In his 55 years as a priest, Father Nicholas Landsberger has had many memorable moments — sharing in the joys and sorrows of his parishioners, working on countless renovations and building projects and, in every assignment he had, always working with a Catholic school, which meant sometimes serving as principal, coaching the baseball team and driving a school bus.
Since third grade, he knew he wanted to be a priest, even before his older brother, Father Bob Landsberger, entered seminary six years ahead of him.
He also developed another interest around that time. About age 10, he started working summers with his uncles, Nick and Ben Juenemann, who were truck farmers in St. Cloud.
This piqued his interest in gardening, a passion that followed him from parish to parish and into his retirement. It also impacted others including David Gross, production manager for Bailey Nurseries in Cottage Grove.
When Gross was a kid — about fifth grade — Father Nicholas Landsberger was serving at St. John Nepomuk Parish in Lastrup where Gross lived. Gross had always taken care of his mom’s garden and Father Landsberger noticed.
“One day he came into my dad’s gas station and he said, ‘Hey, I hear you like to work in the garden. I’m starting up a greenhouse and want to know if you’re interested in helping.’ My career started there,” Gross said.
Father Landsberger first built a small glass greenhouse in the parish’s backyard.
“David did a lot of the seeding and transplanting and I would do the watering and fertilizing,” he said.
The first year, they grew between 50,000 and 60,000 bedding plants, including both vegetables and flowers for parishioners to purchase.
Gross continued to work with Father Landsberger through high school and on spring weekends during his first year of college at St. Cloud State University.
“After that, I decided [college] wasn’t right for me so I went to vocational school in Brainerd and took up landscaping. I pursued a direct interest related to growing up with Father Nick,” Gross said.
After completing his training, Gross was hired by Bailey Nurseries, the largest wholesale grower of plants in the upper United States.
“They were just in the process of building their first greenhouse range and after the greenhouses were built, we decided to grow bedding plants, or annuals. They knew I had experience working for Father Nick and they put me in charge of this big operation,” he said.
During Gross’ 35 years at Bailey’s, his section grew from three to 22 acres of greenhouses. Now Bailey’s has stopped growing annuals and focuses on the yearly propagation of over 10 million plants, primarily roses and hydrangeas.
Father Landsberger travels to Cottage Grove at least once or twice a year to see the operation.
“He has a good sense for plants, always has. He has ideas and great questions about how we’re doing it and why,” Gross said.
But their roots run deeper than the plants. Their relationship has grown as Gross’ family has grown, extending to his wife, Jenny, who grew up in Sobieski and attended St. Stanislaus Parish, and their two children, Kyle and Rebecca.
“We’ve developed a relationship now that he is like a second father to me,” said Gross, a member of St. Rita Parish in Cottage Grove. “I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that.”
He also said there’s no question that he is the man he is today in part because of Father Landsberger.
“He was there in our formative years, always very patient with us,” he said.
And patience is just one of the virtues Father Landsberger helped instill in Gross, who in turn, incorporates those qualities into his work at Bailey Nurseries.
“I kind of look at my job as a ministry,” he said. “We have a lot of people working here from many different backgrounds. There’s no question that my roots have allowed me to not only understand plants but to appreciate and respect people. We treat people how we want to be treated. We try to lift each other up. I have met very few people in my life who don’t want to do the best they can and for the most part, if they’re not doing the best they can, it’s because they don’t have the tools, the understanding or the abilities. It’s our job to find where they fit best.”
And that’s what Father Landsberger did the day he approached Gross in his father’s shop.
“I think it was an inspiration of the Holy Spirit that day,” Father Landsberger said. “I used to tell people I taught him everything he knows. He knows more than I do now. He’s such a nice father and husband and I feel proud that he did so well and that I helped.”
I am related to the Landsberges through my father. His father’s Tom Blissenbach mother was a Jueneman who had ties in the Landsberger. The Juenemans owned a large vegetable and flower garden in St. Cloud on Washington Memorial Drive. They are all passed away, but occasionally I see Fr. and he remembers the Blissenbach name.