This month, the Order of the Knights of the Southern Cross Victoria celebrates the centenary of their official foundation under that name. The following is an abridged version of an article from the KSCV’s official publication, The Crusader. It describes the life and achievements of prominent Melbourne Catholic, Sir Michael Chamberlin KBE, whose 1917 letter to the editor of The Advocate helped put in motion the beginnings of the Order.

Businessman. Public servant. Real estate agent. Philanthropist. Academic. Administrator. Devout Catholic. Son. Brother. Husband. Advisor to Melbourne’s archbishops. First Deputy Chancellor of Monash University. Knight of the British Empire. Knight of the Order of Pius. Founding Member of the Knights of St Francis Xavier. Founding Member of the Knights of the Southern Cross Victoria.

These are just some of the roles and titles of Sir Michael Chamberlin KBE KCOP, who was one of the most prominent Catholic laymen in Melbourne’s and Australia’s history. While not as well known publicly as B.A. Santamaria (a frequent associate and friend), Sir Chamberlin’s impact on Australian Catholic society was nevertheless far reaching, and remains evident to this day. He was a man of many talents in many fields, which he would utilise for the greater good of his fellow Catholics, who were openly discriminated against at the time.

A life of service

Sir Chamberlin’s story began on 30 August 30 1891, born in Richmond to Richard and Julia (née Callinan) Chamberlin, the eldest of nine children. He received his primary schooling in Sale and Yarrawonga, and secondary schooling at Christian Brothers College Geelong. Following his schooling, at age 15 he began working with the Victorian Railways as a station hand and clerk. Later, at 21 years of age, he would pass the public service examination, and would assume correspondence and accounting duties with the Victorian Department of Public Works. He was seconded to the State War Council during the latter stages of the First World War, and would work for the Department of Public Health during the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic, assisting with the establishment of temporary hospitals to deal with that crisis.

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Sir Michael Chamberlin KBE Supplied

He would also utilise his skills in the private sector, entering the real estate world, joining the agency of prominent Catholic layman Thomas Michael Burke in 1922. He would go on to manage the Sydney Branch of T.M. Burke’s agency, and while there would assist those Catholics struggling to find employment during the early stages of the Great Depression. Returning to Melbourne in 1933, he would hold senior positions with other financial institutions, including the National Trustees, Executors & Agency Co. of Australasia Ltd, City Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd and T. M. Burke Finance & Investment Co. Pty Ltd.

While a talented public servant and businessman, he was also deeply involved with many Catholic organisations, one of his earliest being the Catholic Young Men’s Society (CYMS), where he would eventually rise to the position of general president and create various outreach initiatives.

While a representative of the CYMS, he would take part in the official welcoming of Archbishop Dr Daniel Mannix to Melbourne in 1913, greeting him with a welcoming speech. Dr Mannix would be impressed by the young Chamberlin, who would quickly become a close confidant, neighbour, and financial advisor to the mighty Irish-born Archbishop, who would later appoint him a member of the Archdiocese’s Roman Catholic Trusts Corporation. In this capacity, Sir Chamberlin would use his business skills to acquire property for the establishment of Catholic buildings. He would also undertake much charitable work, and actively campaign for state aid to independent schools.

The letter that started it all

His greatest contribution to the Catholic Church in Australia would come from the writing of a letter to the editor of The Advocate (the then diocesan newspaper of the Archdiocese of Melbourne), which was published on 11 August 1917, calling for the formation of an organisation such as the Knights of Columbus in North America to counter the continual discrimination of Catholics and the freemasonic influence within Australian society at the time.

From that letter, the first Australia-wide Order of Knights would be formed – the Knights of St Francis Xavier – in December 1917. They would eventually merge with the Knights of the Southern Cross from New South Wales, holding their first Victorian Meeting under that name in March 1922, with Sir Chamberlin one of the foundation members and state councillors, and T.M. Burke its first Grand Knight (what we know as State Chairman today).

The Advocate 11 August 1917 Michael Chamberlin Letter web
Sir Michael Chamberlin’s letter to The Advocate calling for the formation of an organisation such as the Knights of Columbus in North America. Supplied

First Deputy Chancellor of Monash University

Sir Chamberlin would receive numerous appointments and honours for his contributions to Catholic and Australian society. Some of the senior positions he would receive were with St Vincent’s Hospital, Mercy Private Hospital, St George’s Hospital Kew, Newman College at the University of Melbourne, La Trobe University, the Australian Institute of Management, the Institute of Directors, the Australian Society of Accountants and the Economic Society of Australia.

On behalf of the Knights, he sat on the Dr Horace Nowland travelling scholarship committee and on the Catholic Vocational Guidance Auxiliary. He was good friends with B.A. Santamaria, for whom he chaired the National Civic Council’s extension committee.

Sir Chamberlin was an integral part of the foundation of Monash University, becoming its first Deputy Chancellor in 1961. He would also play a significant part in the development of Monash’s Catholic Residential College, Mannix College, of which he would become the first Fellow, and would have the library named in his honour, to which he donated his book collection.

Among the various honours he received, he would be appointed an O.B.E in 1955, which was upgraded to a knighthood in 1964 for his services to education; appointed a Knight of the Order of Pius by Pope Paul VI in 1969; and would receive an honorary doctorate of laws from Monash University in 1969.

Lady Vera Chamberlin unveiling portrait of Sir Michael Chamberlin former Deputy Chancellor at Mannix College 1973
Lady Vera Chamberlin unveiling portrait of Sir Michael Chamberlin, former Deputy Chancellor, at Mannix College (1973) Monash University Archives

Good works to the end

Sir Chamberlin would take much of his journey in life with the company of a woman by the name of Veronica Christina Erck. They were married on 6 December 1924 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, and had no children.

At the age of 80, Sir Chamberlin suffered a heart attack in his home on Studley Park Road, Kew (opposite the then Archbishop’s residence ‘Raheen’). Active to the end, he had attended board meetings earlier that day and had appeared at an NCC function two nights earlier where he received a standing ovation. Archbishop James Knox presided over Sir Chamberlin’s funeral at St Patrick’s Cathedral on 20 March 1972, with over 900 congregants in attendance. He was later buried at the Boorondara Cemetery in Kew. Lady Veronica Chamberlin would survive her husband for another 26 years, passing on 8 August 1998.

The Order owes Sir Michael Chamberlin so much, as do all Victorian Catholics. Let us honour his role in the foundation of the Order by continuing its good works, and seeking those who can make significant contributions to our Church.

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Sir Michael and Lady Veronica Chamberlin’s Grave, Boorondara Cemetery, Kew Supplied
The Advocate August 11 1917 Page 18 Michael Chamberlin Letter Large

The letter that started it all

Below is the text of Sir Michael Chamberlin’s letter to the editor of The Advocate (11 August 1917)

How to Counteract the Influence of Freemasonry

To the Editor of “The Advocate.”

Sir. There has been much discussion of late among Catholics who are only just awakening to the manner in which they have been bled for years, as to the most effective means of combatting and counteracting the insidious influences of Freemasonry in the Commonwealth, and I understand the subject has, at least in some of its phases, been discussed by the Catholic Federation; but, up to date, it would seem that the matter has not received that comprehensive consideration and inquiry which its importance merits. There are many disastrous examples in modern times of the dangers to Catholicity of a policy of laissez faire in respect to this and similar anti-Catholic organisations. Need I mention the sad example of France? Of course, there the secularism of Voltaire and his disciples is the root cause, but Freemasonry has been the instrument of modern secularism in its dastardly work of banishing the belief in God from the land, and that other “easy” task, “putting out the lights of Heaven.” It is claimed that the Masonic organisations of this country are not anti-Catholic nor irreligious. There is no need to discuss this now; the truth in that members join the organisation for what they hope to get out of it, in the shape of material advancement, irrespective of their abilities. So much for the “brotherly love” ideal! The Catholic College within the University is going to fulfil a long-felt want, but our efforts and sacrifices will be considerably negatived unless we can effectively meet the Masonic organisation. Our graduates will be at a great disadvantage, especially those who will be helped through a course by scholarships—may they be many—if they have to enter the various strata of society honeycombed with the craftiness of the lodge unaided. The Catholics of the United States have the Knights of Columbus; should we not have some secular order? Modern conditions render modern methods necessary. These people must be met with their own weapons, when all else fails. I am loath to suggest one more Catholic society, but it would appear absolutely necessary. The Catholic Federation does not meet the case; it must, of necessity, be an organisation of much wider scope, and doing a work of entirely different character, mainly political. The question is at least one which merits deep consideration, and perhaps a report on the success, or otherwise, of the Knights of Columbus might be obtained from America.—Yours, etc.,

M. C.