Hallowed turf

20 December will mark 175 years since the first Jesuit arrived in South Australia’s Clare Valley in 1848, before selecting Sevenhill as a base. This photo essay captures some of the property’s many aspects with historic and contemporary appeal.


By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia

From dawn to dusk:

It’s pre-dawn and pitch-black as I make my way around the property, led only by the light of my phone. I step off the lush green grass and now the only sound is my footsteps crunching on the gravel. I’m in search of a memorable shot of a vivid dawn over the vines. But there are no elaborate colours in the sky today, so I put my camera aside and opt instead for a panoramic 180-degree shot with my phone.

Several hours later, at the end of the day, the cicada chorus is in full swing and the setting sun brings a warm orange glow to the huge bell tower of St Aloysius’ Church. Built in the Gothic Revival style, this church has served the Parish of Sevenhill since its completion in 1875. Interestingly, the glass panels on the entrance doors have suddenly taken on a life of their own as the reflected sun makes it look as though the plain glass is now a stained-glass window.

Behind me, the sky is turning to a hue that an artist would be proud of – a mixture of cobalt and gentian. The sun has long gone, leaving just a strip of fading gold directly above the trees, anchoring the dramatically darker sky above.

Turned to stone:

When you arrive at the main entrance to the property, look to your right and you’ll see beautiful native trees on a landscape that can look so dramatically dry and stark that you have to remind yourself how fertile this soil actually is. Beyond the strips of bark that have broken away from the tree trunks, you see two distinct shapes that are almost obelisk-like.

Go closer and you’ll notice that they are two huge slate rocks – one weighing six and a half tonnes and the other eight tonnes. Husband and wife Ngadjuri artists Adam and Elley Warrior recently painted one of the rocks to commemorate the deep bond between the first Jesuits and their own ancestors.

It was Fr Brendan Kelly SJ, Superior of Sevenhill, who approached Adam and Elley and explained the story of how the Jesuits first came to meet the Ngadjuri people and the strong connection that both sides subsequently formed. “That is exactly what our painting depicts,” they told me earlier this year. To read a full-length feature article about the rock-painting project, click here: Rock stars.

St Aloysius’ Church:

The graceful ceiling arches were lifted into place by teams of almost two dozen men, presumably using basic pulley systems. Built from local stone, the church features a slate roof, Mintaro slate floors and stained-glass windows.

The stained-glass panels cast strong linear rainbows on the floor, while the waning sun creates capricious pastel-coloured patterns on the walls, amorphous abstracts that change in intensity and shift almost imperceptibly as the sun moves.

Above the altar, instead of the traditional stained-glass window, there is a striking oil painting of the Madonna that was originally presented to the Jesuits in Europe by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1848.

The church has its own collection of metal artefacts that are still in everyday use on the altar and beyond, their graceful design bearing witness to an almost-forgotten era of craftsmanship, when intricacies of script and art were created by hand.

The wooden pews date back to the original church, their simple timber grace creating a uniformity that brings an extra element of glow to the sun at any time of year. Beyond the main doors is a glass display cabinet that houses original vestments worn by the first Jesuits in the area.

The pillars at the entrance to the church represent Sevenhill’s valued heritage as a winery, with the columns depicting vineyard leaves as well as bunches of grapes.

Viticulture heritage:

This metal artwork is titled ‘Madonna of the Vines’ and has looked over one section of the vineyard for almost two decades. The word ‘Mary’, in flowing metal script, is at its base, and the striking bronze sculpture rests on a sturdy stone plinth. It was commissioned by Desmond and Mary Kennedy to honour the late Br John May SJ, the long-serving winemaker at Sevenhill Cellars. The 1994 sculpture, by Andrew Parish of Woodville, South Australia, depicts the Madonna “walking through the vines and blessing them to ensure good wines to follow”. It is 2.31 metres high and weighs 100 kilograms.

It is almost impossible for a photographer without access to a drone to capture the scale of the vineyard which spans both sides of the church. But here I resort once more to my phone to capture a panoramic shot of the sun-drenched vines bordered by a phalanx of leafy trees on all four sides, covering every point of the compass.

Netting stretched carefully across the vines not only protects them, but creates a unique landscape. In the right light, and photographed from a judicious angle, the whole scene takes on the look of gentle swells on a serene green lake. The soft green of the leaves in this shot is deliberately contrasted with the dark tress on the perimeter.

The shrines:

The Madonna Shrine is situated on the western end of the vineyard. It blends harmoniously into the colours of the landscape, its stone walls echoing the sandy colour of the native grasses that surround the area. It is accessible by five generously broad yet shallow steps, and for those who wish to spend more time in contemplation, there is a wooden bench with a white-painted metal frame to the left, and another sturdy wooden bench nearby.

The 19th-century stonemasons who created this shrine knew exactly what they were doing. Its grotto-like structure creates shade for the Madonna on even the hottest summer days. There is just enough space on either side of the Madonna for a parched or weary pilgrim to find some welcome shade beside the statue.

The Loyola shrine is a unique construction, with no mortar used in its design. Even the geometrically-precise arched entrance comprises only local stones held together by a judicious load-bearing design. This and the nearby Marian shrine are just two of the many aspects that serve the Sevenhill Centre of Ignatian Spirituality.

Inside the Loyola Shrine’s cool, shady interior is one particular stone that carries the date of construction – 1870. At first glance, it looks like a gracefully etched or carved date, but look closer and you’ll notice that the numerals are actually raised above the stone’s surface. Created by hand, they are as finely produced and symmetrical as any mechanical font.

Weikert cottage:

Franz Weikert was a fairly prominent farmer from 19th-century Silesia, a Baltic province of what was then known as Prussia. Seeking religious freedom, he, his wife and their eight children led a group of 146 Catholics to Australia, the Weikerts having paid the cost of the voyage for the entire travelling party. Among them were thirteen farmers, two labourers, seven carpenters, three cobblers, one stonemason, three tailors, a shepherd, two servants, six weavers, two coach builders, two blacksmiths and a clockmaker.

While the Weikerts wanted one priest, they actually got two – newly ordained Austrian Jesuit priests, Fr Aloysius Kranewitter and Fr Maximilian Klinkowstroem, although the latter became ill and had to return to Europe. Weikert bought 100 acres of prime land and named the property Sevenhill, referencing the seven hills of Rome. In their twilight years, an ailing Weikert and his wife Fransiska lived in this stone cottage, under the care of the Jesuits, until they passed away in 1875 and 1888 respectively. To read the full story of the Weikerts and the partial rebuilding of their cottage, 40 years after it was severely damaged by the Ash Wednesday bushfires, click here: Restoration period. Storyboards now tell tourists and pilgrims the story behind the cottage and the Sevenhill property.

The cellars:

As the story goes, Br Joannes Schreiner took a wheelbarrow with him as he traversed the neighbouring hills, taking vine cuttings back to Sevenhill to propagate them en masse. The initial vine cuttings were taken from the Hawker family at Bungaree Station, north-west of Clare.

The first vines were planted here in 1851 to produce Sacramental wine, enabling faith communities to celebrate the Eucharist. In the decades since then, Sevenhill Cellars has added a range of award-winning table wines to their portfolio. To read more about the winery’s most recent success, click here: The fruits of their labour.

This painting commemorates the legacy of the late Br John May SJ, the long-serving winemaker at Sevenhill Cellars. He was the seventh Jesuit winemaker here from 1972 until his retirement from full-time work in 2003. He died in August 2021, aged 92, and is buried in the crypt below St Aloysius’ Church.

Tours of the Sevenhill Cellars are a major attraction. Sacramental wine expanded beyond Australia’s borders to countries throughout South-East Asia. The Cellar Door attracts more than 40,000 visitors each year.

The iconic architecture of St Aloysius’ Church can be seen on the barrels in the cellars, forever celebrating the historic link between the Jesuits and the winery.

All photos by David McMahon.