REMEMBERING FR. McGOVERN
by Msgr. Tim Shugrue
All of us at St. Michael's Parish and in the Cranford community mourn the death of Father John P. McGovern, Pastor of St. Michael's from 2001 to 2011, who died Wednesday at Jersey Shore Medical Center, Neptune, where he had been hospitalized since Christmas Day. Fr. McGovern suffered from a number of serious health issues over the past several years. Through it all, he remained positive, hoping to continue to do what he loved best - ministering to people, most recently in local parishes near his home in Sea Girt. After celebrating Christmas Eve Mass at St. Catharine's Church in Spring Lake, he struggled through another Mass on Christmas Day, when he returned to the hospital. He passed away quietly Wednesday in the presence of his brother, Bernard McGovern, his cousin Eileen McGovern, and his close friend Fr. Chris Beirne. Parishioner Thomas Hannen reported to me that, in his last conversation with Fr. McGovern in the hospital last Monday, Father admitted that he was tired, and said that he was "ready", adding that he was grateful to have done everything he had wanted to do in this life - a comment it is easy to imagine coming from the smiling face depicted in the accompanying photos. I had heard Fr. McGovern voice those same thoughts: I last spoke with him a week ago, and was grateful to have the opportunity to visit him in the hospital shortly before he died. It was clear that he was at peace and would soon return to the Lord. In two weeks, Fr. McGovern would have turned 75, and in May would have observed his Golden Jubilee of ordination as a priest.
In his half-century of priestly ministry, Fr. McGovern made many friends, entering fully into their lives and maintaining relationships from all his assignments. Beginning at St. Teresa's Parish in Summit, where he forged a life-long friendship with the late and much-lamented Msgr. Lou Fimiani, Fr. McGovern also served as a chaplain at Overlook Hospital. He then was assigned to teach religion at Mother Seton Regional High School in Clark, where his gift for helping young people understand their relationship with God made him a valued friend and guide to many students and their families. Appointed Pastor of Little Flower Parish in Berkeley Heights, Fr. McGovern brought focus and energy to a challenging situation there, until his being appointed Pastor of Ascension Parish in New Milford brought him to Bergen County. But Fr. McGovern, though a Jersey City native, had a powerful attachment to Union County, and was delighted to be appointed Pastor of St. Michael's in 2001, succeeding Msgr. Lawrence Cull, who himself died within the past year. In Cranford, reviving many ties from his days at Mother Seton, Fr. McGovern quickly became a commanding presence in the community. He took enormous pride in his relationships with the members of the Police and Fire Departments, which he served faithfully as chaplain. When I came to St. Michael's as a parochial vicar in 2009, I would often hear the crackle of Fr. John's police-band radio, alerting him to matters affecting public safety in town, and above all to whatever affected the welfare of our police, fire and emergency response personnel. Like many young men of his generation in Jersey City, if he hadn't been a priest, he probably would have been a police officer or firefighter: he would tell stories of riding as a young volunteer on ambulances bringing patients to Jersey City Medical Center. For Fr. McGovern, who did not confine his interest in law enforcement and public safety to Cranford alone, the height of excitement was to be invited to ride along with members of a special Essex/Union task force monitoring crime patterns in Elizabeth and Newark. Testimonies from police, fire and EMT personnel in Cranford are united in their appreciation for Fr. McGovern's attentive priestly presence.
At St. Michael's, Fr. John was actively supportive of the parish School and Religious Education programs and was instrumental in pushing for the creation of a joint Youth Ministry in collaboration with St. Theresa's Parish in Kenilworth. With the Youth Ministry, Fr. McGovern was an enthusiastic participant in the annual mission trip to Appalachia, lending a hand in the various construction projects in addition to offering Mass for the teens and adult volunteers. With young children, too, Fr. McGovern had a special way of making them feel welcome, being surrounded each Sunday in front of church by youngsters eager for one of the stickers he always kept in his pockets. A major contribution to parish life was Fr. McGovern's establishment of the Feast of St. Michael, which has become a highlight of the parish and town calendars as an encouragement of the spirit of community as well as a successful fundraiser. Under Fr. McGovern, St. Michael's became an active partner with the Cranford Chamber of Commerce, supporting various initiatives to enhance community life. He continued regular support for Cranford Family Care, Raphael's Life House, St. Joseph's Social Service Center, St John's Soup Kitchen and numerous other charities. Parishioners were appreciative of Fr. John 's direct and practical homilies, and I was impressed by how well he knew the 'back-stories' of parishioners' lives. He was grateful for the loyalty of parishioners and groups like the Knights of Columbus and the Rosary Society, the Legion of Mary and Prayer Group, the School Sports Association, MOMs ministry and so many others. Our parishioners' response to Fr. McGovern's leadership was obvious in their support of his last major initiative, the capital campaign to add an elevator for better access to the church and to restore the School auditorium.
My personal regard for Fr. McGovern dates back many years, but became more of a friendship when, in 2009, he invited me to consider coming to St. Michael's when my term as Pastor of Immaculate Conception, Montclair, ended. He knew I was anxious to be located closer to my sister's home in Westfield, where our mother was residing for the final years of her life. I was grateful for Fr.John 's thoughtfulness and for his warm welcome when I was assigned here as parochial vicar. It was a blessing for me, alongside Fr. Ed Jocson, to have the privilege of ministering with those two fast friends, and giants of pastoral experience, Fr. McGovern and Msgr. Fimiani until the latter's death in 2010. It was also an advantage to have come to know St. Michael's Parish under Fr. McGovern's guidance when, in 2011, I was appointed to succeed him upon his retirement. Always interested in the parish but never intrusive after retiring, he remained a good friend, and I am happy that Fr. John felt comfortable enough to stay here for several periods of recuperation during these past two years. He was consistently gracious and supportive, and I will miss his advice and counsel.
Fr. McGovern's influence will remain strong among us, and I join with all our parishioners and staff, our neighbors and friends in extending our prayerful sympathy to his brother and family. May John McGovern, faithful and devoted priest, enjoy the rewards of his happy and fruitful ministry in the presence of Christ, our Eternal high Priest.
God love you!