Faith & Spirituality In Review: Andrew Hamilton SJ

The story of Jesuit ventures at Sevenhill described in this richly informative and illustrated book (The Vine and the Branches: the fruits of the Sevenhill Mission) is one of ambition constantly clawing at the edge of possibility.

The title is ambiguous, with its reference both to viniculture and to the mission — apparently disparate things that Sevenhill strove to bring together. The name of the township itself sums up the soaring ambition and the earthy reality. The seven hills are not named after those edging the Clare Valley but the Seven Hills of Rome. The dip in the ground through the property down which water runs in torrential rain is known as the Tiber.

The first Jesuits from the Austro-Hungarian Empire came to Australia accompanying farmers fleeing religious discrimination. They found their way to the Clare valley, and soon ministered to Polish immigrants, local Catholics and a few surviving Aboriginal groups. Shortly after, they were entrusted with the care of the pastoral and mining settlements to the north of the state. They built churches, invited Mary MacKillop’s Josephite sisters to staff schools, and rode thousands of miles to care for their scattered communities.

Later, the Austrian Jesuits made a commitment to Indigenous Australians by starting the Daly River Mission where Mary MacKillop’s brother Donald, formerly a boy at the Sevenhill school, was Superior. The venture was precarious, and the Jesuits eventually withdrew from it. Sevenhill was the centre of the Mission. It became a College — a name full of possibility at a time when mining and agriculture were drawing people to the area. It included a small boarding school and a seminary to prepare priests, as well as its own handsome church. It also produced wine, initially to provide altar wine for churches throughout the state. The Jesuit Brothers provided and developed skills in building and in wine-making; the priests provided sacramental ministry, teaching and retreats throughout the southern states. Later those high ambitions receded. The diocesan clergy grew sufficiently in numbers to take responsibility of the north, and boys and seminarians could find a better resourced education elsewhere. The Austrian Jesuits could no longer provide men for the mission, and were replaced by Irish Jesuits who based themselves in Melbourne. The mission shrank to Sevenhill and a few surrounding churches.

So Sevenhill survived. Through a succession of gifted and long-sighted Brothers the winery saw possibilities. They repeatedly modernised the winery and introduced a new range of grapes for table wines that could subsidise altar wine. More recently, too, Jesuits at Sevenhill trialled it as a retreat centre.