It is fitting that during this, the Church’s Year of Consecrated Life, Thomas Aquinas College marks the 30th anniversary of one of its most beloved priests, Rev. Thomas A. McGovern, S.J., who died on February 19, 1985.
A graduate of the Université Laval in Quebec, Fr. McGovern previously taught at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., before coming to Thomas Aquinas College in early 1972. He served as a member of the faculty and, later, the Board of Governors until his death in 1985. The following year he posthumously received the College’s highest honor, the Saint Thomas Aquinas Medallion.
To mark the 30th anniversary of Fr. McGovern’s death, the College has published a collection of his meticulously crafted and edifying sermons. Edited by Suzie Andres (‘87), for whom the work was truly a labor of love, The Selected Sermons of Rev. Thomas A. McGovern, S.J., begins with a homily for the first Sunday of Advent and continues with others for all the Sundays of the seasons of the liturgical year, including the current season of Lent. An additional section features sermons for special feasts and occasions, from Solemnities of Our Lord to Saints’ days and Baccalaureates. Copies of the elegant, hard-bound book are available via the College Bookstore.
Below, alumni share some of their memories of the late tutor and Jesuit.
Steve Six, Sr. (’76)
A few funny things Father McGovern did in class:
Once he was speaking about the three brothers who were cast into the furnace, as told in the Old Testament: He said their names were Shadrach, Meshach, and ToBedWeGo!
Another time He wrote on the board in chalk — Fortibus es in ero — then said, “Translate from Latin to English.” (The answer? Forty buses in a row!)
He had fun in class from time to time, and after a funny story, he would sit there looking at us, smiling with his right forefinger pointing straight up, his elbow on the table, and the tip of his fingernail between his two front teeth (they had a slight gap in between). This was a signature pose of his.
God Bless Him! May he rest in peace.
Priscilla (Smith ’77) McCaffrey
“Wives-are-worser,” Fr. McGovern would argue, and sometimes, vice versa. It tickled him to play with words, and he often did just that. He couldn’t help himself, even with as serious a topic as Duns Scotus, whom he respectfully called “the Dunce,” and sometimes, with thumbnail to teeth, “the Su’al’ One.” He taught with great forgiveness, scolding us mildly as he handed back our tests on the Trinity: “You are all heretics.” He was good at the tutorial, with his Jesuit methodology of working at questions, shifting a bit, driving home a point with more focus, more questions. He led his students to discovery, and we loved him for that.
He was extremely generous with his time, and was not unknown to pick up a check. He headed out with some of us to Alice’s Restaurant at Malibu a few times, and clearly was not ungrateful that one young lady was of age to be served an aperitif — he was relieved at least not to be completely surrounded by youngsters. His appearance was always neat. We did not say at the time he was handsome, but indeed he was. There was always a slightly amused look on his face and a little detachment observed, at least around the women. My classmates and I went on a few hikes with him and, when at rest around a campfire, sang dozens of songs. He knew Calypso songs and Irish fighting songs and show tunes and some of the popular songs. He probably knew a lot more by heart than we did. How had that fit into his training as a young scholastic? When does a Jesuit have time for “Some Enchanted Evening” or “Brown Skin Girl”?
There was one thing Fr. McGovern hated — there is no other word for it: carrots. In fact, it was the only irrational thing I knew about him. He could not be persuaded, either, by empirical evidence, that a moist slab of carrot cake piled with cream-cheese frosting was anything but a subversive ruse to get him into enemy territory.
It was clear to us that Father loved the College and its students. He maintained a high standard in all facets of his life as priest, teacher, and scholar, but I always thought his quiet joy that revealed itself in that wry smile was for sheer gratitude for being exiled to such a lovely campus, doing what he loved to do, and then offering it all back up to God before the altar. Such a complete life.
Two friends and I spent a summer afternoon with him a few years after graduation. After a good, hot hike into the Los Padres Hills we came back to his makeshift home and some cold beer. He was preparing to grill steaks for us when a call came through. He received word that his mother had just died. The Ferndale campus was a fairly uninviting and lonely place that summer. Feeling helpless, we still knew that we were meant to be there to offer a little consolation. She would know now how much his faithfulness had inspired us and so many others, and had made us more secure in our faith, and hopeful for the years that spread out before us. He had a chance to weep a little and know that he was not alone, and probably never would be.
One regrettable thing. Upon his death his body was sent back to be buried from the Jesuit House in New York. My husband and I attended the Mass, as did a few others in the tri-state area. Frankly, it was a desultory affair. His Jesuit brothers were carelessly dressed. It was a lackluster Liturgy — the kind he had escaped. There was no choir to intone the De Profundis or Dies Irae. No hopeful words from the traditional antiphon In Paridisum, “May the angels lead you into Paradise ...” It was as if he had been sent back to the wrong address. Perhaps he was.
I think he belongs in the foothills of Los Padres.
Rosalind Grimm (’76)
I just wanted to share my memory of how much Fr. McGovern loved music. He and I and my brother Jon Teichert (’76) used to play recorder duets and trios together, sometimes even for party entertainment. He also liked to get students together and sing songs from musicals.
Rev. Hildebrand Garceau, O.Praem. (’78)
I have a couple of memories of Fr. McGovern that I’d like to share:
The first is my experience in the “special” Latin class. Back in the 1970s a small number of us had already completed some years of Latin before coming to the College. I’m sure Fr. McGovern volunteered to take us under his wing, about four of us. We would meet in the sacristy of the large chapel in Father’s makeshift office and work on “Latin Prose Composition.” This exercise involved taking long, complicated English sentences and translating them into Latin. Then there were texts of Cicero that we translated into English. Father would patiently listen as we slowly made progress through these exercises and commended our results, even when they were far from perfect. This little group also was landed with the task of working on the translation of Boethius’s De Musica. After our poor efforts at the text were finished, Fr. McGovern went over them and transformed them into readable English. The text subsequently was used in the music tutorial. We finished the school year by inviting our beloved tutor to lunch at a restaurant called “Summer House,” or as we billed it, Domus Aestiva.
My second experience, which was somewhat unique, was a car trip in 1977 from Calabasas to New Jersey. Fr. McGovern had heard that I was planning to spend that summer back east, and so he generously decided to take me as a passenger in the famous light blue Volkswagen Squareback. I thought we were going to camp out along the way, but Father wanted to save time and worked out a plan that one would drive while the other slept.
The first couple of days were OK, except the time we were “running on empty” in the wide open spaces of Wyoming, seeing signs along the way that read, “Next gas 56 miles.” We must have been running on fumes when we saw a lone gas station in a little town with nothing else commercial. We pulled in, breathed a sigh of relief, and Father opened his famous picnic basket and offered me a roadside lunch.
After another day of alternately driving and sleeping, it had already been dark for hours, and I think we were somewhere in the Midwest. I was driving and so tired that I began to hallucinate; at that point I called Father and said I couldn’t go any further. So we stopped and both took a break before continuing on our journey. We replenished the picnic basket a few times and had a number of memorable tailgate picnics. Finally we pulled into his brother’s driveway in New Jersey and our journey was over; I think it was only three and a half days from our start in California. When I think that he was more than twice my age at the time, I continue to marvel.
Jean Rioux (’82)
I have many , many memories of Fr. McGovern. He and I were very good friends during my years at Thomas Aquinas College and beyond.
A few anecdotes:
I recall taking Fr. McGovern’s advanced Latin class my freshman year. We were reading the Treatise on Man and spending every bit as much time discussing the text as Thomas’s Latin. On occasion, Fr. McGovern would preface his content questions with: “What’s the Wily Dominican flapping his gums about now?”
I used to visit Father often in his trailer, when he had the time to sit, relax, and enjoy his Mozart oboe concertos over some wine and cheese. One time he had apparently forgotten I was coming by, as I could hear the sounds of Benny Goodman playing his clarinet. I heard a hurried scuffle, and the music stopped. Father answered the door, red-faced. It turns out that, though he loved listening to Mozart, he still harbored a fond love of swing and big band music. He was keen to explain that he only returned to that kind of music occasionally, to reminisce. I have used the same argument myself sometimes, when struck by the occasional fit to listen to some heavy metal.
Fr. McGovern was an avid racquetball player (though he preferred handball). Many Friday afternoons, he and I would make our way down to some unused outdoor courts at the Ojai Valley school to play a few games. He was a cunning player, and very good at ‘killing’ the ball. As happens, I would sometimes whack him in the back (with the ball) as he hurried forward to field my serve. He would stop the game only long enough to point out that striking a priest still incurred the penalty (latae sententiae) of excommunication.
As I had some skill as a carpenter, Father once ‘commissioned’ me to build a couple of outdoor wooden decks for his trailer. We drew up the plans ourselves, purchased the materials, and set about to build the structures. Though I was astute enough to realize that we needed galvanized nails (to guard against rust), I ended up getting box nails, which have a thinner shank and smaller head than common nails. This makes them all the more difficult to hammer in, especially if they are long. Again and again, Fr. McGovern would begin to set his nail and hammer it in, only to have it bend about halfway — all the while I’m going my merry way, nailing up the deck, no problems. I heard nothing from him for some time, until he just about exploded with exasperation. “How are you doing that!” It turned out that he was hammering the nails using the strength of his whole arm, as opposed to setting them using only the action of his wrist. I’ll never forget looking at his rows of bent nails while he surreptitiously kept an eye on my finished ones, almost willing his nails to go in!
My wife and I had the honor of having Fr. McGovern witness our wedding vows. He often drove to officiate at alumni weddings, wherever they were, in his old, blue VW Squareback. In our case that meant a cross-country drive, as we married in Maine. We were so appreciative, and struggled to come up with a suitable way to express it. We finally decided upon an album of his beloved oboe concertos, newly produced. But that was not all. To recompense him somewhat for the expenses he incurred, we ever-so-slightly slit open the plastic wrapper of the album and tucked the largest bill we could afford into the liner. We figured he would come upon it as soon as he sat down to listen. Of course, we forgot about it until several months later, when I received a call from him, expressing his amazement as to how we were able to get the bill inside the album. He apparently did not see the slit, and thought we must have “magicked” it in somehow.
Dr. Mark Smillie (’83)
Fr. McGovern was a huge inspiration to me during my TAC years — as priest and a tutor. I remember that whenever he was finished eating and got up to leave the table, he always said to us, “courage,” as he left. (Or maybe he just said that to me?) He used to say an early morning Mass every Saturday in the Hacienda chapel; a few of us attended it so early, but I remember serving that Mass for him. That chapel is a special place to hear Mass.
Father was assigned as my writing tutor during my Sophomore Year, and I remember he would make writing appointments after dinner after he had reviewed our work. He would catch us at dinner. He spent over an hour each time reviewing my writing with me, getting me to clarify what I was trying to say, and making helpful comments. His generosity with his time for his students was phenomenal, and I try to model that generosity with my own students even now.
I also remember once seeing him jogging the campus roads one afternoon — you didn’t usually see Father jogging! I mentioned it at dinner to him, and he just sheepishly smiled and said nothing.
One last anecdote: during theology class, in Junior Year, we got into a discussion about rationality and the power of speech, and Mike Paietta was insisting rather strongly that parrots could talk, while Fr. McGovern was disagreeing with him. Finally Father ended the discussion by saying, “Well, Mr. Paietta, if you think parrots can talk, then you better take them into the chapel and baptize them!” The class erupted in laughter, of course, though not Mr. Paietta, who looked a little miffed. But don’t think badly of Mike, either, because I remember him later defending Father’s point to someone else in another discussion — so he must have come around to Father’s view!
Dr. John Damiani (’84)
In addition to having Fr. McGovern as my sophomore advisor, I was privileged to have him as a Latin Tutor. Michael Paietta and I had already had Latin previously, and Fr. McGovern offered an advanced Latin course just for the two of us. After two years he was struggling to find new material, having completed Virgil, Cicero, and Horace. He eventually found a Latin text of Alice in Wonderland for us to translate! It was a great act of generosity on his part, and I treasured getting to know him better in this time. As far as his sermons are concerned, we always looked forward to them. They were masterfully constructed with beautiful rhetoric and theologically profound points of reflection. God bless his soul!
Millie Winebrenner (’84)
At dinner with Pater Mac: “Millie, you see Christ in everything around you. Keep up the good work.” I didn’t see Christ in everything or everyone around me, of course. But because this great man believed it in me, I continue to try every day. Thanks, Pater!
Dr. Thomas Cavanaugh (’85)
In the summer of 1984, Dan Flynn (’85) and I drove across the country with Rev. Thomas Aquinas McGovern, S.J. After reading the Divine Office, he would quietly sing an old favorite of his, such as, “Take me out to the Ballpark.” He was cheerful and enjoyable company. He derived a lot of pleasure from simple things; his go-to breakfast in St. Joseph’s often involved half a grapefruit eaten meticulously with knife and spoon.
When Rev. Gerard Steckler, S.J., came to campus, he and Fr. McGovern shared what came to be called Loyola Hall. Fr. McGovern preferred to call it, “Tom and Jerry’s.” At one time, the house featured wallpaper depicting a small American city, circa 1950. There were mothers pushing baby carriages, fathers coming home from work, and a church steeple in the background. I recall Father wistfully noting that the wallpaper illustrated simpler times. He suggested, nonetheless, that those times could not have really been as the wallpaper depicted them. For our disordered age emerged from them.
As teaching was his principal apostolate, I want to recount at length a memory of Father as a tutor: The academic year was 1983-1984; Father led our Junior Theology seminar. Reading the Summa Theologiae, we came upon St. Thomas’s quinque viae, the insuperable five ways of manifesting God’s existence. Eventually, we encountered the third way, the Ur-proof of God, the “why does something exist rather than nothing at all?” question. As Thomas notes (or as Father would occasionally affectionately refer to him “ipso fatso”), some things are able to be and able not to be. Yet, not everything can be such. For, and here we come to the rub, were everything such at some time (in an infinite time), nothing would exist. As from nothing nothing comes, now nothing would exist. Obviously, things exist. Therefore, not everything is able not to exist. Therefore, God, the being not able not to exist, the necessary being par excellence, exists. Q.E.D. But, we objected: one things passes into another, the worm eats the apple, the bird eats the worm, the coyote eats the bird, and so on. Why can this not go on infinitely?
At this crucial juncture, Father faced the great temptation of every teacher: was he going to tell us or was he going to teach us? An abyss separates the two alternatives. For, on the one hand, were he to give in to the easy approach, we would have Father’s opinion, what he thought. This was, in fact, in part what we, as do many students, immaturely sought. On the other hand, were he to take the harder road, we might (but then again, might not, it is a dicey proposition and does not always end well) have the encounter with reality that Aquinas had, that Father had, that was there for us, but only if a teacher, a master, a magister would show it to us. This showing, however, as Father well knew, excludes telling.
The answer to the question before us, of course, was that everything literally means everything, including the stuff partially constituting the apple, worm, bird, and coyote — what we in Sophomore Philosophy (under the sure hand of Marcus Berquist, of happy memory) had become accustomed to refer to as “primary matter.” Jejunely, we wished that Father would just tell us.
He would not budge; he was adamantine. Leaning on his elbow and slightly clenching his fist, he put his thumb to his lips while intensely grimacing and emphatically saying, “Everything!” We continued to object. Calmly quoting St. Thomas, he repeated, “Everything!” We felt lost in unknown territory; our guide seemed mesmerized, repeating one word. Then slowly, little by little, we were led, educated, taught.
As gently as the rising sun disperses twilight, it dawned upon us as we came out of our cave, as Father helped us turn toward the light of the real, not the shadow of his opinion: if everything, including stuff, were able not to exist, then, yes, at some past time there would have been nothing. But, that cannot be; therefore … God exists.
We came away with two gifts. Needless to say, we discerned a sound reason for thinking God exists. Less obviously, we encountered, as one did without fail in Father’s classroom, a magister, a teacher, one who taught but did not tell. For he regarded his own opinion as dross before what he hoped to share with us, an apprehension of reality, the truth. As Aquinas says, “the purpose of the study of philosophy is not to learn what others have thought, but to learn how the truth of things stands.” How the truth of things stands: in Father’s class, one got that, or … nothing. For the truth of things was all that was on offer. Requiescat in pace.
Katherine Zehnder (’85)
I had Fr. McGovern for freshman philosophy (for which I am extremely grateful, as he really taught us how to read Aristotle; an invaluable basis for tackling St. Thomas), and he often used “cooked carrots” as an example of an intrinsic evil. Needless to say, when I was serving and he came through the food line, I made sure to offer him a generous scoop of cooked carrots when available. (I probably wasn’t the only one.) He always shuddered, grimaced, and declined.
He was a thorough, disciplined, and somewhat exacting (but kind) tutor. I’m sure many of my classmates remember his “What does Aristotle mean by ‘thisssss’ here?” as he intensely jabbed yet another “this” in his well-worn Aristotle. One thing he could not stand was intellectual dishonesty. Although a quiet man, he would call out and come down hard on any student who he thought was wasting his and the other students’ time or perverting reason with nonsense or intellectual games. He and Dr. McArthur epitomized TAC for me.
Patricia Barry (’88)
I was a freshman the year that Fr. McGovern died and never had him as a tutor except for one All College Seminar. I have this memory of a conversation at brunch on the Sunday before he died. I was at Fr. McGovern’s table with some other students. Luke Macik (’87) asked Father how his seminary education compared with the education at Thomas Aquinas College. Father promptly replied: “Far superior. Your education at Thomas Aquinas College is far superior.” He explained that he had not read original texts in his seminary. I think that the other students and I were surprised that he hadn’t read St. Thomas in the original text. He went on to encourage us to learn Latin so that we could read St. Thomas in Latin. “That way, there is nothing between you and St. Thomas.”
Soon after Father McGovern had died, I shared the memory of this brunch conversation with my roommate, Maureen (Cassidy ’88) Quackenbush. She said: “Golly. I wish I had a memory like that, but the last thing he said to me, with his Jersey accent, was ‘sausage, please!’” (Maureen’s student scholarship job was on the food-serving line.)
I also remember that I attended the Mass Fr. McGovern offered in the Hacienda chapel on the day that he died. I don’t remember if he always did so, but on that morning he prayed for all those who would die that day.
Edward L. Froelich (’88)
As a freshman “Down Below boy,” it was my responsibility, inter alia, to take care of the rose bed outside of the priests’ house. I took real pleasure in the pruning and watering of those plants. There was an old faucet standing about two feet high at the top of the bed (which was roughly elliptical in shape). I constructed little waterways which transported the gentle stream from that faucet to each of the rose bushes. When the afternoon sun shone down, it gave the impression of so many little islands surrounded by glittering watery snakes. The afternoon of Father’s death I was in the midst of this project. The roses were in a bloom and the bed mostly tended. He was on his way to play tennis. He remarked, as he passed by me, “The roses look nice, Ed.”
Though I didn’t know it at the time, those were the last words he spoke to me. I felt very happy and proud of my work. I will never forget them or his constant kindness.