It’s not easy to talk about the Department of Religion without simultaneously thinking of Maureen Rovegno, affectionately referred to as “MoRo.” One farewell party on her last day before retirement wasn’t enough — Rovegno got two.
“My years of involvement here at Chautauqua have been and continue to be a labor of love,” she said.
Last Friday, the Institution and its community came together for a celebration of the former director of religion’s dedication, joy and liveliness in the Hall of Philosophy. Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill, Senior Pastor, the Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton, Vice President for Religion Melissa Spas and Rovegno all spoke.
“Maureen said to me several times, ‘I don’t like to be the center of attention. I don’t know what all the fuss is about,’ ” Spas said. “Any opportunity to celebrate Maureen is an opportunity that I’m going to take.”
Rovegno retired in February after 18 years as an Institution employee, but this only scratches the surface of her contributions. Before employment, she was a Chautauqua Fund volunteer and member of the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees.
In 2004, Rovegno left her position as a trustee — while simultaneously entering her final year in the Interfaith and Interdenominational Chaplaincy Program.
“The best part about being a trustee is being granted permission, being trusted, to work actively in a sanctioned capacity for the good of Chautauqua,” Rovegno told the Daily in 2004.
In 1995 Rovegno was named the first female chair of the Chautauqua Fund for the following year.
“People at Chautauqua want to get involved; they want to give,” she told the Daily that year. “They want to feel a part of this place, and the best way to feel a part of something is to give of yourself. To really feel connected to a community, you have to roll up your sleeves and work on something.”
Since then, Rovegno and her family have had a lasting impact on those around them — whether they meant to or not.
“Her son first brought me here when I was 20 years old,” Hill said. “When I was a staff member at the Daily, it was Maureen and Jim Rovegno who supplemented the meals I could afford on a Daily salary.”
Years later, it was Rovegno who Hill confided in while he was a candidate for Chautauqua Institution presidency eight years ago. Just as morning prayers revolve around the light of a candle, she was Hill’s candle, he said.
“I count myself blessed to have been on (her) candle at some of the most important times in my life,” Hill said. “I’m so deeply grateful that Mo has made space for my husband Peter and our extended family on that same candle.”
Hill said he can see that Rovegno has a “special connection to the universe” or a higher power, but he didn’t realize how intertwined she was with the word and heart of Chautauqua until he joined the staff at the Colonnade.
While she wore many professional hats, Hill said she could be seen in the off-season in many roles: student, planner, reader, community organizer, resident healer and institutional historian.
“There was seldom a time when I would come to the office on a weekend (and) wouldn’t find Maureen already there,” Hill said. “And when I left, she still was there.”
Rovegno’s love for Chautauqua is further exemplified in curating the Department of Religion program, which she sustained and supported through the tenure of four different department leaders.
“I recently checked in with Mo on how her first year of retirement was going,” Hill said. “I wasn’t surprised to hear that she missed the rhythm that is the chaos of the staff members.”
Even just as a Chautauquan — not a trustee or employee — Rovegno has always had Chautauqua on the candle,” Hill said, and no designation of retirement can take that away.
“She was and forever will be — for so many of us — the person that lights the way to what is best about this sacred place,” Hill said.
Sutton said he and a friend have come to Chautauqua, in some capacity, for the last 22 years, and “can’t tell you” the number of times Rovegno welcomes them in a special way.
“If hospitality is spirituality and action,” Sutton said, “Maureen is the fullness of the spirit in her life and work at Chautauqua Institution.”
Rovegno welcomed everyone “humbly in the spiritual presence.” In the community’s life — most of which is outside the public’s eye — Sutton said she did the little things without calling attention to herself.
Whether it was sending notes, a chat, smile or prayer, she helped ensure Chautauqua was the kind of place speakers, worship leaders and their families would want to return.
“Although Maureen’s life and active role in the staff has come to a blessed and well-earned end,” Sutton said, “her life’s journey as the one who lives and breathes the hospitality of the Holy One continues both here at Chautauqua and beyond.”
The day she retired, Feb. 14, 2023, was also Rovegno’s 18-year anniversary of employment. She said she “has been blessed.”
“I love the symbolism of completing this part of my tenure on Valentine’s Day,” Rovegno said. “I consider all of it as a blessing and a labor of love.”
She said she considered the “outpouring of love and appreciation” she’s received, and came to the conclusion, “all of you know how much I love Chautauqua.”
Rovegno said she is “grateful beyond words,” for all of the love and friendships she has encountered.
“What people recognize and celebrate in me is our mutual love for Chautauqua,” she said in an interview with this reporter. “Our encounters are always a love fest — may it always be so.”
Rovegno first stepped onto the grounds in August 1970 with her husband, Jim, and her daughter Nikki — because she was pregnant with her at the time.
After purchasing a condo in The Arcade in 1981, Rovegno said it was “obviously divine providence” to cause them to move to their home on Peck, next door to the Hall of Missions, which had become her second home ever since.
“There is nothing like (Chautauqua) in the entire world,” Rovegno said. “There is no place that has anything like its history. And its history, I love to say, you get to explore with religion.”
Chautauqua’s founders were ahead of their time, Rovegno said, when they understood religion “could not be caught.” She now sees it backwards; religion is not so much taught, as it is caught.
When reflecting on what she wanted to say as a goodbye, she simply wanted to say: “Go for it.”
“Keep loving Chautauqua and keep loving the visible and active presence of the original as it keeps evolving to our needs and growing understandings and wisdom about life and its purpose,” Rovegno said.
So many people have professed to “not be religious in any sense of the concept,” she said. But seeing the denominational houses and “multiplicity of religious expressions” in Chautauqua and the Department of Religion, signify to them that Chautauqua is a living community and not “just a destination.”
“Let’s all keep celebrating and loving and treasuring the gift that has been given to each one of us,” Rovegno said. “I love my time serving Chautauqua, I love all of you dearly and I love Chautauqua. May all that is mighty and holy continue to bless Chautauqua and all of us always. Amen.”