The Nativity scene that has graced the Rectory lawn in the Christmas season these past few years is a Most Blessed Sacrament Parish artifact with important St. Francis de Sales connections
The two-dimensional relief-carved Holy Family sculptures were commissioned by longtime MBS pastor, Father John Newns, in 1991. Aileen McGovern, wife of artist Bob McGovern, recalls that Father Newns “was renovating, and had old pews,” and that wood was used for the carvings. An accounting sheet lists these as MBS Upper Church pews, but the Lower Church was deconsecrated in 1987, and its furnishings put in storage, so that is also possible. In any case, Aileen recalls that “we chipped a lot of chewing gum off them” so the DNA of MBS – and generations of its young parishioners — is deeply embedded in that old oak.
The DNA of St. Francis de Sales Parish was in the blood of the artist, Bob McGovern, who was born into our parish in 1933, and whose family lived at 1239 Hansen St. Bob attended the parish school, and was one of “Dooner’s Crooners” (Boys Choir under Choirmaster Albert Dooner). De Sales was central to his early development. Interviewing him in 2001, Robert Wuthnow wrote that “McGovern was still young when he recognized what he now calls ‘the double-edged scary and comforting business of spirituality’…the comforting part appeared in the daily and weekly religious rituals” that appealed to his poetic side – and SFDS had many of those. The scary side came in moments such as when “he remembers the nuns making him write ’I won’t talk in line’ in his notebook a thousand times, then going out in the rain, dropping his notebook, and seeing the words, written in soluble ink, disappear…” McGovern admitted to being a poor student at De Sales, more interested in art than academics. Monsignor Francis Carbine observes that McGovern’s artistic poetic sensibilities showed early at home: “As a young boy in the 1940’s, he drew a giant ear in chalk on Hansen Street in West Philadelphia. Next came a Christmas crèche made from wood of orange crates and grape boxes…”
In 1947, at age 16, McGovern was struck with Polio and life instantly changed. Then attending West Philadelphia Public High School, he had to drop out and be tutored at home, “but through a state disability program was soon able to attend art school. ‘It was magical.’” Sally Downey reported that “He was encouraged to pursue his art and, while wearing full braces on both legs and using crutches, he commuted from his home to the Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts. Later he learned to drive a car with hand controls. After graduating from what is now the University of Arts, he was invited to join the faculty. For the next 43 years, he taught freshmen drawing and design as well as printmaking and other courses until retiring in 1999”
Bob continued to live in the neighborhood as an adult. Parishioner John Deady recalls visiting him at his parents’ house, at 4807 Kingsessing, where “he must have had a studio upstairs. I remember staying in the living room with his parents” while he printed an artwork. “Felt badly as I believe he was wearing braces and had to go up and down the stairs.” After Bob married Beverly at SFDS in 1963, the young McGoverns moved into the apartment house then owned by the Parish, on 47th Street between the convent and the Little School. Later, they moved to a more accessible place with a studio in Narberth – where Bob stayed after Beverly died and he married Aileen (also at SFDS!) in 1971. Bob and Aileen ultimately became members of both St Malachy and St, Margaret of Antioch in Narberth, so they had many church connections.
When Bob McGovern passed away in 2011, Lou Baldwin wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer: “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 (and Father Eric’s office) 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.’’” We are privileged to be a part of his story.