McGOVERN, Thomas
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McGOVERN, The Right Reverend THOMAS, D.D., second bishop of Harrisburg, was born in the parish of Swanlibar, county Cavan, Ireland, A.D. 1832. His parents emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1833, and his father became a partner with his brother, John McGovern, of Lancaster, Pa., who came to America in 1813, served in the war against Great Britain, and after its conclusion was engaged in contracting on canals and railroads. After the suspension of such improvements, consequent on the collapse of the United States Bank, Edward McGovern purchased a large tract of land in Albany township, Bradford county, Pa., and moved his family there in the fall of 1842. Ceaseless toil, constant privations, and the hospitality of a howling wilderness were then some of the attractions of a pioneer life. He had some money saved from his ventures in contracting, but money is not bread, where there is no supply, and in the first stage of existence in the forest is of as little use as it would have been to Adam and Eve when they left the garden of Eden. A house of round logs and four acres of cleared land were the home and the hope of the new settlers. The balance of the land was the domain of deer, bears, panthers and wo1ves. The maternal genius of the native forest extends with royal magnificence unstinted hospitality to its sovereign, but, if he wishes to levy contributions on his subject, he must subdue the turbulent members of his empire. Every member of the family was from necessity a toiler. Little do the young of this generation realize the hardships of pioneer life, even in their native county; and the prosperous of this day hardly ever acknowledge the deep debt of gratitude they owe to such heroic and unheralded manhood.

The family consisted of John, Patrick, Bridget, Thomas, Bernard, Francis and Annie, five of whom still survive, Bridget and Francis having passed away, the latter in childhood. John and Patrick received a primary education in an academy in Lebanon, Pas., Patrick subsequently spending a few terms in an academy at Catawissa, Columbia county, Pa. Bridget was educated in a convent school, at Pottsville, Pa. These facts are given to explain how the younger members of the family had any means of learning the most rudimentary principles of education in the wild woods. In the long winter evenings, when the monarch pines were bending and moaning in the storm, and the wood-chopper's day of toil was over, the little school gathered around the open hearth, as large as a lime-kiln, and in the light of the big log fire, peered into learning's shallow fountains, spelling, reading, reciting, writing and figuring, till drooping eyelids told that school was out. Then followed night prayers, and the beads were told, the father leading and the whole family responding, then all went to rest, to renew their strength for the toils of the coming day. The education thus acquired was necessarily limited. Yet the love they bore to learning was not diminished. The system was primitive, and made the work the more laborious. Books were few and in consequence more thoroughly mastered. The parents did not occupy professor's chairs but they were the perfects of discipline, and the motive powers of the little university. As time rolled on, the professional schoolmaster appeared upon the stage. His confidence in himself and assurance in his qualifications where none were able to question his claim to superiority, were usually of no mean proportions. Looking back from this day, there was nothing small about him except his salary and learning. His descriptions of the large towns he had seen, the great academies in which he had studied, and the wonders of science that were taught therein were listened to with astonishment. He was paid by subscription, and boarded around among the subscribers. This arrangement was regarded as an honor by the parents, and a pleasure by the scholars. It secured for the latter special favors during that week from the teacher, and the love their parents bore the learned one secured for them during that time a more elaborate bill of fare than usual.

The school term rarely lasted more than three months in the year. In this primitive state of society, there were no amusements or distractions imported ready made from without. Other diversions of a more useful character, such as singing schools, debating societies, spelling schools, etc., took their place.

Thomas McGovern was not as quick and bright in his studies as his brothers and sisters. He developed very slowly. This may have been owing to the defective system, which then consisted too much in dry rules and formularies. He looked upon these as exceedingly arbitrary, and would not submit to them without restraint till he saw the reasons why they claimed his submission. He was not, however, skeptical in the common sense of the term; on the contrary, he had a great veneration and confidence in men who were able to write books. He was particularly fond of physics, popularly called natural philosophy; and the problems in the department thereof denominated mechanics afforded an extensive field for the exercise of a mind like his, which was naturally rigid and logical rather than discursive and imaginative in its conclusions. He was passionately fond of machinery, and any hours he could steal from other employments were devoted to this pleasant and favorite study. He was never regarded as a speedy messenger to go to the mill for grist, for the pleasure he enjoyed in examining the machinery was sure to extend his stay long beyond the appointed time for his return.

Theoretical knowledge will not long remain at rest within the lines of its own province, but frets and chafes for freedom of action in the domain of practical life. This was particularly true in his case. He quickly learned to use the tools of the artisan, and his success in repairing, making and inventing such instruments as were needed in that primitive state of society soon acquired for him the title of a genius. When enough of the forest was cleared away to make a farm, and a house and other buildings erected to constitute a home, he was sent to St. Joseph's College, Susquehanna county, Pa., where he pursued his studies for two years. In September, 1855, he went to Mt. St. Mary's College, Emmitsburg, Md., and after continuing his studies there for four years, graduated at the commencement of 1859 with the degree of B. A. Among his classmates were young men of a high order of talent, particularly M. A. Corrigan, the present Most Rev. Archbishop of New York.

In 1861, Thomas McGovern received the degree of A. M. He made a portion of his theological studies at Mt. St. Mary's Seminary, after he had graduated from the college. His first rector then in the seminary is now the Most Rev. William Henry Elder, D. D., Archbishop of Cincinnati, a man of holy life, and a model of saintly virtues. Bishop McGovern always regarded Mt. St. Mary's as his alma mater, not only because she honored him with her collegiate diplomas, but because she also called him to important offices of trust during his sojourn in the college. "The Old Mountain," as the college is familiarly called by the students, resides in the sanctuary of his dearest recollections. He concluded his theological course in the seminary of St. Charles Borromeo, Eighteenth and Race streets, Philadelphia, since removed to the large and imposing buildings at Overbrook Station.

He was ordained priest December 27, 1861, by the Rt. Rev. James F. Wood, D. D., afterwards Archbishop of Philadelphia. He was assigned to the charge of Pottstown and Douglasville after his ordination, and was subsequently called as assistant in St. Michael's church, Second and Master streets, Philadelphia, and later to St. Philip's church, Second and Queen streets, in the same city.

In June, 1864, Father McGovern was sent to Bellefonte, Centre county, Pa., to attend the station attached to it. His mission embraced Centre, Juniata and Mifflin counties. He labored in this mission for six years; built a new church in Bellefonte, organized sodalities, beneficial and temperance societies to arouse the zeal and fervor of Catholic piety. In 1868 the Diocese of Harrisburg was organized by the Holy See, and on July 12, the Rt. Rev. F. Shanahan, D. D., was consecrated its first bishop. The Rev. Thomas McGovern's spiritual allegiance was made to him. He remained in Bellefonte until December, 1870, when he was appointed to St. Patrick's church, at York, York county, Pa. Here his energy and zeal again found a large field of labor. In July, 1873, he was transferred to Danville, Montour county, Pa. This had been a large and flourishing parish while iron rails carried the commerce of the country. He at once set to work to make improvements such as the growing demands of religion required, but the financial crisis of that year frustrated many of his fondest hopes. Yet he struggled faithfully during the long years of depression in that town, and if he did not accomplish all his soul craved, he left after him monuments that will make his memory enduring. To recreate his body and mind, he made a very extensive tour through Europe, Africa and Asia, in 1881-2. He traveled over twenty-three thousand miles, made the tour of Palestine and Syria on horseback, and lodged under tents for thirty-eight nights.

Rt. Rev. J. F. Shanahan, D. D., passed away September 24, 1886. Rev. Thomas McGovern was appointed his successor by Pope Leo XIII., January 15,1888, and he was consecrated in the pro-cathedral, in Harrisburg. March 11,1888, by the Rt. Rev. William O'Hara, D. D., of Scranton, Pa., assisted by Rt. Rev. Richard Gilmour, D. D., of Cleveland, Ohio, and Rt. Rev. John A. Watterson, of Columbus, Ohio. Other eminent prelates and clergymen also honored the occasion by their presence. Bishop McGovern is a gentleman of wide and generous impulses. In religion he claims to be charitable, like his Divine Master. He is a Catholic from deep convictions, and holds himself in honor bound to defend them. The following character is given him by D. H. Brower, Esq., in his history of Danville:

"Rev. Thomas McGovern is a man of marked ability, energy and executive power. As a controversialist he is a dangerous opponent, and seems to be armed at every point to battle for the church and defend the faith he professes. Yet he is liberal and generous, courteous and pleasant to all, and holds an honorable place in the community at large."

During the year 1895 he made a visit to the Holy See, at Rome, and on his return to Harrisburg, was accorded a hearty reception by his parishioners, which showed their love and respect for their bishop and the high esteem in which he was held by them.


Historical Review of Dauphin County

Transcribed by Becky Tuszynski for The Dauphin County, Pennsylvania Genealogy Transcription Project -

Date of Transcription: 11 June 2001

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