Ruth Elma Cummings, founder of the city’s Victory Prayer Chapel and mother of U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, died Monday from complications of a stroke at her Edmondson Village home. She was 91.
“My mother was one of the smartest, most thoughtful and loving people I have ever known,” the congressman said in a statement. “She created a home for me, my dad and my six siblings where God was at the center and love overflowed.”
Katherine Sykes has been pastor of Victory Prayer Chapel for 43 years, and a friend of Mrs. Cummings’ since she was a teenager.
“She was a loving, kind and caring individual who listened to everyone’s problems,” said Pastor Sykes, who lives in Northwest Baltimore. “She was a mother to all across the city, and they claimed her as their mother because she always gave wise counsel.
“She was a blessing to our church and to all throughout the city,” she said.
Born Ruth Elma Cochran in Manning, S.C., Mrs. Cummings was one of 17 children of the late Willie Cochran and Gussie Johnson Cochran. She attended public schools in Clarendon County, S.C., and withdrew when she was a teenager to go to work, her son said.
“Both of my parents emphasized education because they had been deprived of one. My dad was pulled out of school at an early age to plow the fields and pick strawberries,” the congressman said.
Mrs. Cummings would often recount a story about how at an early age she realized God had a calling for her; she would pray and preach to the cows while working in the fields.
In her mid- to late teens she met Robert Cummings, and they married in 1945.
Soon after the birth of their first child, Robert Jr., the couple moved to Baltimore in the late 1940s, and later added six more children to the family — Cheretheria “Retha,” Elijah, James, Diane, Carnel and Yvonne.
“A lot of blacks were moving to the North in those years and we settled in a very small house in South Baltimore where Ravens Stadium is today,” said Congressman Cummings. “For the first time, they had indoor plumbing, but it was years before we had a TV.”
While her husband worked as a laborer for Davidson Chemical Co. in Curtis Bay, which later became W.R. Grace & Co., for 42 years, Mrs. Cummings worked as a domestic.
“She worked for families in Guilford and Roland Park for $7.25 a day plus carfare, and her job gave her a chance to see how other people were living,” her son said.
She attended Mount Moriah Baptist Church, United Glorious Church of Christ, then later Faith and Deliverance Church of Christ.
In the late 1950s, Mrs. Cummings established what became Victory Prayer Chapel in the basement of her South Baltimore home, and later expanded it to a building in the 1960s on the corner of Walbrook Avenue and Monroe Street, then to another facility on Ayrdale Avenue. It is now located at 4848 Reisterstown Road.
“She called it a prayer band and every Monday night seven or eight women would come to our South Baltimore home to pray, sing and testify. That evolved into the Victory Prayer Chapel,” Congressman Cummings said.
In the early 1960s, Mrs. Cummings and her family moved to Edmondson Village, where she lived for the rest of her life.
“She didn’t drive, and one day I took her to an old beat-up horrible-looking place that had burned and I think once had been a garage. I said, ‘Mom, why did you bring me here?’ and she said, ‘This is going to be my church,’ ” the congressman recalled. “She moved from storefront to storefront but would never give up.”
“I used to go to weekly services,” said Pastor Sykes, a former school teacher, “and then one day she said, ‘Sister Katharine, it takes more than once a week.’ It struck a commitment in me. I started going to evening services.
“She showed us her commitment to the Lord and had a strong faith in us and we had to do the same thing,” she said. “We shared a special relationship. We prayed each day at 7 a.m. and every night we prayed on the phone before going to bed.”
Pastor Sykes described Mrs. Cummings as a “quiet person,” but added “When the spirit of the Lord came over her, she became another person.”
Mrs. Cummings established a food pantry, clothing drives, a prison ministry and a nursing home ministry — and also the Elder Robert Cummings Sr. Scholarship Fund, named for her husband of 55 years, who died in 2000.
“Through her example, my mother taught me to lead with integrity and that service to others is the highest calling,” said Congressman Cummings.
“When people in the neighborhood had problems, she’d help them. This is what she taught us all of the time,” he said. “I often say that as a person, she inspired me every day. She and my father had a strong work ethic.”
The congressman recalled speaking to his mother one day and noting that even though he had been in Congress for 21 years, she had never congratulated him.
“She burst out laughing,” he recalled, “and then she said, ‘I’m very proud of you, but it’s not about you, it’s about helping people.’ ”
He added: “When my father drove me to Howard University, he said, ‘I want you to go through those doors and get blessed, so when you come out, you can help people.’ ”
Mrs. Cummings was a gifted cook known for her apple pie, sweet potato bread, biscuits, chicken and dumplings, collard greens and other specialties.
A generous host, she offered food to anyone who came to her home and would put “extra names in her pot,” family members said, in order to handle unexpected guests who might appear at her door.
She enjoyed the family’s “Second Sunday” dinners hosted by her daughter Retha, where the family shared fellowship and remained close. Her hobbies were “church, family and reading the Bible,” said her son.
Mrs. Cummings suffered a stroke two and a half years ago. “She was in the pulpit on New Year’s Day when she was stricken,” the congressman said.
“The stroke slowed her down, but she continued ministering to people and praying for them,” said Pastor Sykes.
A viewing for Mrs. Cummings will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9, at March Funeral Homes, 4300 Wabash Ave., with a wake Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. followed by funeral services at Victory Prayer Chapel.
In addition to her son, Mrs. Cummings is survived by three other sons, Robert Cummings Jr. and Charnel Cummings Sr., both of Baltimore, and James Cummings of Woodbridge, Va.; three daughters, Cheretheria Blount and Diane Woodson, both of Edmondson Village, and Yvonne Jennings of Richmond, Va.; 10 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.