Carpentry and woodworking hold a prominent place within Sacred Scripture. Noah assembled his ark out of wood before the flood, while Bezalel was a carpenter who built the acacia structure for the Ark of the Covenant, and even St. Joseph and Jesus were trained in the art of woodworking. In the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, there is also a resident carpenter – Father Tom Shoemaker, Pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Fort Wayne.
Most nights between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., you can find Father Shoemaker hard at work in his woodshop cutting, sanding and detailing furniture. Father Shoemaker’s projects range from simple benches and chairs to detailed model ships and also fully decorated rooms, like the rectory chapel. He learned his skill of woodworking from his father, and together they built many projects together.
“[I started woodworking] when I was just a little kid,” he said. “We had a woodworking shop in the garage where we would do stuff together. We had fun making things; some of them worked, and some of them didn’t.”
Over the course of his life, Father Shoemaker has created many beautiful pieces, like the Nativity scene at St. Jude Parish in Fort Wayne along with countless chairs and tables. None of these compare to his most recent – and largest– project to date: a baroque-inspired reredos, altar and chairs which sit within the rectory chapel. The idea for this project came after one of his world excursions.
He said, “I went to Paraguay back five years ago. I had seen the movie ‘The Mission,’ which was about the Jesuit missions in Paraguay. I was fascinated by the movie, and I went to see the different missions where they had been and what the ruins were. I found that there are still people who are descendants of those Guarani Indians, who have shops where they are carving saints. So, I bought several statues there and decided I ought to do something good with them.”
The project began by simply making a concave niche for the statue of Mary, which proved difficult. After some failed advice from Father Glenn Kohrman, who, Father Shoemaker pointed out, is a graduate of the Purdue School of Engineering, he discovered his solution by placing increasingly larger arches of wood in front of each other. The simple nook project then quickly grew to encompass four more statues and saints’ relics along with an altar, chairs, a hand-painted rendition of the Crucifixion and even custom-laid Spanish tile flooring.
Most astonishing is the fact that the reredos was built modularly, meaning that it can be separated into 25 different sections small enough so Father Shoemaker can move it to his next parish assignment.
“There was no place to stop.” Father Shoemaker quipped, “I just find a quiet place and start sawing.”
The COVID-19 pandemic gave him extra time to build the reredos and fixtures when ministerial work was scarce, but it was also during a time like that when the benefits of his hobby were highlighted. After a day of tending to day-to-day parish functions, administering Sacraments and serving the people, woodworking provides Father Shoemaker with a constructive outlet to end each day.
“At the end of the day, you can see something. With ministry, you hope somebody got something out of it, but [with woodworking] at the end of the day, you get a table or chair,” he said, smiling. “You can see it and say that you’ve accomplished something.”
Having a tangible object to hold is something important for Father Shoemaker. His hobby helps him take a break each day from his ministry and recharge so he can provide the high level of attention needed to be a pastor at a large parish. He commented, “It’s an escape. It’s so different from what I do in ministry that it’s my chance to get away from the telephone, doorbells and computer and get some peace and quiet out in the garage.”
Even if it does provide an escape, his woodworking always is about his faith. Each project, whether liturgical or not, is about strengthening his relationship with God.
“This is a faith project,” Father Shoemaker said about his woodworking. “I like to stand back at the end of the day and pat myself on the back but that’s not what it’s about. It’s supposed to be a place for prayer … Ultimately, it’s all about giving glory to God.”
However, Father Shoemaker never works alone in his woodshop. In the corner sits a statue of the foster father of Jesus and one of the most famous biblical carpenters, the guiding eye of whom always ensures Father Shoemaker’s safety while at work. He said, “I have a statue of St. Joseph out in my garage, always watching over me.”
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