Sister Mary Patricia Cummings (formerly Sister Marie Janice)
Having spent a happy, eventful life serving her Provident God, Sister Mary Pat Cummings could certainly claim with Paul that she has fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. In a way, being a fighter, a racer, and a faithful friend echoes the way she liked to describe herself: “I am opinionated and outspoken, but I am very loving,” said Sister Janet Gilligan in her commentary for Sister Mary Patricia Cummings, formerly Sister Marie Janice, who passed away on Monday, April 12, 2021, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. She was 96 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 79 years.
Sister Janet continued: Her friends and family agree, but her opinions were deep held convictions about nuclear disarmament, racial justice, hunger, poverty, the role of women in the Church and ecumenism. After all, she once participated in a demonstration against nuclear weapons in Las Vegas. She was indeed known for telling it like it is, and speaking directly and honestly, but she was also a good listener. Her good friend Nancy Kremer writes: “Sister Mary Pat was like a big sister, or dear aunt, or your best friend … you could tell her anything – anything – and she would be herself non-judgmental, compassionate, objective and respectful of your feelings.” And it is clear that the ruling force in her life was love. Her niece Leslie writes: “My aunt loved her life, her calling to God, education, teaching and her sisters. Oh, and she dearly loved her family.”
Her niece Margaret writes: “I always thought my family lucky and special to include Sister Mary Pat, my mother’s sister. But as I look at her life, I realize that she operated in many circles of families, and each one felt lucky and special to have her. There was her birth family, proud to be the parents and siblings of two nuns – Sisters Mary Pat and Mary Julia. There was her extended family, the nieces, like me, cousins and nephews she spent time with. There was her church family, the parishes and schools she ran. And then there was her Sisters of Providence family, a group of women who supported each other, all the way from the Juniorate in 1939 to retirement at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. That was her truly unique and special family, the one that made it possible for her to get an education, travel internationally, meet the Pope, and make an enormous mark on the world with her service.”
Mary Patricia Cummings was born March 10, 1925, in New Albany, Indiana, into the loving and deeply religious family of William Cummings and Julia Ricke Cummings. She was the fifth child in a family of eight: Norma, Thomas, Wilma (Julia), William, Esther, Joseph, and Janice. The eight Cummings children took care of each other. Her brother Bill, older by one year, had charge of Mary Pat, or so he thought, but he claimed “she was always so bossy.” Her sister Wilma Jane, later Sister of Providence Sister Mary Julia, was the third child, and their mother appointed Wilma head of the second section of the eight children. Sister Mary Pat recalled, “We followed her like little chicks and thought she was the most wonderful person we knew.” When Wilma left for boarding school at Providence Juniorate, her mother said, “I have lost my right arm.”
Mary Pat attended Holy Trinity Elementary School in New Albany, Indiana, and followed her sister Wilma to Providence Juniorate at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, graduating in 1942. She entered the community that same year. She received the religious name Sister Marie Janice, took her first vows in 1944 and final vows in 1949. Mary Pat was not allowed to have her photograph taken with the family. Her brother was about to leave for the war in the South Pacific and her mother feared this would be the last time they would all be together. Sister Mary Julia solved the problem by deciding she and Mary Pat would run in fast for the photo and run out just as fast. When the time came, Mary Pat reports, “She turned to me in her assertive, big-sister manner and said ‘Get in!’” The famous photograph remains a family treasure.
In those days, sisters had to attend college in the summers, so, while teaching full-time during the school year, she doggedly pursued her education at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College each summer, receiving her bachelor of arts in education in 1961. In 1965, she earned a master of science in education at Indiana State University and in 1983, a master of arts in religious studies at Catherine Spalding University, all while working full-time as a teacher or a principal or a parish minister.
Her first assignment in 1944 at St. Sylvester in Chicago was challenging; managing to keep a large class of students in order and teach them was no easy trick. “In those days,” she said, “classes were 50 to 55 students. If you ever taught a mere 45, the sisters wondered what you did with all your free time.” There followed 33 years of teaching and administration in Indiana, Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Chicago. Then, in 1977, she turned to pastoral ministry at Saint Augustine in Jeffersonville, Indiana. While there, she earned two Clinical Care Units and also organized an interdenominational Bible School, worked with Senior Citizen groups, and established a quilt making group. As Director of Religious Education, she began the certification of all CCD teachers, the RCIA program, and a children’s choir. In her free time, she developed a unique Parenting Baptism Preparation Program.
In 1987, after eight years at Saint Augustine’s, she went on to serve as pastoral associate at Immaculate Conception Parish in Chicago, a position she maintained for 15 years. A catalog of the representatives of her ministries who processed up the aisle when the parish said farewell to Mary Pat reveals the energy and impact she had on this parish: Scripture Study, Rite of Christian Initiation, Baptismal Preparation, Communion to the Sick, the Hunger Walk, Lay Ministers, Marriage Preparation, Choir, Peace and Justice Committee, Art and Environment Committee, Ecumenical Association, United Power for Action and Justice, Pilgrimages, and Liturgical Dance.
Sister Judy Cervizzi, who lived with Mary Pat, reports that Mary Pat loved to take long walks (once at midnight in a snowstorm), to try exotic foods, to propose new ideas and new programs. Judy recalls that “Every once in a while, her idea would die in the water and she would say to me, ‘Kid, you win some and you lose some! But this won’t stop me from trying another new idea,’ and it never did!”
The Cummings sisters loved operas and musicals and volunteering as ushers so that they could attend performances. Mary Pat, who never had formal training, could play the piano by ear. Their niece fondly remembers how on summer visits, her aunt would spend quality time patiently, if not successfully, trying to teach her how to play the piano. They also became accomplished hikers, trained by Sister Betty Koressel and her sister to prepare for day and overnight hiking trips in the Smokey Mountains, with good hiking boots, comfortable and sturdy socks. Her niece Leslie recalls: “She loved to be active and when they no longer wore full habits, it allowed her the freedom to hike and trek in the summers. I was in Las Vegas and have so many fond memories of Red Rock Canyon, Mount Charleston and the Valley of Fire.” Sister Mary Pat and her Sister Mary Julia remained close to their large and scattered family all of their lives, visiting from Oregon to Florida and all stops in between, and after Mary Julia’s death, her many nieces and nephews remember Sister Mary Pat as the glue that held the family together.
In 2001, Mary Pat retired to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, working in residential service until 2008. When Mary Julia died in 2009, Mary Pat said, “She was the perfect big sister. She was always there for me, as she was for anyone else who needed her. What more could a little sister wish for?” She was comforted by the thought that someday, they would “meet again in the paradise of joy and love and praise.”
In her later years, Sister Mary Pat suffered from dementia, but apparently, she remained opinionated, outspoken and loving. The nurses who cared for her loved her and enjoyed her. When she was in the hospital shortly before her death, one of her nurses sadly said: “I’d give anything for one more squabble with her.”
Her family was able to visit with her shortly before her death. Her niece Leslie writes, “I am so happy I was able to be with her, hold her hand, give her water and tell her what we did that day and how much I loved her. As I sat with her those last few days, as she slowly drifted away from this world, she would look into the distance and smile. She wasn’t looking at us in the room with her nor the birds outside. I just know she was being welcomed by her parents, brothers and sisters and they were taking her hand saying ‘It is time to go, Mary Pat.”’
Sister Mary Pat Cummings will be greatly missed, for she was greatly loved, but her family, her friends and her sisters will remember how much she loved us, and we give thanks for a life well lived and eternal rest well earned.
Funeral services for Sister Mary Patricia took place on Thursday, April 22, 2021, at the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
A Virtual Wake took place at 10:30 a.m., followed by Mass of Christian Burial at 11 a.m.
Memorial contributions may be made in honor of Sister Mary Patricia to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Mary Patricia in the comment section below.
In Illinois: Teacher, St. Sylvester, Chicago (1944-48); Teacher, St Genevieve, Chicago (1959-61); Parish Ministry/Director of Adult Education/Director of RCIA, Immaculate Conception Parish, Chicago (1985-2000).
In Indiana: Teacher, St Jude, Fort Wayne (1948-49); Teacher, St. John the Baptist, Whiting (1949-53); Teacher, St Thomas Aquinas, Indianapolis (1953-56); Teacher/Principal, St. John, Vincennes (1961-67); Teacher, Holy Family, New Albany (1967-69); Teacher/Principal, Precious Blood, Jasper (1969-70); Teacher, St. Charles, Bloomington (1970-71); Teacher, Our Lady of Providence High School, Clarksville (1971-76); Pastoral Associate, St. Augustine Parish, New Albany (1976-85); Residential Services, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2001-08); Prayer, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2008-2021).
In Washington, D.C.: Teacher, Immaculata (1956-57).
In Maryland: Teacher, Ascension, Halethorpe (1957-59).
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