John Lawrence May was born in Naremburn on the lower North Shore of Sydney.
After completing his secondary education at the Christian Brothers College, Paddington, he worked as an apprentice carpenter and joiner, before entering the novitiate of the Society of Jesus [Jesuits] at Loyola College in Victoria in 1949.
His vocation was to be a Jesuit brother rather than a priest and he remained at Loyola College until 1962, serving the sizeable Jesuit community housed there, fulfilling many practical household jobs, including carpentry needs.
In 1963 he was assigned to the Jesuit mission at Sevenhill in South Australia, the first foundation of the Jesuits in Australia.
Here, Br John’s skills as a tradesman, a communicator with people from all walks of life, and as a person prepared to venture and undertake practically anything, came to the fore. He extended his carpentry and metalwork repertoire during his seven years at Sevenhill to include, at various times, house minister, assistant cook, assistant vigneron, viticulturalist, vintner, custodian of the Jesuit cemetery and caretaker of Saint Aloysius’ Church.
In 1971, Br John returned to Loyola College at Watsonia in Victoria where he was house minister, assistant to the Master of Novices for the formation of brothers, assistant director of the retreat house, and responsible for the grand old college and its grounds.
It seemed, however, that Sevenhill was to be Br John’s true calling and in 1972 he returned and remained there for the next 45 years.
Br John replaced Br John Hanlon SJ, the sixth Jesuit winemaker of Sevenhill, who died in 1972. It was from Br Hanlon that Br John learned many of his winemaking skills, but mostly from local winemaker Jim Barry with whom he became a life-long friend.
Br John’s ministry to the Sevenhill community and throughout the Clare Valley and beyond was truly remarkable.
In 2016, as one of Clare Valley’s most respected wine industry figures, Br John was named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. He was admitted as a member in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AM) in recognition of his significant service to winemaking, through contributions to professional associations, to regional tourism and to the Catholic Church in Australia.
At the time, Br John characteristically deflected the honour extended to him:
“We are all given gifts by God and, when I was sent to Sevenhill, my commitment was to exercise all my talents for the greater glory of God. Being a Jesuit, our motto Ad majorem Dei gloriam (For the greater glory of God) has been my guiding light. Having devoted my life to the Lord, I do not expect to be honoured for my work which, for me, has always had its own rewards.”
Br John contributed to the local community in many ways, including as chair of the Clare Valley Tourism Association and member of the Clare Valley Winemakers’ Association, Clare Region Winegrape Growers’ Association, and vine improvement and landcare organisations.
He was a keen sportsman, playing tennis and table tennis, and he ‘trod the boards’ with local theatre group, the Auburn Players, for 14 years.
Br John retired from winemaking in early 2003, with his stellar career distinguished by the emergence of Sevenhill’s reputation for quality table wines, the growth of its cellar door and visitor recognition of Sevenhill as an important location of religious and heritage character.
Br John received the Jubilee Medal from the Australian Jesuits in 2006 and his contribution to the wine industry was recognised with life membership of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia in 2004. In 2014, he was made an inaugural member of the Clare Valley Wine Hall of Fame as one of six recipients of Legends Awards, presented by the Clare Valley Winemakers’ Association. He also received the Harry Dowling Award for excellence in regional tourism at the 2005 South Australian Tourism Awards.
His contribution to Sevenhill was recognised with the launch in 2008 of the 2004 Brother May Reserve Release Shiraz to coincide with the completion of his 45th vintage at Sevenhill.
Made from premium fruit in limited quantity, the fifth vintage of this highly sought after wine, the 2010 Brother John May Reserve Release Shiraz, was released in early 2016.
It remains to be noted that Br John was first and foremost an observant, loyal and faithful Jesuit.
He would rise before dawn, pray, walk, attend morning Mass, 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. Many of us have been the beneficiaries of this service, prompting now a prayer of gratitude to a companion, friend, and brother to whom we owe much.
Br John returned to NSW at the end of May 2017, living at Arrupe House, a residence for senior Jesuits in the grounds of Canisius College.
In June this year he moved to St Peter’s Green Residential Aged Care, North Sydney, where he died peacefully eight days after his 92nd birthday.
– Brendan J Kelly SJ, Superior, SevenhillJump to next article