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Knights of the Southern Cross celebrate 100 years of contribution to Catholic faith, life and culture

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KSC WA Chaplain Fr Patrick Toohey proclaims the Gospel during the Mass to celebrate the Centennial Mass on Saturday 12 February at St Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Ron Tan.

By Eric Martin

The Knights of the Southern Cross Western Australia joyously commemorated a rich history of immense contribution to WA at their Centennial Mass and celebration, on Saturday 12 February 2022, at St Mary’s Cathedral, taking the opportunity to reflect on the momentous changes that have occurred over the last 100 years.

“One hundred years ago, when the Knights of the Southern Cross were established in Australia, the social and religious context in which the Catholic Church found itself was very different to that of today,” Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB said to the gathered Knights, family and invited guests.

“We are all aware, for example, of the fact that so many job advertisements at that time included the phrase ‘Catholics need not apply’.”

In early twentieth-century, Australia historical competition between religions (sectarianism) meant that colonial society was spilt in two - one side was British in origin and Protestant in faith, the other Irish, working class and Catholic – and conflict between these groups sometimes erupted “into a roaring blaze over issues such as home rule for Ireland, state aid for Catholic schools, socialism and conscription for overseas service in World War I.” (1).

For example, in 1905 the Australian Bishops were accused of supporting the socialist reform policies of the Labour Party (which at the time represented “nine out of 10 Catholics”), and in 1919, during WWI, then Prime Minister Billy Hughes claimed that “the Catholic Church was secretly against recruiting and that its influence killed conscription.” (2).

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Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB speaks during the Mass to celebrate the Centennial Mass on Saturday 12 February at St Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Ron Tan.

Historians write that at this time “Catholics saw themselves as a separate group in Australian society, Catholic and Protestant children went to separate schools and joined separate clubs to pursue sporting or cultural interests.” (3).

“It was in the context of this challenging social and religious environment that the Knights of the Southern Cross was formed to provide support, encouragement and fraternity for Catholics and to stand up for the rights and teachings of the Church,” Archbishop Costelloe explained.

The founding of the Knights of the Southern Cross WA in 1922 was understood by Catholics to be a necessary protection against non-Catholic prejudice in employment, vital for supporting Catholic social initiatives and integral to promoting the reforms proposed by Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Rerum Novarum. (4).

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Former KSC WA Executive Officer Peter Lewis reads the prayers of the faithful with fellow Knights. Photo: Ron Tan.

“Yet, although in many ways it was a bleak time for Catholics it was nonetheless a time when Catholics and other Christians, who together formed the vast majority of the Australian population, at least shared the same fundamental moral values,” he said.

The Knights were instrumental in bringing about ecumenical cooperation through their pursuit of goals that fostered clear social benefits for West Australians, such as KSC WA’s financial support of the Christian Brothers Agricultural School at Tardun as well as their involvement in the Bushies Scheme, which brought children from remote locations to regional centres for religious education.

During the post WWII period, the Knights established the Catholic Welfare Organisation, whose successor, Catholic Social Services Australia, now oversees some 45 Catholic welfare agencies.

Similarly, The Parents and Friends Federation of Western Australia Inc. was founded by the Knights in 1954, when 14 Parents and Friends’ Associations were united as a Federation to lobby the government for help with fees and capital expenditure. By 1955, 28 schools were affiliated, and in 2022, the Federation now represents the parents of over 70000 students in Catholic schools across the state.

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[Left] Archbishop Costelloe invests KSCWA State Chair Nigel Hayward for another term. [Right] KSC WA Member and Southern Cross Care Board Member Thomas Seeber introduces Supreme Knight of Australia, Dr George Sekulla. Photo: Ron Tan.


Seeing a deep need for residential care amongst elderly West Australians, the Knights established Southern Cross Care in 1966, surviving the “post-Vatican II slump” through the financial support of such initiatives, an insistence on the family as the fundamental unit of society, and an ecumenical defence of Christian values. They spearheaded the efforts which saw the gradual breakdown of sectarianism during the 60’s and 70’s.

In modern times, the Knights expanded their efforts from residential care to affordable home care and independent living, and have become champions of Catholic education in WA, through their support of the University of Notre Dame, Fremantle, and their generous work granting scholarships for religious education through the KSC Education Foundation.

“For the last 100 years the Knights of the Southern Cross have been known for their commitment to the faith and for their fidelity to the Lord and to his Church,” Archbishop Costelloe said.

“At a time of great challenge and trial for the Church which we all love and to which we are so privileged to belong, it is my earnest prayer and plea that you all renew your determination to continue along the path of faith and service as the Knights continue to be signs and bearers of the Lord’s love for his people.”

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[Left] Supreme Knight of Australia, Dr George Sekulla speaks to the congregation during the Mass to celebrate the Centennial Mass on Saturday 12 February at St Mary’s Cathedral. [Right] KSCWA State Chair Nigel Hayward invests the new WA State Council, at the conclusion of the Mass to celebrate the Centennial Mass on Saturday 12 February at St Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Ron Tan.


(1). Dr Jeff Kildea, 1997, Sectarianism: Did Western Australia avoid the worst of it?

(2). Dr Jeff Kildea, 2019, Absence or Amnesia: Was the Golden West really free of ‘the noxious weed of sectarianism’ that blighted early twentieth-century Australia?

(3). Katharine Massam, 1996, Sacred threads: Catholic Spirituality in Australia, 1922-1962.

(4). A. E. Cahill, 1960, Catholicism and Socialism - The 1905 Controversy in Australia.