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Highlighting the Life Changing Work of ESL Community Impact Partners: St. Michael’s Woodshop

Q&A with James H. Smith, St Michael’s Woodshop, Executive Director

July 2023

“She was feisty and tough, qualities that enabled Sister Pat to lay a solid foundation for her woodworking program.” St Michael’s Woodshop, Executive Director, James H. Smith

Unique and creative pieces of woodwork are some of the things you’ll find at St. Michael’s Woodshop on St. Paul Street in Rochester. The nonprofit teaches life skills to youth in the City of Rochester through the art of woodworking. Established in 1967, the organization relies on support from tutors, mentors, and the community to fulfill its mission.

In our Q&A with Executive Director James H. Smith, learn more about the history and the impact of this program.

What prompted the launch of St. Michael’s Woodshop?

St. Michael’s Woodshop was established by Sister Pat Flynn as a response to the 1964 race riots in downtown Rochester. Her experience was shared in our 50th anniversary memory book:

“A few years after the riots in downtown Rochester, several sisters of Mercy moved to the inner city and opened an after-school center at 512 Joseph Avenue for the neighborhood children. They played with the children (between 100 and 120 kids attended on an average day) and became friends with their families. The sisters had taught grade school, so they knew how to work with young children. The older girls met and learned to sew in the house across the street, where the sisters lived, and Sister Patricia Jane Flynn oversaw the older boys—she had been one of eleven children growing up and knew that she could handle them. She started working with them in the basement of the center. Her plan was simple: ‘My main thrust is to teach them to get along with each other,’ Sister Pat said. ‘To teach them punctuality and responsibility. To teach them to meet the world of work.’”

She was feisty and tough, qualities that enabled Sister Pat to lay a solid foundation for her woodworking program.

How has your organization evolved since then?

Today, the Woodshop is operating independently as a 501c3 organization, with a board of directors and an executive director who is our only employee. The Woodshop does not accept any federal, state, or local funding, relying exclusively on grants and donations. It remains an after-school and summer character-building program for teenagers in the City of Rochester.

“Our adult volunteer mentors are the heart and soul of our program.”

What kind of impact do you see in the community?

We see the friends and siblings of our current and past students wanting to join the program, to give themselves something productive to do after school during the school year and for eight weeks in the summer. We have a limited student roster and a waiting list.

“We have heard from the high school teachers of our students that the program helps them to grow into responsible young adults.”

Members of the Rochester Woodworkers Society started coming into our shop to mentor our students to build “Desks for Success” to give to elementary school children in Rochester in the spring of 2022. They worked all summer and into the fall, and in October 2022, nine Rochester Woodworkers Society members delivered 25 woodshop-student-made desks to Roberto Clemente School No. 8 at no charge. This is one of our many ongoing projects.

What has it been like working with ESL?

We are very grateful for the help that ESL has given us. It enabled us to continue operating our program and to welcome students in need of a safe “home-away-from-home.”

What else do you think is important for people to know about your work and the impact?

ESL is truly concerned about the real needs of our city and its residents. We think it’s important for people to know that ESL has enabled us to help turn around the lives of struggling teens right here in Rochester.

How can people get involved with St. Michael’s Woodshop and support your mission?

We need responsible adult mentors to work with our students on woodworking projects. We can also use tutors who would be willing to help our students with their homework during the school year. Most of our mentors are retired and have the flexibility to come into the Woodshop on weekday afternoons. Mentors can come once or twice a week from 4:30pm to about 6:30pm during the school year, and between the hours of 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer, depending on the Woodshop’s work schedule at the time.

Thank you to everyone for their support! To learn more about St. Michael’s Woodshop, visit: