The son of Upper East Tennessee is serving in the area he loves as pastor of St. Dominic in Kingsport
By Bill Brewer
Father Michael Cummins was socially distanced in 2020 in ways that had nothing to do with the coronavirus.
And while it was a year indelibly marked in most everyone’s memory, Father Cummins will remember it for a much more fulfilling reason: he celebrated his silver anniversary as a priest, and he marked the occasion with a three-month sabbatical as he communed with God inside seven U.S. national parks, an interest very close to his heart.
The sabbatical culminated with a retreat in Yellowstone National Park, where he could pursue another one of his interests: wolf conservation.
Father Cummins is a son of Upper East Tennessee. And although he has served in other parishes around the Diocese of Knoxville, he is right at home at St. Dominic in Kingsport, where he has been pastor since 2014.
As the Johnson City native completes his 25th year in the priesthood, he’s thankful for the years of service to the Church he has spent near where he grew up. And he’s also thankful for those parishes across the diocese that welcomed him into their communities and helped inform his priesthood.
“I am probably biased (because I grew up in Johnson City), but I believe the northeast corner of Tennessee to be a truly beautiful and faith-filled part of our diocese. Even though my parents are both deceased and my brothers have moved away, I truly feel at home here. I love the mountains, the rivers, lakes, and winding roads,” Father Cummins said. “Both of my parents were converts, and my father also grew up in Johnson City. My faith was formed at the old St. Mary Church and school, which sits on the hill in the downtown of the city. I remember the beautiful rich wood of the church ceiling beams and pews, and sliding down the handrail bannister on the hill in front of church after Mass, racing my brothers to the car. It is a blessing for me to now serve as a priest here.”
Father Cummins isn’t a stranger to the rest of the diocese. He has served as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Athens, chaplain at Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga Newman Center as well as chaplain at the East Tennessee State University Catholic Center in Johnson City, associate pastor of All Saints Parish in Knoxville and chaplain and religion teacher at Knoxville Catholic High School, chaplain to the diocesan deaf community, director of vocations for the diocese, diocesan coordinator of youth ministry, dean of the Five Rivers Deanery, and chair of the diocesan Presbyteral Council. He also is a member of the U.S. Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay Catholic association dedicated to social service.
As he reflects on his vocation since his ordination to the priesthood on June 3, 1995, at Sacred Heart Cathedral, Father Cummins believes he was blessed to have been joined with the Holy Spirit, not separated from Him.
“When I first allowed myself as a young man to honestly consider the thought of priesthood, it was like the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle that I had been searching for but wasn’t truly aware of. It fit, and today (25 years later) it fits even more. I am more in love with Christ today than I was 25 years ago, and I am more in love with the Church even though I am also more aware of her flaws,” he said. “Christ (the bridegroom) loves His bride (the Church), so I do not believe you can truly love Christ without loving the Church, flaws as well as breathtaking holiness. My love has deepened, and the Holy Spirit leads me in this. A prayer I keep returning to is ‘Lord, please don’t let me be separated from you.’ It is simple and it comes from my heart.”
Father Cummins has said the seeds of his vocation were planted at a young age by his parents, who each converted to Catholicism. Before converting, his father was Presbyterian and his mother was Baptist. He is grateful for their example because the seeds that were sown early waited until college to bear fruit. He drifted away from his faith in middle and high school but returned to it while attending East Tennessee State University, when he began attending the Catholic Center at ETSU. Father Mike Creson and Monsignor Bill Gahagan assisted him in his formation, Father Creson as chaplain of the ETSU Catholic Center and Monsignor Gahagan as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Johnson City.
As a youth, Father Cummins attended St. Mary School to the fifth grade. He then went to public school and graduated in 1986 from Science Hill High School in Johnson City. After attending ETSU, he received his theological education from Conception Seminary College in Conception, Mo., and Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill.
He points out that his education did not end there.
“My time at Conception Seminary College and Mundelein Seminary were wonderful days of growth in human formation, prayer, faith, and academic learning. I am truly grateful for all that I received from my seminary days, but in many ways it was just the beginning—an important beginning but a beginning nonetheless—in a continuing lifetime of learning and growth in faith. I hope that I am continuing to learn and to grow,” he said.
Just as Father Cummins had role models and mentors in his Christian formation, he now finds himself in that role as pastor of St. Dominic Parish and its St. Dominic School.
As leader of a dynamic parish with a vibrant church/school community, Father Cummins can feel at odds with himself given his own personality. He is drawn to the great outdoors, where he can commune on an intensely personal level with God amid nature’s breathtaking beauty. Yet he is inspired by people working together intensely for God through the Church.
“I sometimes think that I am a conflicted introvert. On the Myers-Brigg personality scale, I am almost off the chart in my introvert score, but I am also at the same time deeply drawn to community. I truly enjoy the community of a parish and witnessing how the Spirit is active in a community—and that can be a parish or another form of community, such as a university student center. God at work in the lives of people amazes me. Being at a parish with a school adds a whole new beautiful wrinkle to the process. Seeing young people grow into who they are meant to be by the aid of so many people with God working through them is a wonderful thing even as it does demand more work,” he said.
Father Cummins has been sharing his interest in the outdoors with parishioners in the diocese through a retreat he leads to Yellowstone National Park. He also has been a volunteer at Bays Mountain Park in Kingsport, which has a wolf habitat. And after a yearlong process involving 40 hours of instruction in ecology and the geography of Tennessee as well as 40 hours of service in Tennessee state parks, the 52-year-old priest has received his certificate as a Tennessee Volunteer Naturalist.
“I think it is important and healthy to have interests outside of priesthood and the parish. The retreat that I have now offered in Yellowstone National Park for the past three years is really a coming together of different things. The first is my interest in wolves. Wolves occupy a unique space in our human psyche. Their independence both attracts us but also frightens at the same time, and we have demonized them for this throughout history. When I arrived in Kingsport, I was able to begin volunteering at the Bays Mountain wolf habitat and learned a lot about this most unique of animals and gained a great respect for them. Eventually all roads of interest in wolves lead to Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were reintroduced 25 years ago,” Father Cummins said.
“So I went on a private vacation there one year and connected with a wildlife tour group. Now, with the reintroduction of the wolves and mountain lions making their own way back into the park because that is what mountain lions do, Yellowstone is the only intact ecosystem in the lower 48 states. This, along with the amazing thermal features, makes our nation’s first national park an amazing location to witness the wonder of God’s creation,” he added. “The second factor behind the retreat is Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato si: On Care for Our Common Home, which I continue to find to be both uplifting as well as challenging. The sentence that truly struck me was a quote from the bishops of Japan, ‘To sense each creature singing the hymn of its existence is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope.’ My interest in wolves, the wonder of Yellowstone National Park, and Laudato si all came together to form the idea of a retreat in Yellowstone, a place truly unique in its beauty combined with prayer, teaching, and sacrament to help people know God’s love and hope—an important antidote to the cynicism of our times. After this third year, I have decided (along with the tour group) to offer the retreat every other year. We will take a break in 2021 but hope to offer the next Yellowstone retreat in October of 2022.”
Father Cummins was planning to concelebrate Mass with Bishop Richard F. Stika to commemorate his anniversary, but COVID-19 interrupted that. The Tri-Cities priest now is content to wait until his 30th anniversary.
In the meantime, Father Cummins is grateful to Bishop Stika and the National Clergy Renewal Program for their support and for making the sabbatical possible.
Father Cummins also will be grateful when the only social distancing he does is self-imposed on a retreat in the great outdoors. He’s counting on much more inspiration from the parish and school communities that work so hard to be the feet and hands of Jesus.
“All of the friendships I have made through my priesthood ministry continue to be blessings to me. As priests, we don’t necessarily have family by biology as married couples have. But we are given family by grace, and this is truly a blessing,” he said.