The Rev. C. Irving Cummings

The Rev. C. Irving Cummings

Passed on Friday, 02 October 2020
The Rev. Charles Irving Cummings died on October 2, 2020 at Ticonderoga NY following a long illness.

Irv Cummings was born on May 31, 1951 in Ticonderoga, New York, he was the son of the late Charles Robert and Elizabeth (Wathsock) Cummings. From his earliest days, he never doubted that he was a beloved child of God. To Irv, this love was real and made incarnate in his maternal grandfather, Irving Wathsock. Irv often spoke of his grandfather’s kindness, acceptance, and encouragement. Sadly, Irv lost his Grandpa Wathsock when he was only six years old. It wasn’t until his coming out as a Gay man in his early 20s, that Irv once again began to feel accepted for who he was.

Irv’s godson, Michael Fonteboa of New York City, believes that Irv’s passion for justice was the natural outcome of his personal experience. Growing up in a small farming community, Irv was an active member of the youth group at the Putnam United Presbyterian Church. His closest friends were Sharon Moore (McIntyre) and Irene Kiggins (Treadway), daughters of neighboring farming families. In addition, the Dignam sisters, Tricia and the late Jeanne, whose family maintains a summer home on Lake Champlain adjacent to Irv’s home at Glendale Farms, were lifelong friends. Outside of that small circle, Irv told Michael that he never felt he truly belonged. A difficult relationship with his father exacerbated the painful reality of being a young, closeted male at a time and in a place where coming out would have been unthinkable. He devoted the rest of his life to being a friend and mentor to young men as they were coming out. Michael was one of those young men, and they remained close until the end of Irv’s life.

Irv’s commitment to justice was deeply rooted in the Prophetic tradition of the Bible. He identified with Amos, the 5th century BCE shepherd and tree farmer who left behind everything he knew to go and speak God’s Word in a world that, for a select few, had grown too comfortable. Then, as now, many turned a deaf ear. With Amos as his guide, Irv worked tirelessly to overturn injustice during a time of relative peace and unprecedented prosperity in the United States. His life and ministry, and especially the sermons he preached from the pulpit of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church, welcomed the stranger, offered friendship and hospitality to the friendless, and railed against the oppressive structures of society that benefitted some to the detriment of most.

Following graduation in 1974 from Syracuse University with a Bachelor’s degree (cum laude) in social work and counseling, Irv began his career at Liberty House in Glens Falls, NY. While there, Irv saw how clients with disabling medical conditions could benefit from a model of rehabilitation with limited ongoing professional intervention. That experience confirmed Irv’s commitment to the power of friendship and compassion. Irv knew that healing is not the same as being cured, but that even the most broken among us is never separated from God’s love. Christians, as Irv constantly reminded us all, have been given a very clear Commandment: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” [John 15:12]
It was also through his experience at Liberty House that Irv realized he was being called by God to formal ministry. He received his Master’s degree in Divinity from Harvard Divinity School in 1981 and became an Ordained Minister in the United Church of Christ the following year. Just a few years out of university himself, Irv entered the Chaplaincy at the University of Vermont, where he thoroughly enjoyed his work with the students. Had it not been for devastating news that his mother, Elizabeth (Betty) Cummings (Wathsock) had been diagnosed with cancer, Irv might have continued in this role. However, Irv knew that mother needed him close, and he committed to being there for her.

Coming home to help care for his mother, Irv was blessed to be called to the pulpit of the Salisbury Congregational Church in Vermont. His fond recollections of that time were underscored by the love and support he received from the congregation during his mother’s illness and passing.  After his mother died, Irv once again felt God’s call. The Holy Spirit was leading him to the pulpit of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church. As the pastor of an influential church buttressing the south wall of Harvard Yard, Irv was on fire to preach the Word of God in word and in deed. He served as President of the United Ministry at Harvard University. In that capacity, Irv and his ministry colleagues not only spoke truth to power, but stood against the systems of entitlement. He was active in the Jubilee 2000 movement, an international effort to reduce the burden of debt on developing countries, and worked tirelessly on behalf of refugees, immigrants, and the disenfranchised. In September 2000, Irv helped to organize a silent vigil on Harvard Square for two members of the campus community who were victims of hate-fuelled violence. At that time Irv told a reporter from The Harvard Crimson that the vigil was also protesting a general "climate that encourages violence.” As he told the crowd, “We need to make a statement that we stand for peace on our streets.” Two decades before #BLACKLIVESMATTER, Irv prophesied to incite a culture of awareness, compassion, and justice. 

From 1990 until 2011 he served as Pastor of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In retirement, he returned to his family farm in Putnam Station, New York. Irv was 69 years old.  For respite from the demands placed on him as Pastor of a large, highly educated and active congregation, Irv spent as much time as he could manage at his farm in upstate New York. Despite his feelings of “otherness” from earliest childhood, Irv was proud son of Putnam. This was never more evident than when Irv composed a stirring anthem, “Oh People of Putnam” for the community’s bicentennial in 2006. Set to the tune of Harvard’s alma mater, Irv’s lyrics honored the “people of Putnam, both those here today, and all those who have lived here before.” He encouraged, “let us join now our voices an anthem to raise, to these dear lands along [Lake] Champlain’s shore.”

Irv’s commitment to his local community spurred his involvement in other causes. He joined fellow local residents whom, from time immemorial, have enjoyed swimming from the beach at Glenburnie on Lake George. Glenburnie landholders argued that the Putnamites were trespassing on private property. The persistence of local residents paid off eventually. Property owners and residents were able to come to an agreement and the people of Putnam are once again able to enjoy the healing waters of the Queen of American Lakes.

Locally, his greatest achievement was the establishment of The Founder’s Fund to benefit students from the Putnam Central School upon their graduation from Ticonderoga High School. In loving tribute to his mother, who had worked at the school until she became ill, Irv’s dream was to create a graduation prize that would benefit Putnam residents specifically. He recalled his disappointment in learning that, despite his high marks, he was ineligible for any number of graduate awards and prizes because he was from Putnam. He decided to change that. Irv recruited an advisory Board of local residents, and through his extensive network of friends in Cambridge and elsewhere, raised an astonishing $500,000 in just under two years. Since inception, the Putnam Founder’s Fund has awarded 230 scholarships worth more than $215,000.

Despite Irv’s penchant for hard work, he was a man who loved to laugh and knew how to have fun. One year, following the annual blessing of the animals at Old Cambridge Baptist, Irv had the chance to demonstrate his dairyman’s skills. In full liturgical garb, Irv showed those city folk how to milk a cow! Meanwhile, the cow’s owner, a local farmer, watched on in bemusement.

Cambridge friends will recall his memorable celebrations of the Twelfth Night and the birthday of Robert Burns with their elaborate, holiday-themed menus and abundant libations. On patriotic holidays, the front porch of Irv’s summer home at Glendale Farms was always festooned with red, white and blue bunting. High tea was served promptly at 4:00. Picnic suppers in the midst of his beautifully tended gardens, followed by bonfires and stargazing through his telescope, happened at the drop of the hat. His annual Halloween parties are the stuff of legend.

Irv’s hospitality was genuine and reflected the Highland traditions of his forbears. He served as the Northeast Commissioner of the Clan Cumming Society and represented the Clan at numerous regional gatherings. Sometimes his sister, Judy, and her children joined him at these events. He also travelled to Scotland where he toured the Highlands and enjoyed the hospitality of the late Sir William Gordon Cumming, 6th Baronet and Chief of Clan Cumming. It was during this trip that Irv made Michael Fonteboa his godson.

In retirement, Irv found his spiritual home at St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Middlebury, VT.  St. Stephen’s commitment to social justice in the name of Christ resonated strongly with Irv, and he devoted countless volunteer hours to the parish. He was invited to preach on numerous occasions, and during the hectic days leading up to Christmas, Irv organized “Blue Christmas” services of worship for people who would be alone over the holidays. Because he knew how painful it was to be “different,” Irv had great compassion for those mourning the loss of a loved one or otherwise alone, especially at a time of year when the rest of the world seemed giddy with commercially-fueled celebrations. Irv lent his beautiful tenor voice to St. Stephen’s choir, and he served on the parish Stewardship Committee. He delighted in helping to organize the annual Peasant Market, St. Stephen’s major outreach project to the citizens of Middlebury and Addison County, Vermont.

After retiring to his farm, Irv was asked often to preach at area churches, including the Putnam United Presbyterian, his childhood Church home. For the last few years, he regularly travelled over an hour by car to lead Sunday worship at the United Church of Christ in Benson, VT. His sermons were also well received by the members of the Federated Church in Westport, NY, where he was asked to fill in a few times each summer.

No account of Irv’s life would be complete without mention of the feline companions who have given him so much joy over the years. His friend and former tenant, Susan McCulloch, recalls looking after Charlie, one of Irv’s favorite cats, during Irv’s Scottish sojourn. A few years earlier, Charlie had been diagnosed with kidney failure. Left untreated, it would kill him. Irv asked his veterinarian about the available options and was told that there were two: a kidney transplant, or regular infusions of Ringer’s lactate solution. “Irv said that when the doctor told him what a kidney transplant would cost, he decided to give the Ringer’s a try. Eight years later, he figured he had well exceeded the cost of the transplant in order to keep Charlie alive and happy. He never felt a moment of regret.”

Irv was a proud descendent of the Scots who settled the lower Champlain Valley following the American Revolution. Even in his declining years Irv drew strength from his love of the land. In his farewell from the pulpit of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church on May 15, 2011, Irv recalled:  "Rightly or wrongly, I’ve tried always to follow the model of the Prophet Amos, who, himself, was a farmer."  Groomed in the traditions of prophecy, presumably at the knee of his rabbi in the country, or among the country people he had known most of his life, Amos journeyed to the city and preached so impressively that he wound up in the Bible. He spoke truth to power all over the place. And he eventually had an encounter with the king who told him, not that his prophecies of the destruction of the city and its economic system were untrue. The king knew better than that. But, he told Amos that ‘the people could not bear’ his demands. But, always remember, the demands of that prophecy were not those of Amos—they were God’s demands. Amos was only the messenger. So, having preached the Word of God that was in his heart to the people of the city, Amos returned to the country, and, so far as we know, that’s where he ended his days.

For Irv, Putnam was home and it is to Putnam’s soil that his ashes will be returned. He will be greatly missed by his sister Judy Forgette (Allan); his niece Nina (Michael Corcoran), and nephews Nahum (Tasha Lopez-Pitts) and Keegan (Melissa). He is also survived by his great nephew, Ezekiel Forgette and great nieces, Willow Corcoran and Kairenna Grace Forgette. Irv’s many friends, especially Michael Fonteboa, Susan McCulloch, and Nathan Siktberg, will always remember Irv with great love and affection.

Relatives and friends may call Saturday, October 17, 2020 from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Wilcox & Regan Funeral Home, 11 Algonkin St., Ticonderoga, NY. Masks and Social Distancing are required.  A Memorial Service will take place at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests those wishing to do so make a donation in Irv’s name to the Putnam Founders’ Fund, P.O Box 39, Putnam Station, NY, 12861; St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 3 Main St, Middlebury, VT 05753; or to a local animal rescue organization.

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