A century of supporting Tasmanian Catholics

By Catherine Sheehan

This month marks 100 years since the establishment of the Knights of the Southern Cross in Tasmania. Over the past century the Knights have worked quietly behind the scenes to support Catholics in numerous ways. They have been the unsung heroes behind many significant achievements such as the establishment of Southern Cross Care.

“There was so much work that the Knights did behind the scenes for all Catholics, whether it’s students, the clergy, at nursing homes, in schools, helping people get jobs, helping them put food on the table,” said State Chair of the Knights, Steve Coleman.

“It would be hard to imagine, if the Knights didn’t get up and going, what it would have been like for families.”

While most Catholics will have heard of the Knights, and have some understanding of their involvement in doing good works in the community, few today know the truly remarkable history of the Order.

The Knights were founded to counteract the prejudice against Catholics in Australian society at the time. In the 1920’s it was not uncommon to see job advertisements stating, “Catholics need not apply”.

Much of the prejudice was fuelled by the fact that many of the Catholic early settlers in Australia had been Irish and therefore opposed to the ruling British authorities.

As a consequence, Catholics became commonly thought of in Australian society as rebellious trouble-makers.

2022: Mr Harold Gregg presented with the Supreme Knight’s Award by KSC State Council Chairman Mr John Prichard (right), with Harold’s second oldest son and also a Supreme Knight Award recipient, Mr Michael Gregg (left) proudly watching on. Photo: Supplied

Freemasonry was also a prevalent force, particularly amongst the Protestant British authorities, that sought to discredit, suppress and undermine Catholicism.

Like a counter-force to the prejudiced opposition in society, the Knights were established as an all-male Catholic ‘brotherhood’ that worked in secret to support Catholics practically, financially and socially.

Although not a secret society, members would often not even tell their own families that they were Knights and would keep their work for the Order strictly confidential.

“I’ve always considered it as the Catholic men’s version of the Masonic Lodge,” said Doug Forrest of Burnie, who has been a Knight for 60 years and has authored a book on the history of the Knights in Tasmania.

“When I first joined we were referred to as ‘the Bishop’s men’. This was particularly around the time of Archbishop Guilford-Young.”

“If there was something the Archbishop wanted done, he’d go to the Knights and get their support.”

2016: (L-R) District Chariman Justin Maguire, Burnie Branch Councillors Ken Lamprey, Paul Jacques, Kevin Boyd, Brian Scott and Mersey-Leven Councillors Glenn McNamara, Mervy Tippet and Damina Griffin. Photo: Supplied

Primarily however, the Knights were founded “to improve the economic wellbeing and standing of Catholics in the community” Mr Forrest said.

“The Catholic fraternity got together and supported Catholic people, particularly in getting jobs.”

The Knights in Tasmania began in August 1923, with 66 members and branches established in Hobart and Launceston. By 1968 they had 28 branches and 1,107 members.

They built their own headquarters at 64 Brisbane Street in Hobart, which was officially opened in 1960.

According to its mission statement, the Order seeks to, “Witness to Jesus Christ by advocating Christian values and beliefs throughout Australia, and leading the laity in a spirit of service inspired by the Gospel”.

“The Knights were instrumental in assisting Catholic schools get established, so that our children could go to school and get an education, because quite often Catholic families were disadvantaged or persecuted because they were Catholic,” Mr Coleman said.

“The Knights were also working to assist the clergy, because even the clergy were vulnerable to oppression and the pressures of society.”

Life memberships awarded 13 July 2011. L-R: Doug French, Doug Forrest and Merv Summers, presented by Branch Chairman Brian Scott. Photo: Supplied

In 1963 the Knights raised $48,000 to allow St John Fisher Residential University College in Sandy Bay to build accommodation for an additional 40 students.

In 1967 some 300 Knights assisted in the recovery and rebuilding work following devastating bush fires in Hobart. The Knights organised 80 working groups involved in fencing and cleaning properties and rebuilding homes.

The Knight’s greatest achievement in Tasmania however is considered to be the founding and establishment of Southern Cross Care in 1972 when they built self-contained units for the elderly at Launceston. Today, Southern Cross Care is the largest not-for-profit aged care provider in Tasmania, with facilities all around that state.

“We initiated Southern Cross Care so that Catholics, when they’re ageing, could have a nursing home they could go into that supports their faith,” Mr Coleman said.

Life memberships awarded 12 June 2012. L-R: Chairman Brian Scott, Greg Chatwin, Ken Lamprey and District Chairman Justin Maguire. Photo: Supplied

Today, a large part of the Knight’s work is around encouraging and supporting vocations. Each year in August during National Vocations Awareness Week, they distribute prayer cards to all parishes encouraging Catholics to pray for vocations to the priesthood, religious life, and marriage.

“It’s about promoting the faith, the Catholic faith, and the following of Jesus Christ,” Mr Coleman said.

“We need our clergy within our society and to keep our faith going… How could we have the Holy Eucharist if we didn’t have priests?”

To mark their centenary, members of the Order have also received special ‘centenary scarves’ and certificates of gratitude for their service over the years.

Parishioners will be encouraged at Masses around the state on the weekend of 27 August to pray for the Knights and to give thanks for their work in supporting Catholics in Tasmania for the past 100 years.

“I want them to be remembered and all the great works they’ve done. Even today we are continuing to enjoy the fruit of all their efforts,” Mr Coleman said.

In 1963 the Knights raised $48,000 to allow St John Fisher Residential University College in Sandy Bay to build accommodation for an additional 40 students.

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