This article originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of the Western Province quarterly newsletter, The Vincentian.

Bro. Jim Donlevy leaves legacy of DePaul Woodworking in Kenya

Meet Brother Jim Donlevy, C.M. For over 20 years, he has been an integral part of the Vincentian community in Kenya. In the mid-1990s he visited Kenya with then provincial Fr. John Gagnepain, C.M. That visit put the seed in his mind and heart of returning one day as a missionary. In the early 2000s, plans were laid for a new novitiate building in Nairobi (later called Damascus House). At the same time, the Daughters of Charity were building a new regional house next door. Both buildings were going to need new furniture, so the confreres invited Bro. Jim to come and start a woodworking program.

Bro. Jim became interested in woodworking when he was a student at St. Mary’s Seminary in Perryville, MO, but his affinity for wood also has a family connection.

“I have three brothers who are carpenters,” said Bro. Jim, “so you could say it’s in my blood!”

In addition to providing furniture for the new buildings, Bro. Jim would train young Kenyans, giving them enough instruction to pass the National Trade Exam – a requirement for getting good employment. This was the start of “DePaul Woodworking.”

The program started with only three or four students at a time since the workshop space was small. But the two-year program took off. Besides making furniture for the Vincentians and Daughters, other religious communities and local parishes began placing orders, especially for pews. There were so many requests that Bro. Jim was able to hire some of his former students to be production workers and help him with the training.

As more orders poured in, it was obvious that a larger production space would be needed. Eventually, through the help of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and donors from the Western Province, enough money was raised to build a new and more spacious home for DePaul Woodworking. Funds were also raised to hire a full-time production manager, enabling Bro. Jim to spend more time on training. The number of students increased steadily until finally the program had   21 trainees.

Besides learning the craft of woodworking, the students also have classes in life skills, such as budgeting money, social skills, and inter-tribal relationships. These are often taught by some of the older seminarians from DePaul Centre, which is on the same grounds as the woodworking shop.

Although it was hard for Bro. Jim to leave Kenya after over 20 years, he realized that it was time and returned to Perryville, MO, in November.

“I am getting to the age where I don’t have the energy or focus needed to keep running a large program like that,” he said.

In his place, a Vincentian priest of the Vice-Province of Kenya will oversee DePaul Woodworking.

There is a verse in Psalm 90 that is suitable for those involved in the trades, but really in any kind of work. “May the favor of the Lord our God be ours. Prosper the work of our hands! Prosper the work of our hands!” It was the hands, mind, and heart of Bro. Jim Donlevy that founded DePaul Woodworking, and by the grace of God it prospered.

Photo cutline: Bro. Jim Donlevy, C.M., with the students of DePaul Woodworking in Nairobi.