Bishop-elect McGovern looks forward to meeting his flock

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2020

When Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, called then-Father Michael McGovern at the end of March, they first talked about the coronavirus pandemic that was sweeping the globe.

Only after that did the archbishop disclose the reason for his call: Pope Francis had appointed McGovern, who has been pastor of St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in Old Mill Creek since 2016 to be the new bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, replacing Bishop Edward K. Braxton, who submitted his resignation when he turned 75 last year.

The difficulty was that, under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, Bishop-elect McGovern was not able to travel to Belleville for the announcement, and even if he could drive the five hours to southern Illinois, the diocese would be unable to schedule his episcopal ordination and installation while public gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited and dioceses have suspended public Masses.

Rather than delay the announcement, Bishop Braxton and Bishop-elect McGovern released videos on April 3 to introduce Bishop-elect McGovern to his new flock.

A bishop, Bishop-elect McGovern said, is primarily a pastor, and he looks forward to being able to get to know his people.

The Diocese of Belleville will be a change for the bishop-elect, who was born at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park, the youngest of eight siblings, and raised in the Beverly neighborhood of Chicago. He attended Christ the King School, followed his brothers to St. Ignatius College Prep and earned a degree in philosophy from Loyola University Chicago.

He worked for four years after college and studied at DePaul University’s law school before making the decision to enter Mundelein Seminary/University of St. Mary of the Lake.

“I decided when I graduated college to wait a while before deciding,” Bishop-elect McGovern said. “I’d been out of college for three years when I thought, ‘You really have to look at this.’”

Two retreat weekends that year helped him make up his mind. Because he’d majored in philosophy and studied Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, he was admitted directly into the theology program at Mundelein.

Having the priesthood in the back of his mind as a possibility was one of the reasons he pursued philosophy, he said.

“I could go to law school, I could become priest,” Bishop-elect McGovern said. “It interested me, so I followed it.”

He was ordained in 1994, four years after entering Mundelein, and hasn’t looked back.

However, some of what he learned in law school has been helpful.

“Things like always reading the whole contract before you sign it,” Bishop-elect McGovern said. “Pastors sign a lot of contracts.”

Bishop-elect McGovern started his priestly ministry at Immaculate Conception Parish in Highland Park, while he was still in school pursuing graduate studies at Mundelein. He then ministered for three years at Queen of the Universe Parish, 7114 S. Hamlin Ave., and then as an associate pastor at St. Mary Parish, Lake Forest, while serving as associate chancellor for the archdiocese. He later resided at other parishes while ministering as vice chancellor and as the archbishop’s delegate for international and extern priests.

In 2003, he returned to parish ministry at St. Juliana, 7201 N. Oketo Ave. The next year, he was named pastor of St. Mary, Lake Forest.

After 12 years at St. Mary, he was named pastor of St. Raphael, which is one of the most rural in the archdiocese.

“I live in a farmhouse where the parish offices are on the first floor,” Bishop-elect McGovern said. “I look out at three red barns. We have a farmer who farms the parish property with soybeans and hay. Sure, some of our people work at Abbot and AbbVie and Baxter. But there are also horse farms and corn crops.”

Overall, Bishop-elect McGovern said, he has spent 19 of his 26 years of priesthood in Lake County. He hopes the familiarity with rural life will help in Belleville, a diocese that stretches across the southern part of Illinois from Indiana to Missouri.

It includes 28 counties, with 70,000 Catholics in 11,678 square miles. The Cathedral of St. Peter and diocesan offices are in Belleville on the west side of the diocese, about a half-hour from St. Louis.

Canon law allows up to 120 days after the nomination of a bishop for an episcopal installation, according to the bishop-elect, and exceptions can be made in extraordinary circumstances.

Bishop Braxton is also a Chicago native, ordained for the archdiocese in 1970. He has served as bishop of Belleville since 2005. In his video message, Bishop Braxton said he knows Bishop-elect McGovern, as do several Belleville priests who studied with him at Mundelein.

Bishop Braxton assured Bishop-elect McGovern of his prayers and of his help going forward.

“In this our secular age, it is difficult to live as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, and the challenges of assuming the mantle of servant leadership in the church are extraordinary, perhaps especially in a small, largely rural diocese with modest resources like our own,” Bishop Braxton said.

For Bishop-elect McGovern, who was ordained in 1994, the move means leaving the Chicago area, where he grew up and where most of his family and friends live.

“I enjoy driving, and I’ll have plenty opportunity to drive,” Bishop-elect McGovern said. “I like to pray while I drive.”

His experience in working with international priests and the communities that welcome them should be helpful, as the Diocese of Belleville has several priests from Nigeria and Kenya, and he wants to promote home-grown vocations as well.

He’s looking forward to visiting the Poor Clare monastery in Belleville. It was one of the first places he called when the news was allowed to become public, Bishop-elect McGovern said.

He also wants to work on his Spanish to better minister to Spanish-speaking Catholics in the area. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who run the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, do a lot of Hispanic ministry in the area, Bishop-elect McGovern said.

He also plans to call on Belleville’s oldest priest, who wrote him a letter to welcome him, as well as Bishop Braxton, of course, he said.

“I enjoy getting out and meeting people,” Bishop-elect McGovern said. “They have 106 churches, three Catholic high schools, 27 parochial schools. … The main thing is to be present to the people in Belleville.”


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