EDITOR’S NOTE: The last names of some people interviewed for this story were withheld in order to protect their privacy.
Three days of rioting in 1964 that started at a seventh-ward block party ripped a gaping wound in Rochester’s psyche and exposed long-simmering racial inequalities.
In the wake of the riots, many city residents fled to the suburbs. But the Sisters of Mercy rushed in the opposite direction, opening an outreach center in a Joseph Avenue storefront near where the riots had started.
The sisters decided one thing the area needed was more programs for young people. One sister began a program for teen girls, and another sister, Sister Patricia Flynn, started a carpentry program for teen boys.
At the outset, Sister Flynn said she knew nothing about carpentry.
“Kodak gave me carpenters to work with the boys, and I learned,” said Sister Flynn, who built the woodworking program she started in 1967 into St. Michael’s Woodshop. During its 40 years, the woodshop has helped guide hundreds of teen boys and girls.
After four decades at the helm of band saws and power tools, Sister Flynn retired in April due to health reasons. In the future, she said she plans to volunteer for a literacy organization.
She has trained Mercy Sister Virginia Taylor to take over the operation of the shop, which does custom framing and creates handcrafted toys and furniture that are sold at local parishes around Christmas and Thanksgiving.
The kid-friendly items include a striped snake puzzle decorated with letters to teach the alphabet and a toddler stool shaped like a turtle. Other items are magazine baskets, shelving and birdhouses. Money from the sale of the items goes back into the program and covers the cost of materials.
In addition to providing job skills and training to Rochester teens, the program also provides small incentives, such as gift baskets and Christmas presents from local parishes. Sister Flynn said incentives helped kids stick with the program.
“I realized that they could make more money on the corner selling drugs than by coming to the woodshop,” she said.
The woodshop program got its start in the Mercy’s Joseph Avenue outreach center. It later moved to the basement of a nightclub, and then to the bowling alley in the basement of St. Michael Church. Tragically, the building caught fire and the woodshop was destroyed.
But Sister Flynn persisted, starting another woodshop in the former St. Michael’s School. When that building was converted into apartments, the program moved into a spacious basement in the former Bausch and Lomb building at 691 St. Paul St., which also is now home to the Monroe County Department of Social Services.
Safety regulations prevent teens younger than 18 from operating machinery, so adult volunteers use the shop’s power tools to make the project pieces. Then the teens sand, finish, assemble, paint and package each item.
Right now the program is limited to 10 teens, said Sister Virginia Taylor, the shop’s new director. She said she hopes to get some of the teens who are older than 18 involved in the carpentry side as well.
“We can expand it if we get more funding,” Sister Taylor said. “The other thing we’d like to do is track down a few more volunteer carpenters. If we don’t have any work coming down from (volunteers), then we can’t keep (the teens) busy.”
Wood and other materials are donated, though donations have slowed, Sister Taylor noted. But that doesn’t stop the teens from mass producing an array of items. Sitting at long tables, they sand, stain and shellac each piece with care.
“I like the staining,” said Adriona, 18. “It’s quick and easy. You just put it on and wipe it off.”
She said if she wasn’t at the woodshop, she’d be at home, watching television.
Musician Jaymie, 18, said if he wasn’t at the woodshop, he’d probably be at home playing the piano. He said his father works in the St. Paul Street building and suggested that he give the woodshop a try.
“My favorite part is the painting,” Jaymie said.
Shaquanda, 17, said she also heard about the program from her father, who worked for Sister Flynn for about 10 years. Now he’s building homes and is an electrician. She said her favorite part of the work is shellacking, “’Cause it’s the easiest.” On the whole, though, she said she finds work in the woodshop easier than she expected.
“I thought it was going to be hard,” Shaquanda said.
Sister Taylor, who helped the woodshop out in 1979 and who specializes in framing and fine-arts work, said she hopes to teach the teens some stenciling and other decorative work.
“Painting and colors are my forte,” Sister Taylor said. “These are the gifts I bring, and I learn pretty fast.”
A fine-arts major in college, Sister Taylor taught in a high school for a number of years and then went into campus ministry for 12 years. Most recently she went into parish work, retiring two years ago. Since then she has been serving at a senior citizens’ home.
“This is a different kind of challenge,” Sister Taylor said. “I’m very excited about it. I’m liking it a lot, and I know the kids need a lot of direction.”
Graduates of the program say over the years the woodshop has provided that direction for many young people. Former participant Hanna Bellamy, who met Sister Flynn through school, said she worked at the woodshop more than 30 years ago. Later, she sent her three daughters and one son through the program.
“The main purpose, we understood, was to keep young kids off the street,” Bellamy said.
Sister Flynn built trust by insisting that participants make eye contact with her, Bellamy said.
“She was always very precise about time and attendance, preparing people for the work world,” Bellamy said.
Sister Flynn’s kind and caring spirit helped participants through tough times, said Kristine Robinson of Rochester, who worked at the woodshop during high school from 1996 to 2000.
“When you are working with someone who truly cares, it doesn’t matter what’s going on,” Robinson said.
Robinson said Sister Flynn taught her to give to others and to aim high. Robinson has worked in banking and health care. Now she is studying for her master’s degree. Sister Flynn taught her not only to aim high but to give back as well, Robinson said.
“Overall, I’m a much more well-rounded person because of my time there,” she said.
For details on St. Michael’s Woodshop, call 585/325-5370.