheon was served to 225 in the Overton picnic grounds by the St. Francis Xavier parishioners.

Every summer since that date a special mass has been offered on the first Sunday of the months of July, August, and September. Pilgrimage groups travel great distances to participate in devotions.

The Canonization Announcement

For the past ten years Father Litz has requested the congregation to pray for the canonization of Blessed John Nepomucene Neumann. He has also kept them abreast of the news concerning the progress of the canonization procedures. He informed them of the miracle performed in behalf of young Michael Flanagan.

In December 1975 newspapers printed the good news that the Catholic Church recognized as a miracle the cure of the seven year-old Michael Flanagan and that this miracle would clear the way for canonization of the saintly bishop. Michael was a victim of cancer of the right leg in 1963. Because cancer spread to his lungs and jawbones, doctors predicted death within a few months. The child underwent radium and chemotherapy treatments. Michael’s mother took him to the Bishop Neumann Shrine in Philadelphia where both prayed at the Bishop’s tomb.

Michael recovered within six months. When he was eleven years old his doctors declared that he was free of cancer of the leg bone, the jaw and the lungs.

In 1975 a board of nine physicians in Rome ruled that his cure had no "medical or scientific explanation."

Philadelphia was the setting for the 41st International Eucharistic Congress in August 1976. Many Americans had hoped that the canonization of Philadelphia’s fourth bishop would occur then, and hopefully, at the congress closing mass. But no announcement came through to that effect. Several congress participants visited the tomb of Bishop Neumann in the St. Peter’s Church, where the wax-covered likeness is in view under the altar, over his last remains.

A special mass was offered in the cathedral to honor Bishop Neumann. For me it was a thrilling experience to find myself seated directly behind Michael Flanagan and his parents. I had the privilege of personally greeting him, and also J. Kent Lenahan, the recipient of the second major miracle through the Bishop’s intercession.

Michael, now 21 years old, lives in Wildwood Villas, N.J. and is a cabinet maker.

When finally in December 1976 the Holy See announced the date for the canonization to be Sunday, June 19, 1977 in Rome, you can imagine the rejoicing of the Flanagans, the Lenahans, the Menassi families, -- and countless others who looked forward for so long to such a happening.

Many American bishops will be taking pilgrimage groups from their respective dioceses to Rome for this soon-approaching great day, -- when John Nepomucene Neumann will be declared a saint, -- the first American male to receive such nomenclature!

Sharing in this great jubilation will be several people whose ancestors were with Bishop Neumann in Sugar Ridge at the founding of the Sts. Philip and James Church.

Great grandmother Ellen never dreamed that any of her descendants would attend the canonization of her beloved Bishop. And I am that lucky person looking forward to June 19, 1977.

** Editor's Note: Sister Mary Laurena, IHM had other family memers who became nuns as well. Here is a commentary prepared by Edward Kelly in April 2009 about an aunt and a niece who both became nuns in the same religious community and took the same religious name!:

Bridget (Sister M. Joachim, IHM) Dorsey and Margaret (Sister M. Joachim, IHM) Lane

Rita Angela (Sister M. Laurena, IHM) Cullen, the daughter of Lawrence and Agnes Leahy Cullen, a granddaughter of Francis P. and Catherine Dorsey Leahy, and a great granddaughter of Patrick and Ellen Flynn Leahy and Patrick and Margaret Cain Dorsey, includes pictures of Sister M. Joachim Dorsey and Sister M. Joachim Lane in her 1985 memoir: Cullen…As the Nun Remembers.

Sister M. Joachim Dorsey is a sister of Sister Laurena's maternal grandmother, Catherine Dorsey Leahy.

Sister M. Joachim Lane is the daughter of John and Margaret (Maggie) Dorsey Lane. Margaret (Maggie) Dorsey Lane is a sister of Sister Laurena's maternal grandmother, Catherine Dorsey Leahy.

Sister M. Joachim Dorsey is the aunt of Sister M. Joachim Lane!

It is most unusual for an aunt and a niece to be members of the same religious community and have the same religious name. It occurred in this instance because Sister M. Joachim Dorsey died at a very young age and before Sister M. Joachim Lane entered the religious community.

The Scranton, PA Sisters of IHM have posted its Catalogue of Deceased Sisters on its website. The catalogue indicates that Sister M. Joachim Dorsey was born on January 9, 1870 and died on January 2, 1896 and that Sister M. Joachim Lane was born on June 16, 1889 and died on November 30, 1976.

Sister M. Joachim Dorsey was born on Sugar Ridge, Overton Township, Bradford County, PA. Sister M. Joachim Lane was born in the borough of Dushore, Sullivan County, PA.

Sister M. Joachim Dorsey is buried at Marywood University, Scranton, PA.

Sister M. Joachim Lane is buried at St. Catherine's Cemetery, Moscow, PA.

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