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Regalia of a Papal Knight that belonged to Arthur Calwell #2010-0485

Regalia of a Papal Knight (Commander of the Order of St Gregory the Great and the Grand Silver Star of the Order) consisting of two medals, a presentation box and a presentation letter. The first medal is a red eight-pointed cross bearing the image of Saint Gregory and the inscription ‘S. GREGORIUS MAGNUS’ on the obverse, with ‘GREGORIUS XVI P.M. ANNO I. / PRO DEO / ET / PRINCIPE’ on the reverse; medal hangs from a two-dimensional laurel wreath, attached to a red and gold collar ribbon. The second medal is the Grand Silver Star and is the red eight-pointed cross within a larger eight-pointed silver star with the inscription ‘S. GREGORIUS MAGNUS’ on the obverse and a pin on the reverse. Medals are housed in a rectangular red presentation box and accompanied by a citation.


The Regalia of a Papal Knight is part of a collection of objects that belonged to Arthur Calwell, Australia’s first Minister for Immigration (1945-49) that were donated to the museum by his daughter, Dr Mary Elizabeth Calwell.

In 1964 Calwell unexpectedly received this award as a Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory the Great and the Grand Silver Star of the order, actually bestowed in 1963. The order, one of five pontifical orders of knighthood and the highest that can be given to a member of the laity, is usually presented at the behest of the local papal nuncio in recognition of particular service to the Church. The time in which he accepted this knighthood was highly significant as it occurred in the decade following the Labor Party Split and as it demonstrates a change in the sectarian nature of Australian life in previous decades.

The citation for the award reads in part: ‘With glad heart We respond to the recommendations made to Us, from which We learn of the signal service you have rendered to the well-being of the church and the advancement of Catholic affairs…’. The citation, dated 31 August 1963 and signed by Cardinal Cicognani, is also held by the museum.

The Labor Party Split occurred in 1955 as a result of a series of events , including the Petrov Affair. On the 13th of April, 1954, Russian spy Vladimir Petrov defected and Prime Minister Robert Menzies (Liberal Party) established a Royal Commission to investigate Soviet espionage in Australia. Although sparked by the Petrov defection, it was also hoped that the Royal Commission would flush other agents out into the open, following secret briefings by British security personnel which demonstrated that Australia had been severely compromised by Soviet espionage activity. The Leader of the Opposition, Dr H.V. Evatt (Australian Labor Party), believed the Petrov Affair was part of a conspiracy against him that had been conceived by Menzies, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and Roman Catholic anti-communist elements inside the Labor Party to secure a Coalition victory at the 1954 election. These events inflamed existing divisions in the Labor Party, as some members opposed Evatt’s accusations, arguing his conspiracy theory actually defended communism.

On 5 October 1954, Evatt issued a dramatic press statement alleging that some ALP members, controlled from outside the party by ‘the Movement’, an anti-communist and largely Roman Catholic Group active in the trade unions and increasingly powerful in the Labor Party, with having sabotaged Labor’s election campaign in the 1954 federal election. The subsequent struggle between supporters of ‘the Movement’ and Evatt’s supporters within the Labor Party to dominate the Party was won by Evatt and the left, especially in Victoria. The subsequent split in the party was particularly severe in that state, Calwell’s home, and much less evident in New South Wales where the Roman Catholic hierarchy were less supportive of the Movement. Members of the Movement were expelled from the Party and eventually regrouped as the Democratic Labor Party. DLP preferences strongly favoured coalition candidates in subsequent elections, maintaining the bitterness of the internecine warfare within the ALP of the 1950s well into the 1970s.

Arthur Calwell, Deputy Leader of the Australian Labor Party during the Split, was a deeply religious man. Calwell’s loyalty to the Australian Labor Party meant that he was accused by some of his fellow Catholics of putting his politics before his Church. His acceptance of a papal knighthood sent a signal to his critics that he could be both a loyal Roman Catholic and a loyal member of his party, and that the Vatican accepted him as such. In the often sectarian Australia of the 1950s it was sometimes difficult for politicians closely associated with the Catholic Church to convince non-Catholics that they did not put their religion before their Party or country. Calwell’s acceptance of the knighthood thus signalled ‘a broadening of Australian attitudes, itself a product of Calwell’s immigration programme’ (Kiernan, 1978, p. 238).

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The Regalia of a Papal Knight is significant as part of the Arthur Calwell collection, which is comprised of a selection of objects that belonged to Australia’s first Minister for Immigration (1945-49), Arthur Calwell. The collection is significant as a whole because it tells a story about a leading Commonwealth parliamentarian of the middle decades of the twentieth century and includes highly personal material which tells of Calwell’s family life, his life-long involvement in Labor politics, and his personal religious convictions. The Arthur Calwell collection at the museum uniquely links the personal with the political, thus affording an opportunity to conduct research which tells a rounded story of this important parliamentarian.

The Regalia of a Papal Knight is significant as representing an important moment in the life of a leading Roman Catholic Australian statesman, Calwell, as well as the diminution of religious sectarianism in Australian political life. Its presentation to Calwell in 1963, in the aftermath of the great Labor Split of 1954-55, is highly significant, both in regard to attempts by the Church to move on from the religious and political turmoil in Victoria following the Split, and also because it represents the move away from sectarianism in Australian public life which in an earlier era may well have prevented an Australian Catholic politician with ambitions to be Prime Minister from accepting such a major papal honour.


Calwell, Arthur, Be just and fear not, Victoria: Hawthorn, 1972.

Kiernan, Colm, Calwell: a personal and political biography, Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1978.

  • Regalia of a Papal Knight that belonged to Arthur CalwellRegalia of a Papal Knight that belonged to Arthur Calwell —
  • Knight Commander’s cross of the Order of St. Gregory the GreatKnight Commander’s cross of the Order of St. Gregory the Great —
  • Grand Silver StarGrand Silver Star —


Width 124mm
Height 253mm
Depth 40mm
Medium Metal; textile; enamel; cardboard; paper
Creator’s name Tanfani and Bertarelli
Date created Circa 1963