My final year of school is in full swing - which means I’ve gotten back to the craziness that it all entails. This of course, includes classes and studying and extracurriculars, but (dare I say) more importantly, it means I’ve been getting back into my groove at the woodworking shop!
I figured I’d formally introduce Saint John’s Abbey Woodworking here, as I’ll be spending a large amount of my time working in this space over the course of the year.
Saint John’s Abbey Woodworking has been in operation for 150 years in Collegeville, Minnesota, grounded by Benedictine-influenced values of stewardship, manual work, and high-quality craftsmanship. Generations of monks and local craftspersons have participated in the creation of custom-designed furniture with wood sourced directly from the Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum. We pride ourselves on the quality of our work and specialize in a variety of furniture and other woodcraft, all featured on our website, www.sjawood.org. Most of the work we do can be found scattered within the buildings of Saint John’s University and Abbey. The Saint John’s Abbey and University communities were created to be self-sustaining; everything community members need can be found on campus. My co-workers and I play a role in this - one can hardly enter a room on campus that Saint John’s Woodworking hasn’t furnished.
I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside members of the monastic and local communities for the past year, building my skillset as well as furniture. I’ve worked on a variety of projects, from bookshelves, to cutting boards, chairs, beds, and urns (yes, urns). Our space is bustling and full of natural light, and the scope and variety of projects we work on at any given time is ever-changing.
The main building in which we operate is over a century old - built in 1903 - and is one of many buildings at Saint John’s listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The National Registry of Historic Places exists to designate architecturally and culturally significant buildings that are worthy of preservation. A nomination must be made in order for a building to become listed on the National Registry, and it is then reviewed by historians and architectural experts to validate the nomination. I ran across the nomination form for the buildings within the St. John's Abbey and University Historic District, which gives a comprehensive look at the general purpose and significance of the historic buildings here.
As I mentioned, the Saint John’s community was created to be self-sustaining, and this building was the original blacksmith-carpenter’s shop that serviced the monastery and university. It’s a two-story brick structure that has withstood the test of time - including an interior fire in 1939. It has since been repaired and the blacksmith operation has been discontinued, but we continue to fill the need for handcrafted furniture on our campus. It’s incredibly special to partake in the generational effort to create beauty in a space that holds so much character itself. It takes me back into time, helping me to realize that I am now a part of the living history of the Saint John’s Woodworking community.
Over the course of the year I’ve held an apprentice-like position, so I’ve been working closely with expert craftsmen. They’ve been extremely patient with me, taking care to explain to me how to work the machines, perfect my techniques, and think like a woodworker. They guide me through each step of the process in great detail, while simultaneously giving me the freedom and space to learn as I go. As a result, the scope of my woodworking knowledge has increased exponentially. I have such a deep appreciation for the effort my co-workers take to help me cultivate a skillset. They’re invaluable partners who have helped steep a rich community culture of learning, patience, and interdependence.
Not only do I have a fuller understanding of the technical skills that are necessary to perform, an incredible sense of care for our craft has been passed down to me. A strong emphasis is placed on producing the highest possible quality of work. The long (but fruitful!) hours I’ve spent working in the shop have prodded me to reflect on a portion of the Rule of Saint Benedict that explores what it means to “live by the labor of [our] hands.” I participate in the joy of creation, and it’s hard work. But why create anything that isn’t built to last? Part of the beauty of building these pieces is knowing that they will be generationally loved.
Aside from my normal work schedule, I’m fortunate enough to have the support from my co-workers, who encourage me to further explore my interests. The insights I’ve gained from my experience working here aren’t lost on me as I embark on my personal woodworking and restoration endeavors. It’s my mission to work to continue to value the historical significance of each piece while practicing careful craftsmanship - as you’ll see with my current project (to be featured here soon!).
In the meantime, you can read an additional piece about student woodworkers on the Saint John’s Abbey Woodworking blog - featuring yours truly! Find it here.