CONNECTING PAST AND FUTURE:
Cultivating Community, Standing for Social Justice, Honoring Native Homeland
When we gather in our church building dating back to 1838 we honor the rich history of where we are. We remember that this is Native homeland. We start by remembering the Norwottuck people. The Westfield River nearby was the Woronoco River meaning the place where the water winds around the land. The Woronoco and Norwottuck people were part of 11 villages in the large Pocumtuck Confederation stretching from what is now called Northfield to Westfield in Western Massachusetts. Also, we actively connect to Native people today through Nolumbeka, the Nipmuk nation, and other local Native organizations. We are consciously informed by Native values of respecting life and sharing in a common pot.
When we gather, we think back to the late 1700s when Cummington was parceled, colonized, and established as a town in 1779. It reached a population of 851 by 1783, and due to numerous mills, it was both an agricultural as well as industrial town. Cummington reached a peak population of 1261 in 1830.
The Village Church, built in 1838 as a congregational church, was one of a number local congregations in Cummington. In the early years of Cummington, the original congregation and town were governed by a common town meeting. Later, the church continued to help knit together the various strands of the local community as well as remain responsive to the times.
The original church building was dedicated on September 11, 1839. The vestry was added in 1896 and 1897. The 1871 pipe organ was purchased and moved to the church by wagon in 1903, and the clock was installed as a public clock in 1904.
People we remember in history
- We start by thinking back to tribal leadership going back over 10,000 years. We look through history records for recorded names. Mashalisk (1600’s) was a saunskwa in the traditional leadership structure where women were the diplomats. Chief Wawanotewat (1670–ca. 1750), who is known as Gray Lock, was a later Pocumtuck leader.
- We jump ahead to anti-slavery involvement. In the 1840s some abolitionist church members were part of the underground railroad and were active in other ways. Lucy Stone spoke here in 1848 at the Cummington’s antislavery 4th of July celebration.
- According to Stephanie Pasternak in the MASS Humanities Anti-Slavery archive: “The antislavery movement in Cummington was a significant chapter in the town’s history. In the three decades before the Civil War, hundreds of residents demonstrated support for the cause in many ways such as: affixing their names to antislavery petitions, crafting antislavery resolutions in their churches and town meetings, holding antislavery parades, creating an antislavery church.
- Pasternak: From 1854 to 1862 Cummington hosted annual antislavery conventions held at the Village Church featuring such speakers as William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth. Beginning in the 1840s, some individuals, like Rev. James D. Chapman whose church in Wolcott, CT was burned down for his antislavery views, even moved to Cummington because it was known to be abolitionist-friendly. Yet Cummington was not without its conflict around the issues of abolition. For example, in 1854 the Village Church excommunicated seven members for their particular antislavery activism.
- The church was the site of important woman’s suffrage work in the 1880s, and some church members were active in the women’s suffrage movement. We celebrate still that on August 23, 1881 church members Henrietta Nahmer and her younger sister Fanny Rogers organized a suffrage convention and arranged for three celebrated speakers, Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone, and her husband Henry Blackwell. Four hundred people attended.
- In the 1940s Rev. Carl Sangree, who had been a conscientious objector during World War I, arranged, with the support of three other local churches, for over 40 German and Austrian Jewish refugees to be housed on Main Street in Cummington for the duration of World War II. This episode was featured in a U.S. government film, The Cummington Story (click to watch).
How We Continue Our History Today
RACIAL JUSTICE: Rev. Sarah Pirtle initiated a collaborative group focused on racial justice. Joining with the West Cummington, Ashfield and Plainfield congregational churches, it is called “Moving Forward for Racial Justice.” We have events throughout the year. In 2022 we sponsored a zoom in conjunction with the Bridge4Unity dialogue group and people in Letcher County, eastern Kentucky.
COLLABORATION: The West Cummington Congregational church was built just a year after the Village Church, and we shared a minister for many years. Every August the two congregations celebrate at Potash Hill in a joint service called “Service on the Hill” and remember where we began together in the 1800’s.