“When the Sabbath came, [Jesus] began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished. They said: ‘Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands! Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary?’” (Mk 6:2–3).
This is the only reference in the Gospels to Jesus as a carpenter (though Matthew 13:55 identifies him as a “carpenter’s son”). However, the connection between Christ and the trade of carpentry has remained a powerful symbol of how Jesus works on each one of us, whittling down our imperfections and shaping us to better reflect his example.
Friar Peter Tremblay, OFM Conv, knows firsthand how impactful woodworking can be on one’s faith. “I find that shaping wood and building useful things is a very spiritual and prayerful activity,” Friar Peter says. “I can easily see how Jesus would have spent so much of his life shaping wood, and then taking that skill and translating it to shaping disciples and building God’s kingdom.”
Despite his skilled handiwork, Friar Peter is fairly new to carpentry, having taken it up while he was in formation with the Franciscans. His connection to the Catholic faith, on the other hand, reaches far back to his childhood and upbringing.
First Impressions of the Franciscans
Born in Buffalo, New York, Friar Peter—along with a twin brother and three older brothers—was raised in a devout Catholic family. As a child, Peter was a bit of a troublemaker, but that behavior quickly faded away by the time he was in high school. “As a teenager, my faith grew in importance for me as I struggled with some very serious health issues,” Friar Peter says. “My faith—and the joy of being in a relationship with Christ—was what helped me endure the pain and anxiety of life-and-death health issues during those years.” It was also during that difficult time that Peter encountered Franciscan friars.
“They always struck me as very down-to-earth men who also took their faith seriously,” he says. “They cared for my family and me when I was struggling with my health, and they were incredible mentors as I tried to grow in my spiritual life.”
During his college years, a biography of St. Francis of Assisi drew Peter closer to the Franciscan charism, and, after graduating in 2003, he began his formation with the Conventual Franciscans of Our Lady of the Angels Province. He took his solemn vows in 2010 and was ordained a priest in 2012.
Four years later, at the urging of his provincial minister, Friar Peter took on the role of associate chaplain for Catholic life in the campus ministry program at Elon University, located in the town of the same name in North Carolina.
“I never thought I would be a good fit in campus ministry, and I was very wrong,” he says. “I love this ministry. I love working with young people. Elon is a wonderful school with a tremendous dedication to multi-faith work.” Friar Peter’s Franciscan community has been involved with Elon’s campus ministry program since 1989, so the gray robe of a Conventual friar was not an uncommon sight for students.
Friar Peter describes his work as chaplain as being primarily a pastoral effort. “I spend much of my time mentoring, counseling, teaching, and befriending the students at Elon,” he says. “Certainly a large portion of my work is sacramental. I put a lot of effort into preaching and my homily preparation. Beyond that I work closely with my staff to run events, facilitate student-led retreats, care for students who are struggling, and enact our ministry’s strategic plan. I also work closely with the other chaplains of Elon University. We are all committed to multi-faith work, reaching out to students on the margins of our campus and advocating for faith and spirituality on a campus whose student body can be very skeptical of religion.”
A Prayerful Project
In the summer of 2020, as many people were trying their hands at hobbies during the COVID-19 lockdown, Friar Peter took on a special project at Elon. After a few oak trees were felled to make room for a new building, Friar Peter used the wood to build a new altar for the Catholic campus ministry. “I was praying during the entire process,” he says. “I was praying for the ministry, our students, our campus community, and for all the future people who will be nourished by the Eucharist off of this altar. I was so excited to be able to give something of my creativity and physical labor to this ministry that I love.”
The oak trees that were cut down were older than the university itself, which was founded in 1889, so using the wood to build an altar seemed a fitting tribute to these majestic giants. “As I built the altar, the faces of the students who come to Mass kept coming to mind, and I was so overjoyed to be giving them something so personal and so authentic as a handmade wood altar,” Friar Peter recalls. “This project is still the most meaningful thing that I have ever made in my workshop.”
One can easily imagine Jesus the carpenter and St. Francis (tasked with rebuilding God’s Church) smiling approvingly on Friar Peter as he smoothed down the altar’s beautiful oak wood grain and put the finishing touches on his gift to the students of Elon.