SAINT GOVAN, ABBOT OF PEMBROKESHIRE
By Vladimir Moss
Our holy Father Govan (or Gowan or Gobhan or Gobban or Mogopoc) was born in Ireland in the Hy Cinnselach clan of County Wexford. His name means “smith” in Old Irish, and he is said to have been the brother of St. Setna. When he was young he entered the monastery of St. Ailbe, and served as a cook.
Once St. Ailbe wanted to have the correct order of the Divine Liturgy, so he sent his disciples Lugich and Cailcenn and Govan to Rome. As the three monks were setting off for Rome, they asked their spiritual father: “Promise us that we shall all return safe and sound to Ireland.” “I promise it,” answered St. Ailbe. However, on board the ship taking them to Rome, Govan fell violently sea-sick and lost consciousness - everyone thought he was about to die. But the saint recovered, and said to his fellow-travellers: “You have been guzzling on this voyage, and not fasting, as was seemly, and that upset me.”
On returning from Rome, and after the death of St. Ailbe (which took place at some time between 527 and 531), St. Govan may have become a disciple of St. Senan at the monastery of Inniscathy. Later, he joined the monastery of Dairinis in his native County Wexford, and became abbot there.
At some time St. Govan moved from Ireland to Pembrokeshire in Wales, possibly because St. Ailbe, his spiritual father, had come from Solva in Pembrokeshire. There, near the present-day village of Bosherston, he lived in a little cell on the seashore at the foot of a 160-foot cliff. A very early chapel built on the site after his death can still be seen today. In typical early Celtic fashion there is a hole in the roof through which the sky is visible. Just below the chapel is a holy well (now dry), whose water used to work many miracles, and another holy well inside the chapel which still contains water.
There is a story that a silver bell hung above the chapel. This was stolen by pirates, but a storm arose and the boat was wrecked, but the bell was taken by angels to the side of the holy well below the chapel and placed inside the rock. When the saint used to tap the rock, it would give a note a thousand times stronger than that of the original bell.
Once some pirates from Lundy island tried to capture the saint. A cleft of the rock opened to receive him and then closed over him; but when the pirates had gone, it opened again. The fissure can be entered today from beside the altar in his chapel.
St. Govan spent the rest of his life in prayer and fasting in his cell among the rocks, and died in the year 586. His feastday is March 26. His relics are said to rest under the altar in his chapel.
(Sources: S. Baring-Gould and J. Fisher, The Lives of the British Saints, 1907-1913, vol. 3, pp. 143-145; St. Govan’s Chapel: A Brief Guide for Visitors, Monkton Rectorial Benefice; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978, p. 177).
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