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Remembering a hero: Victoria Cross recipient recognized at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery

Waterdown Legion played a key role in unveiling of new plaque dedicated to John McGovern

More than 50 people gathered at the Holy Sepulchre Catholic Cemetery Monday morning (June 10) to honour Private John McGovern, a soldier who earned the Victoria Cross in 1857.

Veterans, politicians and descendants of McGovern celebrated the addition of a new plaque beside his headstone, which is nearly 140 years old. Former Hamilton mayor Bob Bratina emceed the event.

McGovern was born in Ireland in 1825, and served in both the Burmese War and the Indian Mutiny as part of the British army. He served with the 1st Bengal Fusiliers during the Mutiny and earned the Victoria Cross after carrying a wounded soldier to the safety of his camp despite being under heavy fire. He was wounded in the arm during the rescue, which stuck with him for the remainder of his life.

McGovern was one of the first people to earn a Victoria Cross, which was created in 1856 and is the highest decoration of the British honours system. It requires an act of extreme bravery in the face of enemy combatants, and is one of the most prestigious awards a soldier can earn.

The soldier’s grave was found by Aidan Finn, founder of the Burlington Post, who had been researching another soldier buried at Holy Sepulchre for a book he was working on. When he found McGovern’s headstone, he contacted the Waterdown Legion to recognize the forgotten soldier.

John McGovern's headstone is nearly 140 years old. Calum O'Malley

It took Finn several years to find any of McGovern’s descendants, and eventually he was contacted by one of his great-granddaughters who lived in Chicago. Almost 40 members of McGovern’s family managed to attend the ceremony.

“We are here today, with our children and grandchildren, our nieces and nephews and their children,” Trish McTavish, great-granddaughter of McGovern, said. “We represent descendants all over the world, and those who are no longer with us but we know are here with us in spirit today. We are so proud to honour John McGovern, Victoria Cross and war hero. We are proud of John McGovern, the legend, and we are proud of John McGovern, who made the brave decision to start a new life in the new world and give his descendants a better life.”

McGovern emigrated to Canada after the Indian Mutiny and started a family in Hamilton. He passed away in 1888 at the age of 63.

Finn spoke at the event, thanking the veterans who had attended and welcoming the descendants of McGovern to his gravesite.

“John, this is your day,” he said during the ceremony. “Your extended family are sitting in the exact place that your wife and children stood over 145 years ago, just to say goodbye.”

A colour party carrying Irish, Canadian, Ontario and British flags was present to give the soldier a proper sendoff, and a piper played both Amazing Grace and The Last Post at the end of the ceremony.

Everyone in attendance was invited to the Waterdown Legion branch after the ceremony for food and drinks.

“Today would not have happened without the Waterdown Legion’s total dedication to the event,” Finn said. “We wouldn’t be here today, honouring a Victoria Cross soldier. Not only that, but around 35 relatives are reunited, I think for the first time. It's been an absolute privilege  to have worked with so many great and dedicated volunteers and family members.”

More than 1,300 Victoria Crosses have been handed out in its history, 99 of which have been earned by Canadians or people with a close tie to Canada.

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