'Rose priest's' interest in horticulture began at early age

St. Bonaventure writes that St. Francis sought occasion to love God in everything and in everything beautiful.

While Capuchin Franciscan Father Gervase Degenhardt, a priest for 64 years and a semi-retired theologian and teacher, served the educational and spiritual needs of students and parishioners for many years, he cultivated flower gardens that reflected the beauty of God sometimes in overlooked, neglected or barren settings.

“Everything Pope Francis has said in his encyclical (‘Laudato Si’ on Care for our Common Home), which is very Franciscan, I have always felt,” said Father Gervase. “One is spiritual by appreciating and taking care of what God has given us. In other words, we’re obligated to do this as Pope Francis said, ‘To take care of mother earth.’”

Father Gervase, 84, serves as chaplain for the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Millvale. He maintains an avid interest in gardening and is recognized for his expertise on roses. He is a master rosarian for the American Rose Society, an accredited judge for the American Rose Society, a bronze medal recipient and a monthly newsletter editor for the Pittsburgh Rose Society. To many, he is known as “the rose priest.”

The fourth of eight children, he was born and raised in Hays, Kansas. He recalled flowers growing around his home and his parents tending a vegetable garden. As a result, his interest in horticulture began at an early age. Walking to St. Joseph Grade School, where he was taught by the Sisters of St. Agnes, he noticed lilacs, trumpet vine and coxcomb in yards along the way.

When he was 12, he traveled with 13 classmates on a train from Kansas to Pennsylvania to attend St. Fidelis High School in Herman, near Butler. He was the only one of his classmates who went on to become a priest.

Following his ordination in 1958 by Bishop Frederick Frecking in Washington, D.C., he attended Catholic University and earned a licentiate in sacred theology. In 1965, he was assigned as vice president and dean of men at St. Fidelis College and Seminary until it closed in 1979. One of his former students is Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Archdiocese of Boston. At the same time, he was studying for a doctorate in English at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. He completed all the requirements except his dissertation.

While teaching at St. Fidelis, Capuchin Franciscan Father Reginald Russo requested he plant a few rose bushes in front of the school and walkways. When the school closed 14 years later, there were more than 500 bushes with a vast display of irises, and he was given the name “the rose priest.”

After the school closed, he asked permission to work in a parish. He was appointed pastor of St. Joseph in York, Pennsylvania, where he served for seven years. For two terms he was elected vicar provincial for the Province of St. Augustine. While ministering at the parish, he planted some 100 rose bushes around the friary. He was elected president of the York Area Rose Society twice and awarded prizes for his rose exhibits.

He returned to the regional headquarters and friary of the Capuchin Friars of the Province of St. Augustine in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. For seven years he served as parochial vicar at Our Lady of the Angels on 37th Street. It was there he found an opportunity to beautify a narrow section of property that bordered the parking lot across from the parish with a bountiful garden of roses, other flowers, plants, shrubs and fruit trees.

Since his semi-retirement, Father Gervase has been living at the friary. In the courtyard he tends to 50 pots of roses, including miniatures that line the parking lot. 

While Father Francis Fugina, 90, plants flowers and cuts the lawn, Father Gervase cares for hybrid tea, grandiflora and floribunda, miniature and miniflora roses. The location is ideal for roses because they need full sun at least six hours a day. They also need at least an inch of rain a week, and, like all living things, they need to eat and drink.

His roses are a stunning variety of colors, names, distinction and fragrances. In one container there is a large white rose, highly-citrus-scented and disease-resistant, named “Pope John Paul II.” It is a hybrid tea with green, glossy leaves. Nearby there is a velvety red rose, another hybrid tea, with long stems and a light raspberry fragrance called “Veteran’s Honor.” In between are six miniature rose bushes and the remaining 44 are hybrids.

If shopping for roses he suggests buying what appeals to you. He offers three tips in selecting a rose bush: 1) look for one that is full; 2) leaves should look clean and possibly glossy; and 3) choose one with buds, not flowers, because they are almost finished blooming.

“To see how beautiful something is that you have worked at is a great joy,” he said. “But to tell the truth, I honestly am tired and glad to be done after I work for an hour or so.”

If you’re not willing to put work into caring for roses, he recommends ones that are disease resistant, such as Knock Out, Earth-Kind and Drift.

Paying attention to plant hardiness zones is important. In Pittsburgh, the USDA planting Zone is 6, but some outer suburbs may be 5. The best way to protect roses in the winter in Zone 6 is to mount 10-12 inches of soil around the bottom of the bush. More than 50 percent of nurseries in the world graft roses to the rootstalk so cover the bud union (point at which the main variety of the rose is grafted to the rootstalk). One of the hardiest roses he recommends is from Wilhelm Kordes Sohne in Germany.

Does he have a favorite rose?

Father smiles and says it’s usually the one he’s the closest to, but he does admit a preference for a white and pink hybrid tea rose with green, glossy leaves called “Gemini.”

Besides “Gemini,” there are more budding roses with names like “Rock & Roll” with stripes of burgundy, red and white, which happens to be the father of nearby “Neil Diamond,” a multicolored rose with pink and white stripes, and a classic rose fragrance. Farther down you’ll see “Beverly,” a winter hardy, pink, hybrid tea rose with a citrus fragrance. Along the way you notice a lovely white and blushing coral-orange color grandiflora rose with a tea and spice fragrance named “Coretta Scott King”; “LeAnn Rimes,” a large high-centered pink hybrid tea rose with a sweet fragrance; and “Marijka Koopman,” a hybrid tea rose with a pleasing fragrance and grayish-green foliage.

The front of the friary is like a medieval tapestry of flowers, roses, vines, shrubs and trees, such as light and dark purple “German Bearded Iris,” balloon flowers, “Heuchera,” red and pink climbing roses named “Amadeus” and “Bright Eyes” and a pink miniature rose climber, “Jeanne Lajoie.” He says most rose climbers are hardy enough to survive like “American,” “New Dawn” and “Fourth of July.” He recalled learning about a rose climber in Germany that was more than 800 years old.

There are more familiar flowers in the garden, including trumpet vines, mums, daisies, peonies, allium, dianthus, lilies of the valley, and bleeding hearts growing with magnolia and ginkgo trees.

Every 14 days he sprays the roses for disease. He says organic gardening may be used instead of chemicals. He mentions Miracle-Gro being water soluble, and the fertilizer Rose-tone is not as harsh as a chemical fertilizer. He tries to stay away from chemicals. Although he checks his garden every day, depending on the weather, he sprays, but to be effective it has to be at least two days without rain.

In November after Thanksgiving when the plants become dormant, he takes the rose pots into an unheated garage. He recommends that the temperature is not too warm inside or they will sprout. With an eye on the weather, plants are usually taken outside from mid-March to the end of March and then he prunes them.

To understand his love of gardening he points to his T-shirt: “A kiss of the sun for pardon, the song of birds for mirth, one is nearer God’s heart in a garden, than anywhere else on earth.”

June is National Rose Month. A rose is the national floral emblem of North America. Learn more from the Pittsburgh Rose Society/newsletter at: www.pghrosesociety.org; www.facebook.com/pittsburghrosesociety; gervase@capuchin.com or 412-682-6430, ext. 240.