ROCHESTER — Wilberto Rodriguez likes working with his hands.
So, when the 15-year-old city resident heard about St. Michael’s Woodshop at his church, Wilberto said that he decided to sign up. And using skills in carpentry that he hopes to gain at the woodshop, he said that he would like to work in construction after high school.
The incoming freshman at Young Men’s Academy in the former Charlotte High School greeted visitors during a June 29 open house held at the woodshop’s new location at 691 St. Paul St.
The woodshop will help city teenagers like himself in many ways, he said.
"It could keep us out of the street," Wilberto said. "It will teach us more about life."
The woodshop is reopening after a recent sponsorship handover by the Sisters of Mercy to Church of the Assumption in Fairport and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Parish in Rochester. Bishop Emeritus Matthew H. Clark blessed the program’s vast 6,000-square-foot space during the open house.
"We are really asking continued blessings in the minds, hearts and spirits of the young people … who will be loved here and served here," and of the mentors and volunteers who will accompany and love them, said Bishop Clark.
The basement of the building, which also houses Monroe County child and family services, is the latest in a series of homes for the ministry created by Mercy Sister Patricia Flynn in 1967 to teach at-risk teens carpentry skills and give them work experience.
The woodshop, which offers woodworking programs after school and during the summer, also was housed at the Sister of Mercy’s former Joseph Avenue outreach center, the basement of a nightclub and a building on the parish grounds of St. Michael Church. In September 1984, the building that housed the woodshop burned down, destroying all the woodshop’s tools and materials.
Yet after the fire, Sister Flynn reopened the woodshop in the former St. Michael School, and the program later moved into a 6,000-square-foot space in the basement of the former Bausch and Lomb building on St. Paul Street. After Sister Flynn retired in 2007, Mercy Sister Virginia Taylor took over operation of the shop. Sister Flynn died in March 2011, and Sister Taylor died in September 2012.
"The history of the woodshop … is fascinating," Father Bob Werth, copastor of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, said during the open house. "But the new motto, ‘Building from the Inside Out,’ has always been there."
Dormant for several years, St. Michael’s Woodshop also is marking the arrival of a new executive director, James Smith, who previously worked in youth ministry and in maintenance at the former Light of Christ Parish, which comprised St. Andrew Church and Church of the Annunciation.
Smith said he was trained as a skilled painter and welder and envisions the woodshop program as providing life skills and employment training in addition to teaching woodworking and picture framing, shop safety, the use of tools and woodworking skills ranging from identifying wood to measuring and cutting accurately. He said he will build on the legacy of the Sisters of Mercy.
"This is a continuation of the hard work and an appreciation of the Sisters of Mercy and the work they put into this," Smith said.
He will link students’ performance and attendance with a small stipend to produce students who are ready to become woodworkers or carpenters. He said he will also draw on his own life experiences to encourage participants to finish school and get jobs.
Smith "is a wonderful experience of what happens when someone really cares," noted Sister Pat Prinzing, vice president for the Sisters of Mercy of New York, Pennsylvania and the Pacific West Community.
During his incarceration, Smith turned his life around and learned welding. Yet when he got out and attempted to start a job as a welder in 2003, he learned that he would need to by $3,000 worth of his own tools. In desperation, he appealed to Sister of St. Joseph Sue Hoffman, then the pastoral administrator of Church of the Annunciation. Rather than give him the money, she hired him to do parish maintenance. Staff at the parish gradually discovered his many hidden talents, such as how well he related to youths and his black belt in karate, which he used to assist with a karate program. Smith said he was saddened when parish changes ended those youth programs.
"I guess things happen for a reason, and maybe this was God’s plan in the long run," he remarked.
Smith said about 10 youths have signed up for the woodshop so far. He hopes to expand the program’s offerings but that will depend on volunteers and donations of materials, he said. He has 10 volunteers lined up to teach various aspects of woodworking and finishing from how to use a bandsaw to using a glue gun, Smith added.
Deacon David Kepler, who is one of the volunteers, said the skills the youths will gain go beyond the hands-on skills. They will also learn about the importance of showing up on time, paying attention and working cooperatively with others, he said.
"It could lead to a good-paying job," said Deacon Kepler from St. John the Evangelist Church in Spencerport.
Christian Torres, who is working to graduate from All-City High School, said he welcomes the opportunities offered by the woodshop.
"It’s a new experience, said Christian, 18. "It’s a trade. I can learn something so I can get a job."
The more students who are served, the more lives that are changed, noted the woodshop’s board chairman, Jerry Korn, a member of the finance council of the Church of the Assumption and a vice president of mortgage finance at Home Properties. He pointed out that the shop is located in the same building as the Monroe County Department of Social Services.
"When you walk in (this building), you see the lines of folks at welfare, and then you come down here," Korn said. "We take people out of that line."
EDITOR’S NOTE: Donations may be made out to St. Michael’s Woodshop and mailed to St. Michael’s Woodshop, PO Box 30553, Rochester, NY 14603. To volunteer to help with the woodshop, e-mail James Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.