The emergence of the Order of the Knights of the Southern Cross lay in the discrimination, prejudice and sectarianism confronting Catholics in Australia, in the early years of the 20th century. Religious bigotry was so strong that young Catholic men and women were finding it impossible to gain employment. Newspaper advertisements openly stated ‘No Catholic need apply’. Application forms for many jobs contained the question, ‘Where were you educated?’
In July 1917, a young business executive named Michael Chamberlain became so incensed by the overt religious bigotry that he drafted a letter to the Catholic newspaper The Advocate. After reading the letter, Jack Waldron from Elsternwick and Father John Lonergan arranged a meeting with Chamberlain to discuss strategies to combat the sectarianism that was rife in the community. The three men decided to establish an organisation known as the Knights of St Francis Xavier. The organisation was subsequently formed in December 1917.
The following year in Sydney, Patrick Minahan and Joseph Lynch shared their concerns about the disadvantages facing Catholic youth wishing to enter the workforce. Unaware of the action taken by their Victorian counterparts, the two men approached men of like mind for support in establishing a Catholic organisation in Sydney. The organisation was formed in March 1919 and was called the Commercial and Professional Men’s Association. The Association was based at the Catholic Club in Sydney.
On 7 July 1919, the Association adopted the name, the Order of the Knights of the Southern Cross. Archbishop Michael Kelly of Sydney approved the name change on 19 August 1919 and accepted the invitation to be the Order’s Spiritual Director.
In 1922, Branches were established in Queensland, South Australia, and Western Australia. In addition, the Order was established in New Zealand. In August 1923, a Branch was established in Tasmania.
The Victorian organisation continued to operate as the Knights of St Francis Xavier until an amalgamation with their New South Wales confreres was negotiated in March 1922.
A National Conference was held in July 1922. Delegates from each State (except Tasmania) attended this inaugural event in Sydney. During the Conference, delegates discussed the formation of a national body to coordinate the work of the Order across Australia. A Federal Directorate was subsequently formed in 1924 with Thomas M. Burke elected as National President.
In 1926, Burke was granted an audience in Rome with Pope Pius XI. During the meeting, he presented the Pope with a gold chalice on behalf of the Order in Australia. The Pope wrote:
With all our heart, and very grateful for the precious gift and for the more precious sentiments expressed in the address which accompanies it through the hands of Mr Thomas Michael Burke, we send a big Apostolic Blessing to all our beloved sons, the Knights of the Southern Cross, Catholic men of Australia and New Zealand, in their works for the welfare of youth and the Catholic cause, to their families, to all Australia and New Zealand.
In the ensuing years, members of the Order went quietly about the task of correcting discrimination against Catholics. In the 1960s, with sectarianism at a low ebb, proposals were put forward to make the Order’s existence better known and the nature of some of the Order’s activities assumed a slight change of direction.
The Order of the Knights of the Southern Cross is a non-party political and charitable organisation of Catholic laymen dedicated to the service of the Catholic Church and our fellow Australians.
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