Earth Care Hero – Brother Tim Unser
by friar Bob Roddy, OFM Conv.
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
from “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ
Brother Tim took great consideration when planting his newest garden at San Damiano Friary.
Brother Tim is standing by one of the Cedar Elm, a newly planted tree. In the background, you can spy a Sycamore tree.
When asked how his love of gardening began, friar Tim Unser wryly said, “Out of necessity. I needed to earn extra money during summers in Ohio, so I would care for neighbor’s lawns. At home, my dad would take care of the vegetable gardens, but the flower gardens became my responsibility.”
“It wasn’t until I was stationed at St. Helena parish in Hobbs, NM with friar Sebastian Cunningham that I re-connected with gardening. Sebastian had cultivated a beautiful rose garden there and I learned a great deal from working with him.” Retreatants from Franciscan Retreats and Spirituality Center in Prior Lake, MN, fondly remember friar Tim’s handiwork in the gardens that he created there.
Friar Tim currently lives at San Damiano Friary in San Antonio, TX, where he has transformed a mess of weeds and rocks into a thing of beauty. The friary in San Antonio has a large enclosed yard which was in abysmal shape when friar Tim moved there in the 1990s. “Essentially, the back yard was just weeds and rocks,” he recalled, “Over the course of years I cleared the back yard of the weeds and removed numerous rocks from the soil, all the while doing my best to revitalize the soil.” By 2019, friar Tim had developed 6 distinct garden areas in the back yard of San Damiano Friary; the change was dramatic and beautiful.
But, more change was in the air. “Our Initial Formation Community in San Antonio was growing exponentially and the friary did not have room to accommodate all of the friars who wanted to live and study here.” At an extraordinary provincial chapter in the summer of 2019, friar Tim made the case to the assembled delegates of the need for a 12 bedroom addition to San Damiano Friary. As he was making his presentation, some of the friar-delegates knew how much work friar Tim had invested in the backyard of San Damiano, and yet here he was making the case for an addition to the friary that would obliterate years of his hard work. Talk about Franciscan detachment!
When asked about this, friar Tim laughed and said, “Well, we really needed more bedrooms as well as a common room that would be big enough for the community to gather. Even though the extraordinary chapter gave the approval to proceed with fund-raising for the new addition, I knew that I would have time to move many of the plants that I had planted, and in many ways the new addition pushed me to envision and create a green space that was more compatible with the climate of San Antonio than the previous yard.”
“My heightened awareness of climate change made me re-think the best way to create a new green space in the backyard. San Antonio has less and less rain each year, e.g., in 2022, we received 15 inches of rain; as of late February, 2023, we have received no rain at all.” With the help of Chuck Leifeste of Leifeste Landscape Design in San Antonio, friar Tim planted drought resistant plants such as, red cedar, soft leaf and soto yucca, all of which bloom. Palm trees that were part of the back yard have been replaced by a sycamore tree and two red cedar elms. There are also a number of oaks that do well in the dry conditions and these trees provide necessary shade. Other plantings include 37 Texas sage plants–which have the added bonus of blooming right after any rainfall. White salvia and shrimp plants, which attract butterflies and hummingbirds, now grace the backyard. “I no longer plant any annuals in the back yard, unless they are in pots.”
“We have completed phases one and two of the landscaping; phase three will include the construction of a gazebo,” friar Tim said, “the green space complements the new addition as well as respecting the challenges of the current climate.”
Kudos to friar Tim and all who have helped him make the backyard of San Damiano Friary a place of sustainable beauty.