The work of human hands: Remembering Br John May SJ

Brother John May SJ, AM (10.8.1929 – 18.8.2021) would have attended Mass every day of his active life, says Bishop Gregory O’Kelly SJ. In his homily at Brother May's Requiem Mass, held at St Aloysius' Church, Sevenhill on 3 September 2021, Bishop O'Kelly invites us to ponder what must have gone on in the heart and head of a Jesuit winemaker when he heard every day the prayer of the Mass: ‘Fruit of the Vine and work of human hands; It will become our spiritual drink.’

It is a challenge to convey the scope and depth of the life of Brother John May SJ in any homily.

The Paschal Candle stands at the head of his coffin, radiating its Easter light. We Christian people have a curious aspect to the way we address the bookends of our lives, our baptism, and our requiem. Our baptism ceremony at the birth of a baby is full of references to death, of dying with Christ; our Requiem Mass at the end is full of references to life. The Paschal Candle in front of Brother May now proclaims life and resurrection.

Jesus spoke often of life-bearing things, of wheat, and fig trees and grass and lilies of the field, of mustard bushes, of the vine and the branches, of yeast and wine in new skins. And he said that he had come that we might have life and have it to the full. That is our faith for Brother May now. In John May’s life his response to Christ’s statement was an extraordinary range of involvement in many theatres of life that not only gave meaning to his vocation as an active religious Brother but also ensured that his paths crossed those of so many others, in his early years, his times as a young Brother in Melbourne with his Jesuit brethren, and now so very much here in this valley with its parish and vignerons and wider community, all of which became his passion. The news of his death occasioned the outpouring of so many expressions of esteem for him, from friends and colleagues, expressions from which he would have shrunk, but their number and quality indicates what a grace this man was for his Jesuit Province, this man of Christian hospitality, how significant for others can be the apostolic vocation of a religious Brother.

In his vocation, Brother May would have attended Mass every day of his active life. It takes imagination to ponder what must have gone on in the heart and head of a Jesuit winemaker when he heard every day the prayer of the Mass:

Blessed are You, Lord God of all creation;

For through your goodness we have this wine to offer’

Fruit of the Vine and work of human hands;

It will become our spiritual drink.

Blessed be God forever.

The work of his human hands. John’s whole life and work would have had a eucharistic overtone, like an artist’s wash of colour, providing a mystery of meaning to daily hum drum, the presence of God hovering, and in all things.

How appropriate the second Reading at today’s Mass from the Apocalypse:

“Happy those who die in the Lord … now they can rest forever after their work, since their good deeds go with them.”

His good deeds. John May lay yesterday in this church which was so much part of so much of his life and ministry. He was its totally and lovingly attentive curator and maintenance man for decades. The signs of the work of his hands are everywhere on this property, not just on the vintages. The first image one perceives upon approaching this property was one of his first works, the welded steel archway entrance to the ancient cemetery, with the IHS Jesuit escutcheon, the Holy Name of Jesus, surmounting it.

Jim Scott ran an agricultural machinery business in Clare when the ever practical John May arrived as a new Jesuit Brother at Sevenhill. Jim saw him in his yard inspecting, and measuring up, a grader blade device on a tractor. “Do you want to buy it, Brother?”, he asked. “No”, replied John, “I want to make one”.

His good deeds. The works of his hands are so obvious around the College and property. Hidden is the unseen and great amount of pastoral care he gave to individuals throughout the parish and region over those years. Many carry John May in their hearts with thanks for his care and kindness; some of you are here today.

The early Austrian Jesuit Brothers here were a profound influence on John May. He was so proud to be in their heritage, with six Brother winemakers having preceded him over the previous 121 years. The pioneer was Brother Johann Schreiner who from Neagle’s Rock trundled in a wheelbarrow the few domestic possessions of the original three Jesuits when this property was purchased in 1851. John knew those stories well, how they had no tools but used their knives to cut the grass to thatch their first dwelling; how they carried in the cool of the evening the butter from the cow they owned, to sell it to farms on the way to Burra, until they could afford a horse; how Bro Schreiner turned his hand to anything to help make ends meet, even acting as a bullocky hauling copper ore from Burra to Port Wakefield; how he walked the 20 km to Bungaree to acquire vine cuttings to make altar and table wine, and thus made Sevenhill the first Cellars in the Clare Valley. And Bro Schreiner worked here at Sevenhill for 45 years, the same second working span as did John May.

When he died Bro Schreiner was described as “a mainstay of the Mission”, and such we might also say of the contribution John May made to this place. An obituary of Bro Schreiner wrote of his high regard for priests, “and especially for (his religious) Superiors”, but adding that “occasions were not wanting to test (that)”..  From his experience here, Brother May would be nodding. Jesuit Brothers were eminently practical men, very knowledgeable of the real world; the Jesuit Fathers not always so, in the experience of the Brothers. “Get them away from the blackboard”, one once said, “and they are lost”. John May once made the observation about the crypt in which we are to inter him today, where following the embarrassing conventions of the time, the Fathers are buried in the top row, and the Brothers in the bottom row. “We have been propping them up all through their lives”, he said, “and now in death in the bottom row we still have to prop them up!”

As we all know, Bro. John was something of an icon in the Valley, the principal Grace sayer of the region, it seems. His involvement over his two stays of 51 years saw him thoroughly engaged in country life, in sport, local theatre, tourism ventures, vine improvement schemes, the CFS.  He was a pillar in the parish over those decades, pastoral visits, organizing mammoth special occasions like the Corpus Christi processions over so many years, the preparation and decoration of the church for solemn liturgies  like Holy Week and Christmas, making sure Sunday was a special day, changing out of his work clothes to don his Roman collar and Jesuit gown.

The words of Jesus in today’s Gospel:

“I am the Vine, you are the branches.
Those who abide in me and I in then bear much fruit.”

These words fit so well the life of John May, consecrated to God by his vows, lived as a Brother without the glamour of the priesthood, a purity and singleness of dedication.  He lived those vows faithfully and simply; his room over all those years had scant furnishing, one chair, and a lino floor, no carpet, in a house that can  be bitterly cold in winter. He loved his vocation, acknowledging it to be a hard and demanding one.  When awarded the Order of Australia he wrote:

 “…(the Jesuit) motto ‘For the Greater Glory of God’ has been my guiding light. Having devoted myself to the Lord, I do not expect to be honoured for my work which, for me, has always had its own rewards.”

Devotion to Mary, mother of Jesus, so much part of the Catholic faith tradition, was a foundation for him.  He was uplifted by the sculpture at the entrance to the property, made possible by close friends, “Our Lady of the Vines”; it meant so much to him. Of an evening he would say his Rosary, often seated on the lawns, and usually Mick, the most un-sociable of the succession of winery cats, one who disdained humans, would sit nearby, paying respect and acknowledgement of the master.

John’s Religious Superior has written of him that he was:

“… first and foremost an observant, loyal and faithful Jesuit. He would rise before dawn, pray, walk, and ready himself for the day’s business. He was devoted to the daily eucharist. He relished reading God’s word in a clearly articulate and emphatic way. He would end his day in prayer, usually with a visit to the domestic chapel. His motivation and focus throughout his life, rising from a graced interior life, were to serve God through the generous serving of others.”

Like St Alphonsus, the patron of Jesuit Brothers he was the doorkeeper, offering welcome and hospitality to visitors and fellow winemakers, and defending his beloved Mission in every practical way. A literal example, the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983 came only a few metres, ten or so, from the front door of the college, the heat popping out its windows, disaster looming for it and the great church. The steadfastness of defence by the CFS, John to the forefront amongst them, saved the church and college.

John was very conscious that he was in a line of Brothers going back to 1851. Somewhat extraordinarily, when sent here as an apprentice winemaker to Bro. Hanlon in 1963, after eleven years of the drudgery of being the principal carpenter-turned-cook, day in and day out, for a large community of almost a hundred men, John was then a teetotaller – not the usual starting point for a winemaker!  It seems that Bro Hanlon was a bit like a chef reluctant to share a recipe, and John was not introduced into many of the inner secrets of being a vintner and returned for some years to help train novices.

The sudden death of Bro Hanlon at the age of 53 in 1972, after nineteen years as winemaker, threw the Cellars function of Sevenhill into an emergency, and Bro May was recalled as an interim manager. For the third time in its history serious consideration was given to closing or selling off the Cellars. John May argued strongly for its survival, pointing out the service to the wider Church that the altar wine production gave. He told me how he stayed up all night writing his argument to the Provincial, and stating, “I can do it; I can make it survive.” To which the Provincial replied that he would give John “the chance to prove it”. And to which John commented in 1995, 23 years later, at one of our early Board meetings, that he had been working at proving it every day.

It was a mammoth challenge, virtually starting from scratch. He undertook courses in oenology, frequently conferred with local mentors such as his great friend Jim Barry, relied on the competence and skill of John Monton, here today, modernised the winery with stainless steel vats and refrigerated tanks, and brought it up to industry standard, and upgraded  the vineyards with newer plantings and styles. He earned and found his niche among the winemakers of the Valley and then beyond, receiving accolades from savants such as Robin Bradley and James Halliday.

John would be embarrassed at any attempt to canonize him. He could be difficult to live with. His nickname amongst us was “Hefty”. He had high expectations for himself and for others; he was hard on himself, uncompromising in his sense of duty, and could be hard on others. He insisted on due order, his order. A mild and gentle Jesuit priest told me that in the eight years he had been at Sevenhill, not a day had gone past without John correcting him on how to stack the dishwasher…!

John’s last years were most edifying. The then Provincial wrote;

“.. when I outlined to him the reasons for him moving to (the Jesuit aged Home in Sydney), I was met with humility and acceptance. It was one of those moments when grace appeared and blessed us both… I will remember him as one who toiled long and hard in the vineyard and when asked to come inside and rest, he did so with great faith, humility and generosity.”

Bro Huddy took him Holy Communion every day for the last several months. John would focus fully on the presence of the Sacrament, nothing else existed, a concentration that was the fruit of lifelong fidelity and prayer. He would take the Host in his hand, hold It aloft, and loudly proclaim his faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

So we come to bury this man in the company of the Brothers whose stories filled him with such love and pride, in the crypt of a church which he maintained devotedly for decades, again with such pride, and still propping up the priests. He is here now; he has truly come home.

At the beginning of this Mass, I drew attention to the Paschal Candle placed before John’s coffin. Two candles frame the life of the baptized, like bookends to our earthly existence. At our baptism we were presented with a candle and the priest said, “Receive the light of Christ; may the flame of faith burn brightly in your heart.” Now at the end there is the Paschal Candle, symbol of the Resurrection. A candle is such a rich symbol. It consumes itself.  It turns matter into light. Like the candle, Brother May’s life has been consumed into a wonderful transformation, from plain matter into the light and radiance of the Resurrection. “I have come that you might have life and have it to the full.”

It is with great love and thanks that the Australian Province of the Society of Jesus now inters this man of goodness, who did so much for others and for this cradle of the Jesuits in Australia, for so long. We and all his many lay friends and his working colleagues were blessed by his presence.

He hears now the words of the owner of the Vineyard, “well done, good and faithful servant; enter now into the joy of the Father.” In pace Christi, Brother John, live now in the peace of Christ, forever.

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