Restoration period

Storytelling was a major theme at the recent blessing of the historic Weikert Cottage at Sevenhill, site of the first Jesuit presence in Australia.

 SHOWING THE WAY TO GOD 

You can do the 150km journey from the Adelaide CBD to Sevenhill in the picturesque Clare Valley in less than two hours, driving up the Horrocks Highway. You might even have to slow down to 40km/h or come to a complete stop a couple of times in a one-way traffic zone because of upgrades being carried out on the road. But if you’re going to grumble about the inconvenience of a few extra minutes added on to the trip, spare a thought for Franz Weikert, who did the journey in seven days by bullock-drawn wagon in the summer heat of December 1848.

As historians have recorded, Weikert was a fairly prominent farmer from Silesia, a Baltic province of what was then known as Prussia. Seeking religious freedom, he and his wife and their eight children led a group of 146 Catholics to Australia. To fund the group’s journey to the southern hemisphere, Weikert sold his farm and used the proceeds to pay the fares of all those in their travelling party.

They chose their travelling companions well. There were thirteen farmers, two labourers, seven carpenters, three cobblers, one stonemason, three tailors, one shepherd, two servants, six weavers, two coach builders, two blacksmiths and a clockmaker. While they 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.

As the story goes, land in the fertile Clare Valley was going quickly, so Weikert enlisted the aid of a surveyor and bought 100 acres of prime land, at a time when allotments were being snapped up. The name ‘Sevenhill’ was chosen for the property, referencing the seven hills of Rome, and a narrow, shallow creek running through the property was named the Tiber. In their twilight years, an ailing Weikert and his wife Fransiska lived in a stone cottage, under the care of the Jesuits, until they passed away in 1875 and 1888 respectively.

In 1983, during the Ash Wednesday bushfires, the cottage was significantly damaged, but a major project started taking shape before the coronavirus pandemic to partially reconstruct the cottage, enclose it under a new roof and add storyboards outlining its history. The rebuilding was completed in early 2020 and the post-Covid blessing of the updated cottage took place a few days ago, on Sunday 19 March.

In 1983, the Weikert Cottage was significantly damaged during the Ash Wednesday bushfires.

About 24 hours earlier, I explored the cottage, pausing in each room and trying to comprehend the magnitude of the first Jesuit presence in Australia that is represented by the building and its surroundings. While I stood there, in the embrace of history and with only the soft background noises of the bush, two tourists doing a cycle tour of the property came down the hill, braking carefully because of the wide, swinging curve and the unsealed surface. They came to a stop in front of the cottage but did not dismount, so I walked up to them and explained what the cottage represented, how it had been ravaged by the bushfire four decades earlier, and how the blessing was scheduled to take place the next day.

They listened, fascinated, as I gave them a brief history. Then the lead rider turned to his companion, who nodded, as if to say, “Let’s have a look”. Like half a dozen or so other riders who appeared in the next hour, they walked slowly through each room, pausing to read each of the storyboards that told the intertwined chapters of the Weikerts and the Jesuits and how it is impossible to tell the story of the family without the story of the religious order, or vice versa.

The next day, this dual theme was perfectly reflected in the speech by Fr Quyen Vu SJ, Provincial of the Australian Jesuits. “I’d like to believe that God led the Weikerts and their companions here for many reasons, not least of which was to create the first Jesuit presence in this country. By blessing this rebuilt cottage, we honour and give thanks for the legacy of Fr Kranewitter and the Weikerts. We pray that God may grant us the discernment to remember their vision and their boldness in venturing into the unknown. May their legacy of spirituality enlighten each of us on our own individual and collective journeys.”

When the ceremony began, there were already more people than the 60 chairs and the double marquee could accommodate. But the crowd numbers continued to swell and by the end there were close to 90 people there. Those present included the members of the Weikert Heritage Committee, MPs Penny Pratt and Geoff Brock, Mayor Allan Aughey,. Bishop Gregory O’Kelly SJ, Sr Brigitte Sipa, regional leader of Josephites in South Australia and Sister Monica Cavanagh, congregational leader of the Josephites for Australia. In her speech, Sr Monica evoked the strong connection of the cottage and the Sevenhill property to Saint Mary MacKillop, one of whose letters was discovered on the property and is now framed and on display in the main building.

Fr Quyen brought a memorable insight into the theme of journeys. “We are all pilgrims on a journey,” he said. “The first Jesuits as well as the Weikert family came here as pilgrims. I came from Vietnam and came out to Australia as a refugee.

Fr Rob Morris SJ and Provincial Fr Quyen Vu SJ during the blessing of each room of the cottage. Photo: David McMahon

“On any journey, whether it is physical or spiritual, we need to look back over our shoulder (or check the relevant app on our mobile devices!) to discern our own starting point. Why do we do that? The answer is simple. We do it in order to gauge not just how far we’ve come but also to take into account the obstacles that have been conquered along the way. When we take the time to create that perspective, we then truly appreciate how much has been achieved in the 175 years since the first Jesuits arrived in South Australia.

“Today is no different. The blessing and opening of the renovated Weikert Cottage reminds us to look back at the foundation of the Jesuit presence in Australia. This historic cottage was severely damaged by the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983. There are deeply significant Biblical overtones in this story. That was 40 years ago, and the number 40 is a recurring theme in the Bible, representing the most testing times.

“Jesus spent 40 days fasting and praying in the desert after being baptised in the Jordan and as he prepared for his life’s mission. Moses spent 40 days in prayer and fasting as he asked God to pardon his people. And surely 40 years must have seemed like an eternity for the people of Israel who traversed the desert as they waited to enter the Promised Land.

“But today, in a very different scenario from the sorrow and devastation of the Ash Wednesday fires, we are all here to celebrate what has been accomplished. The rebuilding of Weikert Cottage, completed in early 2020, has ensured that its religious and historic significance has been honoured and protected. This was not just due to the support of the Jesuits; it reminds us of the donations that came in, the many fundraising efforts and the tireless work by a small but deeply committed local committee behind the scenes that made it possible.”

One of the most touching moments – completely spontaneous and unrehearsed – came while Aunty Angelina Harradine-Buckskin was speaking in her conversational yet relatable style. “I hope that we can walk forward together,” she said, “from this moment as we take the next breath.” After her son-in-law and husband had performed on their didgeridoos, she said, “This sound is to honour our Ngadjuri people and how we move forward as men and women together.”

Then she gestured to Sr Monica and invited her, literally, into her arms. After they had embraced, Aunty Angelina smiled and quipped, “How times have changed, eh!”

After the ceremony was over, there was another unintended Biblical parallel that was perfectly relevant. While the estimates of the number of attendees had varied from about 25 to 40, the catering had been done with about 60 people in mind. However, with almost 90 people, no one went hungry or thirsty. You could say, perhaps, that it was Sevenhill’s adaptation of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes.

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

Feature panorama photo of Weikert Cottage by David McMahon.

Weikert Cottage

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Aunty Angelina Harradine-Buckskin. Photo: David McMahon.