friar in garden with students

Fr. Ed Lammert, OFM, showed students his Cumberland garden (note the black plastic underfoot).

In this weekend’s bulletin, Pastor Carl Langenderfer gets right to the point.

“My garden is flourishing,” he tells Holy Family parishioners in his latest reflection. It is something to celebrate as we slowly emerge, dazed and weary, from a time of pandemic and an invasion of cicadas. Nothing says hope like planting. What’s more fulfilling than seeing something grow?

For friars like Carl, gardening is more than a pastime. “Flowers and vegetables speak to me of God’s infinite variety and abundance and beauty,” he said when asked to explain the attraction. “Being able to plant flowers and vegetables and bring them to maturity helps me feel closer to God and enables me to have a part in the creative process.”

Whether the rewards are practical, spiritual or psychological, gardening has enriched the lives of countless friars, past and present. Aubert Grieser, whose imagination transformed the grounds of St. Francis Seminary, took none of the credit for its remarkable gardens. As he said in an interview in his later years, “The real gardener is God.”

He is among five memorable friars whose love of gardening is part of their legacy.

Aubert and God’s creation

Deflecting a compliment about his gardens, Aubert Grieser once said: “All this beauty, whether it’s music or flowers or art…is all a reflection of the beauty that’s almighty God.”

friar in forest

Fr. Aubert Grieser, OFM (1920-1994)

“Aubert was very much down to earth, very much in touch with nature and everything growing, full of enthusiasm over God’s creation,” says Ric Schneider, a fellow teacher at St. Francis Seminary, where Aubert orchestrated gardens with the same energy he devoted to the music program. “He was phenomenal with the glee club,” and just as good with landscapes.

“He had some awesome gardens all over the place at St. Francis Seminary,” Frank Jasper says – sunken gardens, hanging gardens, floral displays encircling statues. “The gardens were gorgeous, they really were. It was labor intensive. He didn’t take any shortcuts; he would start all of his plants from seed, and just wanted to make things beautiful. He would recruit anybody he could to help with it.”

Fortunately, free labor was plentiful. “The kids loved Aubert,” Ric says. “They admired him so. He was very instrumental in their development. He had his garden up on Mt. Calvary, behind the gym. He planted a whole bunch of evergreens up there and assigned a kid to each plant.” When fertilizer was needed, “He would take a bunch of seminarians in the seminary truck and go over to the riding stables” nearby to pick up a load of manure. “They just loved to haul that crap.”

In addition to flowers, “Aubert was known for his beefsteak tomatoes,” says John Bok. Ric saw and sampled the impressive produce. “The thing I always remembered was the size of the tomatoes. Oh my gosh, they were huge.”

Aubert’s interest extended beyond the science of gardening. “He had a little greenhouse at the seminary for a while,” Frank says. “He loved to take people out there and lecture them on the beauty of the flowers. In some ways it was like Francis, meditating on the flower and enjoying it. Even in the hospital when Aubert was dying, they asked if he wanted a television to watch.” He told them, “Just bring me a little flower I can look at. That’s all I need.”

Vintage video: Check out this interview with Aubert Grieser at St. Francis Seminary.

friar holding notebooks

Fr. Aubert Grieser at St. Francis Seminary; he was “very much in touch with nature

Isidore and his ‘children’

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Fr. Isidore Dovrovodsky, OFM (1900-1991)

He called flowers his “little children”. That was part of the protective, nurturing relationship Isidore Dobrovodsky had with nature. “He beautified the grounds with flowers at our parish/shrine in Valparaiso, Ind.,” is how Mike Lenz remembers Isidore, a native of Slovakia who came to America with an impressive resume of teaching and writing he built upon as a member of the Vice Province of the Holy Savior.

When he wasn’t preaching missions in Slovak, Isidore donned his oldest clothes and a battered straw hat to care for his garden. “He had an almost childlike love for flowers,” Mike says of Isidore, who was “short in stature [5-feet-5], slight in build,” and spoke in a “whispery” voice.

“When I first met him at the old house in Pittsburgh in 1953, he was already in his 50s,” Juniper Crouch says. “He was a holy man, very, very quiet, had a good sense of humor, was much loved by everybody. I really thought the world of him.”

In those days, “Fr. Isidore was on the road a lot. He didn’t drive, so he rode the bus or somebody came and took him.” When they both lived in Valparaiso, “I became his driver. I had a three-quarter-ton pickup truck with a big plow” to clear snow from the five parking lots at the parish and Seven Dolors Shrine. “When I took Fr. Isidore someplace, I had to a get a foot stool to get him into the truck.” One morning when they needed to leave early, “He came to my room about 5 a.m. and sang to me in Slovak, a drinking song. The English translation was, ‘Come my dear brother, the bar is open.’ That was his way of waking me up.” Needless to say, the bar was not open.

Most days, Isidore was a man with a mission, keeping the lawn and gardens free of weeds. He may have loved flowers, Juniper says, but “dandelions were his nemesis.”

postcard of garden

A Shrine postcard: Isidore had “an almost childlike love for flowers”

Titus and his tiller

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Fr. Titus Gehring, OFM (1883-1977)

It will never work, Provincial Minister Roger Huser told Titus Gehring. After decades of priestly ministry in small parishes, 84-year-old Titus wanted to move from Jemez, N.M., to St. Leonard College in Centerville, Ohio. “This would be a mistake,” Roger wrote in response to the request in 1967. “It would not be possible for you to have any assistance or direction of a garden” in the new location. He knew that without a garden, Titus would be lost.

But Roger was wrong. Titus retired to Centerville and happily pursued his love of gardening for the last 10 years of his life. Although he was “pretty frail,” says then-student Frank Jasper, Titus was still able to manage “a good-size garden, maybe a half-acre. He started most of his things from seed,” and grew bumper crops of lettuces, radishes, green peppers, corn, zucchini, cucumbers and squash. “Everybody enjoyed the fruits of it.”

To help Titus tend his garden, “The guardian bought him a big, powerful, top-of-the-line rotary tiller and I put it together for him,” Frank says. “The advertisement showed an old man like Titus running it with one hand. After I put it together, I thought, I’ve got to try this thing out.” When the tiller kicked into gear, “I was struggling to hold it into the ground; it was jerking me all over the place.” Titus, who refused to share the operating instructions with Frank, enjoyed watching from the sidelines.

There was more to Titus than gardening. At St. Leonard, “He did not have any Masses or drive,” but he did give informal lectures on a favorite topic, natural foods. “He did some cooking in his room,” Frank recalls. “This was a disaster because he couldn’t see very well” and failed to notice when things went bad. “He had all-natural flour, and weevils got into it.”

Warren wouldn’t quit

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Fr. Warren Zeisler, OFM (1924-2018)

He was as dependable as tulips in spring. Where there was work to be done, there was Warren Zeisler – stooping over flower beds, patrolling the premises for weeds, mowing the lawn with energy and precision that belied his age. “It was just something he did,” says John Bok, who was Warren’s guardian after he supposedly retired.

With a lifetime of work in teaching and service to military veterans behind him, Warren accepted a chaplaincy to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur after retiring to St. John the Baptist Friary in 2002. “In 2011, he was an elderly man [87],” says John, who that year moved to SJB Friary. “He took great pleasure in being outdoors. There was a section outside the friary on the Wyscarver Road side of the building, where he took care of the landscaping, cutting grass, faithfully taking care of the flower beds. What amazed me was that he was able to take care of this whole area at his advanced age.

“He had his own little tractor; he would pick up stuff and put it in a cart behind it and dispose of it. St. Joseph’s Home had a contract with a landscaping company to take care of the rest of the 235 acres, but they were told not to do Warren’s area, the entrance to the friary.”

After Warren’s hip replacement at age 90, “He worked his way through physical therapy and was back at the sisters and the gardens as soon as he was able,” Dan Anderson wrote in 2018. “One time maybe a year or two before he died, when he did not come inside, we went out looking for him,” John says. “He had stumbled over a root and fallen, and was not able to get up. He was on the ground for about an hour.” True to form, “He took it in stride.”

friar mowing grass

Fr. Warren mowing his part of the lawn at St. John the Baptist Friary in 2016; he was 92 at the time.

 

Evangelizing with Ed

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Fr. Ed Lammert, OFM (1931-2016)

In Southeast Kentucky, “Gardening was kind of evangelistic,” says Maynard Tetreault, who for 20 years served alongside Ed Lammert, a man he calls “The Master”. During their ministry in Appalachia, Ed turned a patch of dirt at the foot of a mountain into a vegetable garden that was the envy of neighbors in Cumberland. In growing season, “You met people, talked to them and found out you had the same hobby,” says Maynard. “You’d swap seeds back and forth. Ed got some tomato plants that had been in a particular family for 100 years.” The connections he made were connections that lasted.

Like Maynard, Ed was a do-it-yourselfer, shaped by Victory Gardens and World War II rationing. “Francis talks about working with his hands,” Maynard says. “It goes along with poverty and humility. For Ed, I think a lot of gardening was spiritual.” In a 12-by-15-foot garden he raised peas, beets, onions, carrots, beans, Brussels sprouts, and the herbs he needed to season them. In late winter, “He started lettuces in a cold frame, an old window sash lying at an angle next to the house, so we had lettuce from March to November.” The freezer was full of the food he grew and the fish he caught.

For a long while, “I was commuting to Easton [Pa., for a building project],” Maynard says, “and I’d come home to Cumberland and Ed would go out there with his jackknife and cut those budding vegetables off the vine” for supper. “He just loved to do that.”

Besides his green thumb, Ed had a secret weapon. “When he was stationed in Lafayette, Ind., and was over at Purdue University playing handball, Ed got acquainted with a professor who was a gardener.” He introduced Ed to the black plastic sheets used to wrap castings in the auto industry. “You did your plowing, made your furrows and put this stuff on it,” punching holes for the seeds. “You didn’t have to worry about weeds or watering,” Maynard says. “That plastic was a marvelous thing. You could sit on your front porch and watch the stuff grow.”

Be a better gardener

Gardening is an act of faith but it takes more than prayers to make things grow. We asked Vince Delorenzo and Carl Langenderfer, two accomplished friar gardeners, for their best basic advice.

Carl: Vegetable gardens need to be planted where they get full sun for most of the day; otherwise they don’t do well. I’ve learned the hard way not to plant tomatoes too close together; more plants don’t necessarily mean more tomatoes.

Vince: Flowers like marigolds and petunias will only bloom where there is a good amount of sun. Some like impatiens and begonias do much better in mostly shaded areas. Others like coleus and New Guinea Impatiens like a little of both.

Carl: With regard to planting fruit or ornamental trees, I’ve always heard the admonition: “Plant them high, never die; plant them low, never grow.” In other words, trees should be slightly mounded up when planted, rather than in a hole deeper than their original depth as evidenced by the root ball.

Vince: At Mt. Airy I have to be aware of the deer who like to munch on flowers for their “salad”. Lantanas and periwinkles are pretty much deer-repellent because of the taste of the periwinkle and roughness of the leaves of the lantanas. Deer don’t like marigolds, either, because of the smell.

Carl: I’ve never really learned how to eliminate weeds with chemicals or the back-breaking work of pulling them up. You have to get on them regularly, or it’s a lost cause. More fertilizer is not better; it can burn the roots and kill the plants. I do like to use Miracle-Gro dissolved in water in the plant hole, and then water the plant once it is planted. (I tell my parishioners that I use holy water!)

friar in garden

Fr. Carl Langenderfer, OFM, strikes a pose with his garden tools.

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