Milton McCormick Gatch, a professor, librarian, and longtime priest-in-charge at the Chapel of St. James the Fisherman in Wellfleet, died on Feb. 21, 2023 at his apartment in New York City. The cause was pancreatic cancer. He was 90.
Born in Cincinnati to Mary Eliza Curry and Milton McCormick Gatch, Mac grew up in Milford, Ohio on a family farm that dates to the 1700s. That’s when, as Mac chronicled in a family history, Till the Break of Day, his ancestor, Philip Gatch, a circuit rider and Methodist minister, relocated his family from Maryland to the slavery-free Ohio Territory.
Mac went to Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, graduated from Haverford College, then returned to Cincinnati to attend law school. Realizing that the law was not his destiny, however, he first joined the Army and then pursued his interest in theology. He studied at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Boston and then at Yale University, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1963.
In Ohio, at St. Thomas Church in Terrace Park, he met his lifelong love, Ione Georganna White. Married for 61 years, Georgie and Mac raised three children and shared a passion for food, art, education, literature, music, progressive politics, and travel. Wherever they lived — in Germany, Boston, New Haven, Illinois, Missouri, England, New York, and Wellfleet — friends gathered around their welcoming table for good food, debates, and laughter.
Mac was a scholar and a teacher. After serving as dean and provost at Union Theological Seminary in New York City for over a decade, he became the head librarian of the Burke Library, one of the largest theological libraries in North America. Mac’s academic pursuits included the history of the Anglo-Saxon church. He taught Latin at the Wooster School in Danbury, Conn.; chaired the humanities department at Shimer College in Mount Carroll, Ill.; taught English at Northern Illinois University and the University of Missouri; and was a guest professor at Humboldt Universität in Berlin. He also taught at King’s College, Cambridge.
Mac was “an intense academic guy,” said his son, George, and so books were among Mac’s pleasures. He inherited a collection of first-edition poetry by William Butler Yeats from his aunt, Katherine H. Gatch, and her companion, Marion W. Witt, both professors at Hunter College. He was invited to join literary societies including the Grolier Club, which claims to be America’s oldest society for bibliophiles, and the Century Association. He surely enjoyed the story that Mark Twain, who was a Century member, called it “the most unspeakably respectable club in New York.”
For several years in the 1960s, Mac and Georgie rented a cottage on Gull Pond in Wellfleet, and soon after that the town became an important part of their lives. In the late 1970s, they bought a house Mac called “the barn” on Holbrook Avenue. It had at one time been a shellfish processing building; they turned it into a simple but striking house combining open spaces with quirky nooks. Behind it, Mac created remarkable gardens in the rich soil of the Mayo Creek basin. He grew raspberries, kept a vegetable garden surrounded by apple trees he espaliered, and nurtured an old beech tree. In later years, he enjoyed Kai Potter’s advice and help tending it all.
Partly because Mac’s backyard garden was low-lying and out of view, it felt to visitors like something of a secret garden. “I always felt it was just for him,” said his daughter Lucinda.
For over 30 years, Mac and his friend Jack Smith served as co-priests-in-charge at St. James the Fisherman. Mac began giving sermons there in 1976.
“He had a very deep and abiding faith,” said the Rev. Tracey Lind, who is now the priest-in-charge at St. James. “It was a thoughtful faith, an inquisitive faith. The notion of God beyond gender was really important to him,” she said. And, for over 50 years, he was outspoken about his disbelief in an afterlife.
“He believed that what was important was what we did here on Earth,” said Lucinda. “The work we do is not there, it is here.”
Mac planned his own funeral, right down to the music, the order of events, and the person to give the eulogy — his dear friend writer James Carroll. The planning was far in advance of his cancer diagnosis, which came only three weeks before his death. The service was held on Feb. 26 at the Church of St. Luke in New York City.
Mac is survived by his three children, Ione Miller, Lucinda Poindexter and husband Daniel, and George C.W. Gatch and wife Erica Fite; 13 grandchildren: Jeff, Michael, Marcy, and Andrew Miller, Noel, Nicholas, Georganna, and Alice Poindexter, Bryce, Logan, and Aurora Gatch, and Laszlo and Eva Miles Horvath; and by his brother Tom.
Georgie Gatch died in 2018.
There will be a memorial this summer at the Chapel of St. James the Fisherman where Mac’s ashes will be buried. Gifts may be sent to the Mac Gatch Memorial Fund at the Chapel of St. James the Fisherman, P.O. Box 1334, Wellfleet 02667.