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  • Photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Woodworker Frank Jenkins of Hollis shows students how to use a level during class Tuesday, September 21, 2010, at Thomas Moore College in Merrimack. The liberal arts college has established a series of medieval-style Catholic guilds, including the wood working class.
  • Photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Woodworker Frank Jenkins of Hollis shows students how to use hand tools during class Tuesday, September 21, 2010, at Thomas Moore College in Merrimack. The liberal arts college has established a series of medieval-style Catholic guilds, including the wood working class.
  • Photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Woodworker Frank Jenkins of Hollis shows students how to use a hand saw during class Tuesday, September 21, 2010, at Thomas Moore College in Merrimack. The liberal arts college has established a series of medieval-style Catholic guilds, including the wood working class.
Thursday, September 23, 2010

Catholic guilds giving students practical skills

Michael Brindley

As she chiseled away on a block of wood, Elisabeth Rochon talked about her very specific plan for putting her woodworking skills to use.

“I want to build a grandfather clock for the living room of my house,” said Rochon, a freshman at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack.

For now, Rochon, a freshman at the small Catholic college, is settling for learning the basics of woodworking in the St. Joseph Guild. She is one of a handful of students enrolled in a new series of five medieval-style Catholic guilds, a program the college started this fall.

In the St. Luke Sacred Art Guild, students are learning about the Catholic traditions in art and the theological principles behind them. In the St. Nicholas Baking Guild, students are acquiring the basic techniques of baking bread and other foods.

College President William Fahey said the inspiration for the guilds came in part from Aristotle’s “Politics.”

“He talks about how young people in the liberal arts need skills that are practical to round out their education,” Fahey said.

Working with faculty, several master craftsmen have been brought in to teach skills that students otherwise wouldn’t have learned. The idea isn’t to have the students master each of these crafts, Fahey said, but to instill basics in areas like woodworking, music and art. These are trades they can have and use for the rest of their lives, he said.

“Society has lost a lot of those trades,” Fahey said. “Not every man was a carpenter, but most men knew the basics.”

The guilds run for 10 weeks, with students meeting once a week for 90 minutes. Fahey said this is meant to be enough time to get the basics, but not take away from their regular studies. Freshmen were required to enroll in one of the guilds this fall.

Fahey is teaching the St. Isadore Guild, which focuses on gardening and homestead. Just outside Fahey’s office, there are 12 chickens which he and the students will be looking after as part of the guild. Students will also be learning beekeeping and will be planting fruit trees on campus, Fahey said. The goal is to have students come to appreciate nature, he said. So far, it seems to be working.

“I’ve seen students come out of the humanities building, sit down to watch the chickens and just read a book,” Fahey said, standing next to the makeshift chicken coop that has been created on campus. The chickens were provided by a woman near Concord who heard about the concept of the guilds and wanted to help, Fahey said.

After learning their crafts, the students will be using them to contribute to both the campus and the community. For example, students in the woodworking guild are expected to build a new altar for the college chapel. Students in the sacred art guild will be making art that will hang within the chapel and students in the bread baking guild will make food for the homeless.

Students are not given credit for the guilds, but they are a requirement for all incoming students. Each student will have to take at least three of the five guilds being offered. The hope is that once there is a foundation of students who have taken the guilds, they will want to take more advanced courses or help teach them when they are juniors and seniors, Fahey said.

This being only the second week, woodworking instructor Frank Jenkins was going over some of the basics with his students Tuesday afternoon, including proper maintenance of tools such as chisels and saws. The college has converted the third floor of its barn into a woodworking classroom. Jenkins told the students keeping quality tools in good shape is one of the keys to successful woodworking.

“It makes a huge difference in the quality of your work and the quality of your experience,” said Jenkins, owner of Heirloom Woodwork in Hollis.

Jenkins also showed the students the difference between western and Japanese style saws. There are a variety of tools out there, suited to the types of projects students may want to pursue, he said.

“Woodworking isn’t a lost art,” Jenkins told the class.

Jenkins said with the limited amount of time he has with the students, he had to develop a focused curriculum. Jenkins said his hope is to pique the interest of some students who want to pursue woodworking at a more advanced level. But Jenkins said students should at least leave with a basic understanding of the craft.

“I’m trying to introduce them to some of the fundamental concepts; why wood behaves the way it does, why tools behave the way they do,” Jenkins said. “It’s an introduction, but it’s also a little bit of a deeper understanding of the principles.”

Rochon said her father worked with tools a lot when she was growing up, but there was never a chance for him to impart some of that knowledge onto her. Freshmen Brennan Kroger and Tom LaCour are also enrolled in the woodworking guild. LaCour was a mechanic for two years and saw woodworking as another skill he could use with his hands. Kroger said he likes the concept of the guilds.

“It’s something you can bring with you in life, a skill,” Kroger said.

The Learning Curve appears Thursdays in The Telegraph. Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.com.