A Plethora of Knights

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the thousand-year old Knights of Malta may be pleased.

A plethora of associations of knights emerged following exposure of the Ivan Markovic operation in 1985. Most disclaimed any connection with Markovics’s organisation, reported as having been infiltrated by a group of dubious Australians and the American mafia.

It became clear that the Knights of Malta have become known by various names. So many, it seemed, that confusion reigned over just which order legitimately represented the true lineage back to the original knights of the medieval crusades.

In particular, there was confusion as to which order enjoyed Papal patronage.

Though sections of the hierarchy of the Catholic church had supported other Knights of Malta organisations, the Vatican itself stressed that it officially recognised only one order which promoted itself as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM).

Its full title is the Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta.

Knights of Malta can boast that theirs is the oldest order of chivalry in existence. A military religious order originally, they date back to the Crusades of the 11th century.

Initially started by shipping merchants of Amalfi, south of Naples, to conduct a hospital in Jerusalem for pilgrims using their ships to go to the Holy Land, they became a constituted religious order when Christian crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099. As the order expanded, it also took on a military nature, defending Jerusalem and later the city of Acre in bloody battles until Moslem tribes pushed them back to Cyprus in the late 13th century.

In 1309, the Knights captured the island of Rhodes and held out against Turkish invaders until 1522 when they were forced to surrender to Suleiman the Magnificent.

Dispossessed, this was when the Emperor Charles V of Spain conferred upon them the sovereignty of the island of Malta. When Napoleon seized Malta, the Knights fled to Russia, where Czar Paul I had himself elected grand master.

In the late 1820s, the order moved to Rome, seeking help from European powers to restore them to a new sovereign base. Islands were considered in the Baltic and Aegean, but the only base they secured was a palace in Rome, Palazzo di Malta, still its world home.

The vexed question of sovereignty has been debated ever since. In 1862, the Italian Minister of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs declared it to ‘a certain extent a World Order . . . Deprived of the sovereignty which it exercised first in the island of Rhodes and then in that of Malta, it continued to preserve, and still does, a character which no European power has ever ceased to recognise and respect’. And nearly 100 years later, in 1961, a judgement was given by the Civil Courts of Rome that the order was ‘an international sovereign society’.

Today, from Rome, the papal order continues to act as a unique nation-state, maintaining diplomatic relations with 41 countries, minting its own coins, printing its own stamps, and issuing licence plates and passports.

No longer of any direct military or diplomatic significance, its main charter is to carry on the original Hospitaller tradition of supporting international hospitals and relief organisations. Indeed, it has been lauded as one of the world’s largest privately financed sources of help for the needy.

Its membership includes clergy, royalty, ambassadors, government figures and merchants. With its ecumenical approach in modern times, it is not just a snobbish clan of noble Catholics. According to one social historian, ‘The Knights of Malta comprise what is perhaps the most exclusive club on earth. They are more than the Catholic aristocracy . . . (they) can pick up a telephone and chat with the Pope’.

In the United States, membership includes Lee Iacocca of Chrysler, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, as well as the current director of the CIA, William Casey, and J. Peter Grace, the Reagan administration cost-cutting adviser who visited Australia in March 1985 as guest of the Victorian-based Institute of Public Affairs.

The entrenched membership in Australia includes a respected judge and respectable businessmen. An association of Australian Knights of Malta was established in 1974.

In a newspaper article at the time, one of the rare pieces of publicity about the order in Australia, the headline proclaimed: Old Order seeks a new image.

During the following 10 years, the true order was to be upstaged by the bogus outfit manipulated by Ivan Markovics, who exploited a curious reluctance among genuine knights to publicly denounce the misuse of their name.

The grand master of the order, Angelo de Mojana di Cologna, an Italian lawyer, holds a rank in the church equal to a cardinal and is recognised as a sovereign chief of state by some 41 nations with which the SMOM exchanges ambassadors.

Tracing its history back to the 11th century, the order lists Angelo di Cologna as the 77th grand master since the original founder, Brother Peter Gerard.

Originally, the order was known as the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, then the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. That, of course, has added to confusion among the various Knights of Malta organisations, which have adopted similar names, and all claim lineage back to Gerard.

Candidates for membership of the Vatican-recognised order must be vouched for as practising Catholics by their parish priest and bishop and show willingness to devote not only money but time and effort to help the poor and needy.

Past presidents of the Australian association of knights have been Mr Justice Mahoney of NSW and Mr Justice Gobbo of Victoria. Its president in 1985 when the Markovics operation was exposed was Mr D. F. Jackson, then a Brisbane Queen’s Counsel and since appointed a Federal judge.

According to statements issued by Mr Jackson, the only other order with a ‘long and respectable history’ was the Venerable Order of St John.

It goes by the name of The Order of St John in Australia. Its official title is The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem.

As explained by its secretary in Canberra, Mr C. A. Campbell, it is a British Commonwealth-wide Royal Order of Chivalry, and the parent body of St John Ambulance.

It is a Protestant order founded in England in 1830, in effect as a Royal breakaway from the original Knights of Malta.

As recorded in a history of the Knights of Malta, titled The Shield and the Sword, written by Ernlee Bradford, a number of French knights in the 1830s had resuscitated an English branch of the order without the consent of the order’s ruling body.

The books says: ‘The order, while always co-operating and remaining on friendly terms with the English branch, never agreed to recognise this organisation as a branch of the original Catholic order founded by Blessed Gerard. This English Priory was converted by a Royal Charter of Queen Victoria into a British order of Chivalry in 1888. The Queen became its Sovereign Head and appointed her son, later Edward VII, as its Grand Prior. Ever since then, the reigning monarch has been the Sovereign Head of the Order in England.’

Mr Jackson asserted: ‘It is perhaps not surprising that from time to time, particularly in the United States, persons having nothing to do with (either his or Mr Campbell’s orders) have sought for their own purposes to establish organisations which use similar names. Those organisations have, so far as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta is concerned, as much relative claim to legitimacy as the claim to independence of Prince Leonard’s Hutt River Province.’

Mr Campbell pointed that there is ‘much confusion’ between five alliance orders of St John which are formally recognised by sovereign governments.

In particular, one such independent order, known in Australia as the Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller, had among its members former Governor-General of Australia Sir Zelman Cowen.

In official listings, Sir Zelman always included his Knight of Malta status, and included the initials K.St.J after his name. Indeed, the Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia records his appointment as Knight of the Order of St John of Jerusalem alongside his appointment as a Knight of the British Realm.

A former Prime Minister of Australia, the late Mr Frank Forde, who was interim Prime Minister for a short time in 1945, also had been listed as having been a member of the same order.

Among other notable knights of this order have been Sir Edward (‘Weary’) Dunlop, of Second World War fame, and Sir Hubert Opperman, champion cyclist and former Ambassador to Malta.

This order, too, claims to trace its ancestry to the original Knights of Malta, and maintains that, apart from the Vatican-recognised Sovereign Military Order of Malta and the British-sanctioned Order of St John, it is the ‘only other valid Order of St John in Australia’.

Speaking as acting prior of the order in NSW, Lieutenant-Colonel W. M. Gray said that in fact there were six Orders of St John that were recognised as valid Orders of Chivalry by the International Commission for Orders of Chivalry, based in Edinburgh, of which the Duke of Edinburgh was a past patron, and present patron being the Duke of Wurttemberg.

The approved orders he cited included the Vatican-recognised, the British-sanctioned order, as well as his order, which he describes as the ‘Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem under the protection of of Royal House of Yugoslavia as a Dynastic Order, the Grand Master being HRH Prince Andrej of Yugoslavia’.

(The other three orders he cites were the ‘Venerable Order of St John of Prussia, under the protection of the Federal Republic of Germany; the Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem, under the protection of the Crown of the Netherlands, and the Venerable Order of St John of Sweden, under the protection of HM the King of Sweden’.)

According to one of the Australian knights of the Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem, the Reverend Dr Gordon Powell, of Doncaster, Victoria, his organisation was one of ‘two legitimate branches of the order’ in Australia — the other being the British-sanctioned Order of St John.

He pointed out that Prince Andrej, who visited Australia in 1984, was a great grandson of Queen Victoria.

In a speech prepared for an investiture held at Camber-well in 1985, Rev Powell made it clear that he looked upon members of his organisation as true successors of the original Knights of Malta.

‘You and I,’ he told the gathering, ‘have the privilege of maintaining a 900-year tradition . . . Down the centuries the knights of St John fought with arms to defend the faith. I pray that we will not have to take up arms for that purpose, but there is a great need in Australia today for men and women who have the courage to stand up for the faith against godless forces which threaten to destroy our Christian heritage.’

He held that Prince Andrej was the true successor as grand master to the original founder, Brother Gerard, whereas the Vatican-recognised order maintained that its grand master, Angelo di Cologna, was the rightful successor.

As Rev Powell explained it, ‘In the 18th century the rulers of Malta were the knights of St John. When Napoleon attacked the island in 1798 the grand master eventually had to surrender to him. A large group of knights sought refuge in St Petersburg (now Leningrad) where Czar Paul I gave them sanctuary. They made him their grand master.

‘A smaller group went to Sicily and then Rome where they were recognised by the Pope. Besides our Sovereign Order headed by Prince Andrej, other branches are based not only in Rome, but in England, Germany, Sweden, Holland and the USA.

‘It is from this Czar (Paul I) that Prince Andrej, his descendant, claims his authority. Prince Andrej is descended from the royal families of Europe not only through his father, but also through his mother.’

This order was in turn affiliated, indirectly, with the Knight of Malta organisation taken over by Markovics and infiltrated by American mafia figures and dubious Australia identities.

Its full title is the Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem, Knights of Malta.

This order, according to the prior in Victoria for the Prince Andrej order, Mr John Wass, was afforded royal patronage by proclamation through Prince Andrej’s brother, King Peter of Yugoslavia, before his death in 1970, and the Malta priory of Prince Andrej’s organisation is recorded as having accepted it as an indedendent branch of the Malta priory in April 1967.

It came to notice in Australia that same year.

After The Age expose, it was denounced by Australian officers of the Vatican-recognised order as an insidious imitator, a self-created and fraudulent order, known as a ‘Shickshinny’ order, so named after the American town where the order started in 1908.

Indeed, The Age correspondent in Rome, Desmond O’Grady, was referred by Vatican officials to the outcome of a court case in the United States in November 1983.

The Federal Court of the southern district of New York made an award against the Shickshinny order in favor of a man who had paid $20,000 for membership of the knights, only to find it was not the Catholic order which he had been led to believe.

O’Grady reported that for a long time the Vatican-recognised knights were reluctant to act against imitators as they feared they would merely give them publicity. But belatedly they had decided to act by instituting an action with the US patents and trade marks office against two organisations.

O’Grady wrote: ‘It is by no means a new problem. When Cardinal James Spellman was archbishop of New York, he warned Catholics against spurious knights’ associations. Despite his advice to beware of imitations, some of the associations claim the membership of priests and prominent Catholics.

The Vatican also has warned against fake chivalrous orders which pretend to have its backing. It has done this both in its daily, L’Osservatore Romano, and in notes to its diplomatic representatives, using vigorous language to criticise private associations which spread confusion for ambiguous aims.

‘Nevertheless, Catholics are found in some of these associations and it is believed that priests, in good faith or not, have attended installations into the imitation knights. The Order of St John reportedly claims that the 81-year-old Egyptian Cardinal Staphanos L. Sidarouss, patriarch of the Catholic copts [sic] is its patron.’

In fact, a booklet issued in 1970 by the so-called Shickshinny order listed among its members Diomede Falconio, Archbishop and Apostolic Delegate to the US and Canada, and Donatus Sbarretti, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church, Canada.

In Australia, the same Shickshinny order in the past enjoyed patronage from Cardinal Sir Norman Gilroy, when head of the Catholic Church in Sydney.

The Catholic Weekly of 15 June 1967 carried a three-column story headlined: Knights Of Malta To Be Invested. The story recorded that an investiture of 13 Knights of Malta of the Order of St John of Jerusalem was to take place that month in St Mary’s Cathedral.

It was stated that Cardinal Gilroy would officiate and celebrate mass.

The Catholic Weekly reported that the order had been extended to Australia the year before, and had become ‘officially recognised’ as a priory six months previously.

The article went on to describe the order as a sovereign state of principality, which had begun in Jerusalem in 1048, Cyprus 1292, Rhodes 1311, Malta 1530, Russia 1798 and finally in the United States in 1908.

In its own literature, the Shickshinny order has laid claim to being the only legitimate hereditary body of the original Knights of Malta. When recruiting, it has suggested that it has Papal patronage and ‘stamps as frauds, the many interlopers, masquerading as knights of the original order, and the bold usurpation and misrepresentations imposed upon the innocent by the Papal imitation knights of the Order of Malta’.

Australian businessman Roland Bleyer, who once told the press he may have made a fool of himself in joining the order, best epitomised the confusion over which order truly represents the continuity of the original order.

When invested into the order, on the Greek island of Rhodes, ancestral home of the original knights before they went to the island of Malta, a cardinal performed the ceremony, the mayor gave a dinner attended by local monks, the town band played and police provided an escort.

‘If it is a con, it is a classic,’ he says and admits he made a donation to join, believing the money was going to the Vatican.

Bleyer received a diplomatic passport, with a consular corp number, purportedly issued by the Secretary of State, Rome, Italy. It is unsigned.

Resignedly, he said: ‘If cardinals support it, and the press on the island of Rhodes and even the Catholic Weekly write about it as a legitimate order, it is hard to accept that it may not be the real thing.’


from Connections 2 by Bob Bottom