Walter Erlebacher, Bishop John Neumann Greeting the Citizens of Philadelphia
Erlebacher’s Bishop John Neumann Greeting the Citizens of Philadelphia was the subject of an exchange between William Valerio CEO and Director of Woodmere, Father Joe Chorpenning, Sister Agnes Reimann, and Woodmere’s Deputy Director for Exhibitions, Rick Ortwein. This excerpt is taken from a conversation published in the exhibition catalogue Woodmere Welcomes Pope Francis: Biblical Art from the Permanent Collection.
VALERIO: Both Walter and his wife Martha Erlebacher were extraordinary artists, greats of the greats of Philadelphia. This is Walter’s maquette of Bishop Neumann on the cobblestones of Philadelphia being approached by people, which was never executed.
CHORPENNING: What I thought when I saw Saint John Neumann was that he was exactly the kind of Bishop that Pope Francis wants. He was a bishop of the people, a very able administrator, although he was not highly thought of by the clergy, and by some other bishops, because he had this thick Bohemian accent. He was apparently not impressive in appearance so they looked down their noses at him. When he died they said they were astounded by the outpouring of the people.
REIMANN: Now, this is important, for the history of Philadelphia as well, because John Neumann was very instrumental in starting Catholic education in Philadelphia and then it spread.
VALERIO: Well, here in the sculpture is a Sister of Saint Joseph, like you, with a child. We understand that she’s a teacher.
REIMANN: She’s talking to this young man about education, which was very influential.
ORTWEIN: I spoke to sculptor Anthony Visco about this piece too, because he was a studio assistant for Walter. The location Walter envisioned was not next to a church necessarily, but in a public square or along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to emphasize the impact that Neumann had on Philadelphia as a citizen, not only a cleric.