By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
Robert F. McGovern, 78, a professor emeritus of the University of the Arts, especially noted for his religious artwork, died April 13.
So vast a number of McGovern’s woodcarvings, sculptures, wood and linoleum cuts, paintings and watercolors adorn churches, institutions and major museums in the Philadelphia Archdiocese and across the country that his epitaph could well imitate that of Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London: “If you seek his monument look around you.”
Some of the local churches and institutions that have benefited from his talent include St. Charles Borromeo, Bensalem; St. Malachy, Philadelphia; Church of the Gesu, Philadelphia; St. Katherine of Siena, Philadelphia; St. Cornelius, Chadds Ford; the Sisters of Mercy, Merion; Malvern Retreat House; Assisi House, Aston; St. Cyprian, Philadelphia; St. Rose of Lima, Philadelphia; St. Maximilian Kolbe, West Chester; St. Katharine Drexel, Chester; St. Peter, West Brandywine; St. Joachim, Philadelphia; and St. Jerome, Philadelphia.
In addition, McGovern illustrated a number of books and designed greeting cards for worthy causes.
Through his art, “he touched the lives of so many,” said his daughter, Laura Rothermel. “He was loving and well loved.”
Wood was his favorite medium, according to longtime friend Msgr. Francis A. Carbine, and among those who influenced McGovern were French artist Georges Rouault and master woodcarver George Nakashima.
In a booklet for a half-century retrospective of his work at Villanova University in 2003, Msgr. Carbine wrote, “Characterized by integrity and energy, the works of Robert McGovern range from panel carvings and processional crosses to altar screens and fabric banners. He has long internalized the necessity of having his work bear the weight of mystery, awe, reverence and wonder as he endeavored to bring the spanine to the human world, and raise the human world to God.”
A Philadelphian, McGovern was stricken by polio during his teen years, but he later attended the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). He joined the faculty after graduation and remained at the college until he retired in 1999.
Although McGovern was a resident of Narberth, for many years he considered St. Malachy in North Philadelphia his home parish. When Msgr. Kevin Lawrence, pastor of St. Malachy arrived, he found many Robert McGovern works in his church and rectory. His own McGovern treasure is the beautifully decorated chalice and patent commissioned for his ordination in 1987. “We used it at his funeral Mass,” Msgr. Lawrence said.
The funeral Mass was celebrated at St. Malachy Church on April 16 with Msgr. Carbine as the principal celebrant. Father John McNamee, pastor emeritus of St. Malachy, was the homilist.
In addition to his daughter, Laura, McGovern is survived by his wife, Aileen McCormack McGovern, his sons Paul and Mark, his daughter, Helen Lazzaro, and nine grandchildren. He was predeceased by his first wife, Beverly Folse McGovern, who died in 1970.
Burial was at Calvary Cemetery, West Conshohocken.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.