Ever since the arrival in Sydney, New South Wales of the First Fleet, Australian Catholics have been discriminated against. More than 40,000 Irish convicts were transported to Australia in the early days of the settlement, mainly for minor offences. As young Australia became more settled and attained its own strong character, religious bigotry was fast becoming a way of life among the population which prided itself on its ability to live and work in freedom.
Sectarianism was then so strong that young Catholic men and women were finding it almost impossible to get work. Newspaper advertisements openly stated “No Catholic need apply". Application forms for almost any job contained the question, “Where were you educated?”.
Prompted by this general atmosphere, a young Melbourne business executive named Michael Chamberlin was hard at work one July evening in 1917, composing a letter to the Catholic Advocate about his concerns and of forming an organisation to counteract these opinions similar to the Catholics in the United States of America – The Knights of Columbus.
His letter caught the eye of Jack Waldron of Elsternwick, who had been thinking along similar lines. He approached Father J Lonergan for advice and the two subsequently arranged a meeting with Michael Chamberlain. From that meeting emerged the nucleus of an organisation known as the Knights of St Francis Xavier, the forerunner of the Order of the Knights of the Southern Cross in Victoria.
About the same time as Michael Chamberlin was writing to The Advocate, two Sydney men, who had a similar interest in Catholic youth were in deep discussion – unaware of the action of their Victorian counterparts. Patrick Minahan and Joseph Lynch were well aware of the disadvantages facing Catholic youth wishing to enter the work force.
They approached men of like mind for support, with the result that the first meeting took place in Sydney in March 1919.
The Melbourne and Sydney, New South Wales organisations both had the same purpose: to organise Catholic men with a view to their rendering aid to each other in temporal matters should it be deemed necessary.
The Sydney organisation was the first to adopt the Knights of the Southern Cross title on 7 July 1919. Branches were set up in all States and in New Zealand over the next few years.
The Melbourne group operated as the Knights of St Francis Xavier until its amalgamation with their Sydney confreres was negotiated in March 1922.
As the new organisation settled down to work, members went quietly about the task of correcting discrimination against Catholics. For obvious reasons, there was the need for anonymity in the earlier years. However, in the late 1950s, with sectarianism at a low ebb, and Catholics being accorded a greater degree of respect, proposals were put forward to make the Order’s existence better known. From this point onwards the nature of the Order’s activities assumed a slight change of direction.
The intensity of anti-Catholic feeling in public life generally had increased in Western Australia as a result of the bitterness aroused by the Conscription campaigns of 1916-1917. It was, as elsewhere in the Commonwealth inevitably bound up with the racial hostility involved in the Easter Week Rebellion in Dublin, Ireland in 1916-17, and was no means mollified by the Black and Tan campaign of repression.
It is difficult to assess any degree of difference between the repression suffered by Catholics in the West, and that imposed on them in other States, particularly Victoria. However it is quite clear that in the 1920s thinking Catholic men in Perth and Fremantle had come to the conclusion that something should be done to combat the injustices which were being done almost daily to their co-religionists, particularly to their sons and daughters.
To Mr P J Minihan of Sydney, came early in 1922 to interview His Grace, Archbishop Clune, with a view to the extension of the Order of the Knights of the Southern Cross to Western Australia.
A meeting of 53 men was convened in the Parochial Hall of the Cathedral on Sunday 12 February, 1922 by Messrs Lynch and Herlihy of New South Wales and duly admitted those present as the foundation members of the Order in Western Australia.
The expansion of the Order was rapid in the early years. Branches at Fremantle and Kalgoorlie were among the first formed. Fremantle, for many years with a character of its own, is still active.
The full history of the Knights of the Southern Cross of Western Australia can be read in “The Bishops’Men” written by Phil Heydon, OAM in 1977 and available to purchase from the State Office ISBN 0-9593303-1-3