Knights of the Southern Cross WA Symposium sets Standard for Centenary History Book

Local and interstate authors of the upcoming book The Knights of the Southern Cross in Western Australia: A History from 1922 to 2022 were delighted to have delivered a successful Symposium on their work at The Centre for Faith Enrichment on 17 September 2021. L-R (front row): Chair of the Western Australia History Foundation, Mr Clement Mulcahy, Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Theology at University of Notre Dame Australia, Dr Angela McCarthy, Senior Lecturer in Church History at Australian Catholic University, Dr Josephine Laffin, State Chairman KSC WA, Mr Nigel Hayward. L-R (on screen): Lecturer in Church History at Catholic Institute of Sydney, Dr Robert Andrews, Honorary Professor in Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales, Dr Jeff Kildea, Independent Researchers, Dr Nick Brodie and Dr Michael Francis.

By Dr Marco Ceccarelli

Lockdowns in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne did not prevent the Knights of the Southern Cross Western Australia (KSC WA) from showcasing their contribution to the cultural and religious heritage of WA at a symposium on Friday, 17 September.

Held at the Archdiocesan Centre for Faith Enrichment, and featuring the voices of eight authors from the upcoming book The Knights of the Southern Cross in Western Australia: A History 1922 – 2022 (to be released in 2023), the symposium was the first among many events celebrating the centenary of the founding of the KSC WA.

Opening the day with a live-streamed presentation from Sydney was Honorary Professor in Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales, Dr Jeff Kildea.

Dr Kildea spoke of the early 20th century formation of the Knights of the Southern Cross at a national and state level, emphasising instances of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish discrimination within a politically charged sectarian environment.

Dr Kildea emphasised that perceived disloyalty to the crown in matters both political and religious led to a rise in anti-Catholic sentiment that at worst erupted into conflict and at best would result in job advertisements listing ‘No Catholic need apply’.

The eventual added pressure of Freemasonry led to the birth of the Knights of the Southern Cross WA in 1922 as an order whose goal it was to foster by all legitimate means the interests of Australia, of its members and of fellow Catholics.

  • Honorary Professor in Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales, Dr Jeff Kildea, delivered a talk via video-link entitled Sectarianism, Freemasonry, Lay Leadership and the 20th Century, 1886-1922.

Following Dr Kildea’s talk was Church historian Dr Robert Andrews’ aptly titled The First Mission, 1922-1939.

Dr Andrews documented the mission, organisation, membership and activities of the KSC WA in the post-war period.

Topics in focus included the KSC WA’s financial assistance for the establishment of the Christian Brothers Agricultural School at Tardun in 1928 as well as their involvement in the Bushies Scheme, which brought children from remote locations to regional centres for religious education.

Dr Andrews spoke of the consolidation of the Order’s place in the Church and its interaction with the hierarchy as contributing to an increased presence of the role of laity in the Catholic community throughout the 20th century.

The periods of the Second World War and post-war years were masterfully dealt with by independent researchers, Drs Nick Brodie and Michael Francis, connecting from Tasmania and the ACT respectively.

Dr Brodie shared insights from his research into the KSC WA’s administration of home front relief, the establishment of the Catholic Welfare Organisation, and a determination to maintain contact with Knights involved in the war effort.

An example of outcomes from these initiatives included the creation of recreational spaces, also known as ‘camp huts,’ which could be turned into makeshift chapels for soldiers who wanted to engage in prayer.

  • Senior Lecturer in Church History at Australian Catholic University, Dr Josephine Laffin, delivered a presentation entitled In the Wake of Vatican II: The ‘New Look’ Order, 1962-1980.

Dr Brodie highlighted the efforts of the KSC WA to involve members in public affairs and politics – initiatives that became more pressing as the rise of communism and affiliated ideologies influenced the Australian political scenes.

These themes were picked up by Dr Francis in his talk on the post-war period, 1945-1962. Dr Francis nuanced the shifting mission of the Order by documenting the pressing need for state aid to Catholic schools as these reeled from the consequences of the Assisted Schools abolition Act of 1895 that deprived them of much-needed funding. In this regard, Dr Francis focused on the KSC WA’s establishment of the Catholic Education Committee in 1954 to unite the Catholic Parents and Friends Associations into a federation capable of lobbying government for help with fees and capital expenditure.

Dr Francis also briefly spoke of the split in the Australian Labor Party of 1955 and the creation of the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party as a result of fears linked to communist infiltration of trade unions. Although there was no formal split in the state Labor Party in WA, Dr Francis noted that the Democratic Labor Party did establish a presence in the state. While anti-communist in its views, the KSC WA excluded party politics from its deliberations and focused on the Parents and Friends Federation WA, leaving a lasting and fundamental legacy of educational equity and justice.

Leading the audience into the post-Vatican II period and shedding light into the changing charism and spirituality of the KSC WA, was Church historian Dr Josephine Laffin. The first of three face-to-face interactions for the day, Dr Laffin shed light on the KSC WA’s modernising efforts, resulting in the establishment of Southern Cross Care in 1966, the publication of the official national journal Advance Australia (1965), and later Knightlife(1973), a gradual abandonment of secrecy, and a rapprochement with Freemasons to work on common interests. The growing membership crisis and lack of young members featured in Dr Laffin’s talk – a symptom linked to the growing identity crisis experienced by the Order in the 1960s and 1970s and subsequent deliberations on its purpose in the future.

Closing the event to cover the 1980s, 1990s and present day were the presentations of theologian Dr Angela McCarthy and Chair of the Western Australia History Foundation, Clement Mulcahy. Dr McCarthy drew the audience’s attention to the KSC WA’s resilience in what she termed the “post-Vatican II slump” and loss of enthusiasm in the church.

“In WA, the KSC and St Vincent de Paul Society were two organisations that didn’t go into that slump but maintained energy and organisation.”

They did so, she explained, via continued financial support of numerous initiatives, an insistence on the family as a focal point of society, a defence of Christian values and an appreciation and promotion of ecumenism.

Dr McCarthy’s brief documentation of the Austellarians, a support group set up by the KSC WA for widowed wives of Knights, left the audience in expectation of her book chapter.

  • Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Dr Angela McCarthy, spoke of the work of the Knights of the Southern Cross WA throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

She closed her talk by pointing to the “crown jewel” for the KSC WA in this time – the Education Foundation in 1992 – of which she was a proud recipient.

The Foundation facilitated The University of Notre Dame’s growth and ability to play a major role in Western Australian and Australian education.

Clement Mulcahy’s masterful rendition of the KSC WA’s more recent history, 1991 – present, ended the tale of the Order’s vibrant history and left on a “to be continued” note.

Mr Mulcahy spoke of the “quiet way of the Knights” as they pursued social justice initiatives and became heavily involved in charitable activities.

Aside from this, other activities of the Order that benefited not just Catholics, but all Australians, were documented.

In the wake of vacuums left by diminishing religious orders, the KSC WA became more involved in social justice, migration, health care and education. 
Their determination and “faith in doing things on a large scale”, Mr Mulcahy explained, saw the Knights expand from residential care to affordable home care and independent living. Furthermore, their outreach to indigenous people and establishment of health and education sectors in Broome has been welcomed as a practical expression of calls for reconciliation. Mr Mulcahy emphasised that the KSC WA put into practice the approach of “walking with indigenous Australians” from their very initial interactions with them. They were exemplary, he stated, of current views concerning the respect of Aboriginal people and the recognition of their situation in terms of appropriation of land and healthcare.

  • Recipients of funds from KSC Education Foundation: Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Dr Angela McCarthy and Senior Teacher at Catholic Education WA, Jenni Hutton. Angela and Jenni were living proof of how the KSC’s financial aid has benefited Australians in the education and religious education sector.

The event was closed with current State Chairman of KSC WA, Mr Nigel Hayward, expressing words of thanks to the participants and audience and promising that there will be a chapter in the upcoming book, authored by him, documenting the 2022 centenary celebrations.

The symposium explored the rich history of the KSC WA and offered a foretaste of what is to come in the history book.

For all those with an interest in Western Australia’s cultural and religious heritage, watch this space!

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