In the Lord's vineyard - Madonna Magazine

In the Lord's vineyard

Rosie Hoban 01 December 2017

Jesuit winemaker Brother John May SJ has retired after more than 50 years at Sevenhill in South Australia. He is now living in Sydney, but there's a place there for him to make one final return to his home of so many years.

Br John May SJ, the young Jesuit carpenter, who could pour concrete, weld, do a bit of plumbing and fix just about anything, had pretty humble ambitions. He wanted to travel around Australia repairing Jesuit houses and properties. A bit of an on-call mobile Jesuit tradie.

Anyone who has been to the stunning Sevenhill winery in South Australia's Clare Valley will know that John's hopes were 'dashed' early on and instead he became one of Australia's most highly regarded winemakers who also helped turn the Clare Valley into a tourism hotspot.

'When I joined the Jesuits, I offered the Lord my hands to do what he wanted me to do', Br John said of his various works.

Br John, 88, has left the Clare Valley and returned home to Sydney where he was born and raised and where he learned his first trade. He is now living at Arrupe House, in the grounds of Peter Canisius House in Pymble. While he can no longer stroll through his beloved vines, he looks out his window at a forest and continues to marvel at God's glorious creation.

The Sevenhill Winery is famous for making sacramental wine and Br John, the seventh Jesuit in 150 years to take on this role, expanded the range to include quality table wines. For fifty years he looked out over the vines, watching each spring as the buds appeared and then turned into grapes, grateful for the turn of events that landed him at Sevenhill.

Br John was educated in Sydney and became a carpenter after leaving school. He joined the Jesuits and moved to Melbourne in 1949 training at Watsonia's Loyola College. He had his first stint at Sevenhill from 1963 to 1969, before returning to Loyola in 1969 to manage a large retreat house and novitiate.

Br John, Sevenhill Cellars' Jesuit Winemaker Emeritus, is as surprised as anyone that he became a winemaker. Before arriving at Sevenhill Cellars in 1963 to assist the then winemaker Brother John Hanlon SJ, the young carpenter was a badge-wearing member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association and had never touched a drop. Within six months of his arrival at Sevenhill, and after prayer and discernment, he returned the badge.

Br Hanlon died suddenly in 1972 and Br John was recalled to Sevenhill. He didn't just take the lead job in his stride, he made changes, expanded the operation and helped put Clare Valley on the tourist map, diverting some of the attention from the popular Barossa Valley.

'We are all given gifts and talents by God and coming to Sevenhill gave me the chance to use them all,' Br John said.

As the newcomer in 1963, he spent a while washing casks and absorbing all the winemaking information he was told and overheard, making notes all the time. Not long after arriving his building and welding skills were put to good use building sheds and maintaining the vines. In 1972 he also built a large fermenting cellar, with concrete floors, which is still used today. Apart from his manual skills, Br John discovered he was a bit of an entrepreneur, helping start the Clare Valley Tourism Association. It was this role, which helped land him a gong in the 2016 Queen's 90th Birthday honours.

He was admitted as a member in the General Division of the Order of Australia in recognition of his significant service to winemaking, and contributions to professional associations, regional tourism and the Catholic Church in Australia.

'I don't think of myself as a trailblazer, but I have never been frightened to have a go - always with God's help', he said.

Despite all the recognition and applause and Shiraz vintages named after him, Br John never lost sight of the reason he was sent to Sevenhill - to make sacramental wine that is used in Catholic Churches throughout Australia. The wine is made according to Canon Law using red grape varieties; a practice first introduced by Br John in the early 1970s.

Br John has been to Mass thousands of times but never ceases to feel a thrill every time a priest lifts the chalice and says, 'This is my blood'. He knows its Sevenhill wine in the chalice, even though he no longer oversees the vintage; that job now belongs to Liz Heidenreich, Sevenhill's first female winemaker.

It was hard leaving Sevenhill and the sometimes-harsh beauty of the land. But it's the area Br John misses the most. 'When you wake up and it is a clear sky, you look out at the vineyards and God's creation in reality. After the pruning, there's spring and the sap starts flowing and you can see the new life, the shoots. Then later, I watched the ribbons of green vines over the hills and the grapes in time ready for harvest', he said.

It's only been a few weeks but Br John is already settling into his new home, close to his sister who he can visit regularly. 'I can now look out each day at the tall trees in the forest and see and hear the bird life and I can see God in all these things.'

Br John may make a final return to Sevenhill. There are three spots left in the crypt at St Aloysius, the beautiful Sevenhill church built of local stone and completed in 1875. He has been offered one of the spots after his death. But like all moves in his almost 70 years as a Jesuit, Br John has left it in the hands of God and those in charge. 'If it is convenient I will return there, but I will leave that up to others.'


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