Sister shares love of woodworking with students

Dominican Sister Maria Kolbe’s pupils have made candle holders, stools, plaques, and more          

By Gabrielle Nolan

The first time Sister Maria Kolbe Rossi, OP, worked with wood, she was in the sixth grade.

“It was a woodworking class in school that you took during the day, and it was once a week for a semester, and I just absolutely loved it,” said the religious sister, a member of the Nashville Dominicans of St. Cecilia who teaches at St. Mary School in Oak Ridge.

Although nearly 20 years had passed since her middle school class, Sister Maria Kolbe’s passion for woodworking was reignited when she was trained in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd about five years ago.

“There are different figurines that you have to cut out in order to make the different works for CGS. So, I needed some lambs to be cut out, and I used a scroll saw, which is a power tool that cuts wood,” Sister Maria Kolbe explained.

“After using it to cut out simple shapes, I wanted to do more with it and found out that there was a whole world of scroll sawing and so then became interested in woodworking because of that experience.”

Sister Maria Kolbe, OP, shows her woodworking students different types of wood stains.

At St. Mary School, Sister Maria Kolbe teaches religion and math to sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders.

When she arrived at the school in fall 2019, she had the opportunity to bring all of her woodworking machinery. With the permission of Sister Marie Blanchette Cummings, OP, the former principal, Sister Maria Kolbe began an after-school woodworking club.

The club, which costs $30, can hold 10 students per semester, ranging in grades from second to fifth. For the younger students, a couple of seventh-grade students provide extra supervision and helping hands to assist.

There are about 12 classes throughout the semester, and projects can range from coasters and magnets to wall plaques and benches, and so much more.

“They’ve made candle holders, stools, picture frames, I’m trying to think of everything . . . boxes, huge variety of things that they’ve made. And the children love doing it,” Sister Maria Kolbe said.

“For all the things that they bring home, it’s a pretty good deal. I like to keep the cost low so that they can get a lot out of it and not worry about it being super expensive,” she said.

However, financial assistance is offered to families who need it.

“Their children can do it for free because I just love the idea of boys and girls at a young age to start working with wood and being comfortable with using different tools to make something on their own,” she said.

A student in Sister Maria Kolbe’s woodworking club sands part of a Nativity scene using low-grit sandpaper to smooth out the pieces.

For project material, Sister Maria Kolbe normally uses pine, poplar, and birch plywood.

Although wood prices have increased throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Sister Maria Kolbe has received donations of money or supplies to help continue the club’s success.

“A lot of wood that I have is donated to me. I have some parents from the school who are very generous in giving me wood that they don’t need, or they’ll ask me, do you need any wood?” she said.

In addition to donations, Sister will occasionally make the trip to Home Depot to purchase necessary items, such as wood glue or stain, using the money from the club fees.

“Giving the students an opportunity to work with the medium of wood and allowing them to have the experience of creating things on their own and seeing there’s just an enormous amount of possibilities of fun, useful, and beautiful things that they can do using, you know, God’s simple creation from trees,” she said.

This past summer, Sister Maria Kolbe held a one-week woodworking camp at the school that was a little more intensive than the typical day in her after-school club.

“We did a lot more with power tools and drills and power sanders, a drill press,” she said. “That was a little bit more heavy work than what we do during the school year.”

“I’ve allowed them to use power tools, power drills, but… we’re not doing that this year, but in the past the students have,” Sister Maria Kolbe explained.

If a project requires pre-cuts, Sister Maria Kolbe will do that work with her saw before the club meets, and her students will do activities such as sanding, wood conditioning, staining, gluing, and assembling pieces.

Sister Maria Kolbe, OP, helps a student properly sand his Nativity set.

Not only is woodworking a beloved hobby for Sister Maria Kolbe, but her creations can also benefit St. Mary School.

“I’ve been able to use the woodworking for a lot of charitable functions, auction off different things that I’ve made at school auctions and at our fall festival,” she explained.

For Sister Maria Kolbe, connecting faith to the craft of woodworking is another important element to teach her students.

“I talk to them throughout the club that Jesus was a carpenter and Joseph was a carpenter, and this was the type of work that they chose to do,” she said. “Jesus chose to come into a family of carpenters, and this is the work that He did.”

“I remind them of that and tell them if they, you know, if they’re having trouble, getting frustrated, just say a prayer to St. Joseph or ask Jesus the carpenter to help them figure something out or to calm them down or whatever assistance they’ll need,” she said.

Each semester, Sister Maria Kolbe assigns a couple of projects with a religious theme. This semester, students crafted wall plaques with saints’ pictures and quotes and Nativity scenes.

“It’s great to see how they use their own creativity, even though we’re all making a shelf, or we’re all making some type of wall art, that they like to throw in their different types of artistic-ness and their creativity in order to make something beautiful that they love. So, I love giving them the opportunity at a young age to do woodworking,” she said.

And the elementary students seem to be loving it, too.

Second-grader Austyn Sanders shared, “I like woodworking club because it is fun to work with wood and paint. It’s my first time making stuff with wood, and I like to do new things.”

Middle school assistants provide a little extra supervision and a helping hand to the elementary students in Sister Maria Kolbe’s woodworking club.

And fifth-grader Morgan Thompson said, “I love coming to this club because I like doing arts and crafts and meeting new people. My old school didn’t have a woodworking club, and I wanted to try something new.”

Maybe the students won’t touch woodworking again for several years, like in Sister’s own experience, or maybe some of them will pursue woodshop in high school. Perhaps Sister Maria Kolbe’s club will inspire a greater interest in the arts and handmade craftmanship.

While the impact remains unseen for now, the experience opens a unique door to creativity for many young students.

“Hopefully for some of them it might be a hobby that they’ll have for the rest of their life, or it will make an impression on them,” Sister Maria Kolbe said.

“It’s just great to be able to pass it on to children and for them to see that they can make something that looks pretty intricate that you wouldn’t think that a little 8-year-old, you know, could make a shelf or a Nativity scene. It’s a lot of fun. I really enjoy it.”

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