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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

First history of the Knights of the Southern Cross in New South Wales offers wide horizons


Baxter’s work shatters the notion that a history of an order of Catholic laymen is merely the recounting of dates, events and personalities through a narrow and respectful spectrum that avoids controversy or offence at all costs so as to produce a feel-good reaction in its sponsors.
Instead he adopts the position of an uncensored, candid tell-it-like-it-is teller of tales that provides the reasons why the Knights were established in the face of bigotry and their struggle for acceptance by the Church, and Australian society. For those who are ignorant of the crucial role Irish Catholicism played in the foundation of Australia, its legends, its outlaws, trade unions, Labor Party and a voice for workers in Parliament Reach for the Stars is a valuable resource. New generations of Catholics in multi-cultural Australia where the demographic is undergoing a sea-change will find the answers to many of their questions.
Baxter begins his tale not in Australia, but in the sordid and cruel atmosphere of her elder sister, Ireland, and the impact it had on the fortress mentality of the pubescent Church in Australia until it stood erect, strong, manly and unafraid for the 1928 International Eucharistic Congress that saw the Blessed Sacrament sail by ferry across the Harbor and paraded through city streets with a Knights’ guard of honour, The Bowler Hat Brigade.
He says that if Australians honour 1901 as the Year of Federation then Catholics should revere 1928 as the time of coming of age of the Australian Church. The Knights were in the front line as they drove into the shadows their fanatical oppressors who had threatened bloodshed if the Blessed Sacrament was paraded through London streets ten years previously.
The book, despite its depiction of venomous anti-Catholicism in Ireland and Australia, avoids the errors of anti-Protestantism and pays tribute to Protestant fighters for freedom in both countries. However, it lays the blame for the No Catholics Need Apply job discrimination in 1919 squarely at the feet of those who exercised Power and Control in reaction to the defeat of military conscription in two referendums in the bloodbath of World War I.
It depicts the unlikely partnership between Joseph Lynch, a mild-mannered school inspector and Patrick Minahan, a florid Labor politician and wealthy shoe manufacturer that led to the formation of the Knights of the Southern Cross, first in Sydney and then in all States.
The book traces the long struggle to obtain justice for Catholic schools and the removal of unfair taxes, and the competition between Freemasons and Catholics not only for jobs, but for commercial contracts.
On a wider scope, Reach for the Stars, provides the world backdrop in the deadliest of all centuries, the 20th, and the struggle of Christian civilization in a world threatened by extinction. Closer to home, the book deals with some fratricidal conflicts with followers of The Movement of B.A. Santamaria and the political consequences. The financial disasters that beset the Knights and cost them their headquarters are also described.
The book looks at opportunities for new roles for the Knights in bringing together the diversity of lay Catholics in expressions of the Faith through entrepreneurship. It throws down the gauntlet to the Knights to enhance their commitment to social justice, particularly for those who care for children with serious mental and physical frailties. It calls for new blood to reinvigorate the 90-year-old Order of laymen in the Third Millennium with its disappointing start of more wars and economic collapse and people driven from their homes.
The general tone of the book is congenial and optimistic. However, Reach for the Stars, warns that unlike their forebears ninety years ago, today’s Knights do not face visible enemies, but vague yet real threats from rationalist and materialistic forces, and from “the Catholic White Ant”, to which Baxter devotes a short chapter. Young Catholics curious about the past will find the book rewarding.

Cliff Baxter B.Ed., author, journalist, broadcaster and adult educator, a native of New South Wales, is a graduate of the University of Technology, Sydney and won the UTS Mechanics Institute Medal in 2003.