Brief History of the Order
Grand Priory of Australasia
Under the Constitution given by His Late Majesty King Peter II of Yugoslavia
The purpose of this document is to provide new or prospective members of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller – Australasia, Grand Priory of Australasia, with a brief overview of the continuous historical links of the Order to its origin in Jerusalem. This document is printed by the Grand Priory of Australasia at the request of Bailiff Emeritus Royce R Pepin AM, MBE, OSJ. The text has been compiled by Dame Mary Lewis OAM, CJSJ, Grand Priory Archivist.
The Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller had its origins early in the 11th century, and is the oldest surviving International Christian Order of Chivalry. There are other ancient Orders of Chivalry, which include the Dynastic Orders, founded from the 14th century onwards by Popes, Kings and Emperors. Examples of these are the Orders of the Garter, the Thistle, the Golden Fleece which was established in 1430 by Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy and the Order of the Elephant, the highest order of Denmark with origins in the 15th century. There are also many National Orders, largely founded in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the Legion of Honour, The Order of the British Empire established in 1917 and the Australian Honours system established in 1975.
The Early Beginnings
The Order of Knights Hospitaller (or the Hospitallers as the name implies) had at first been a charitable group, which cared for the Pilgrims who came to visit the Holy Places. The traditional date of the inauguration of the Hospice of St John in Jerusalem was in 1048.
Subsequently during the last quarter of that century this group adopted the community life-style of a religious organization with the Order being founded on Augustinian Rules around the year 1087 under the first Grand Prior, Brother Gerard of Amalfi.
The Knights (known as Chevaliers) originally came from the north of France as members of the First Crusade, under Godfrey of Bouillon, who captured Jerusalem from the Infidel on 15 July 1099. A number of these Knights then stayed on in Jerusalem, as members of the Order to assist and protect the Pilgrims. Brother Gerard and his followers began their own Hospice facilities in 1099 after the conquest of Jerusalem. These good works were recognized by Pope Paschal II, who on 15 February 1113 issued a Papal Bull Pie Postulatio Voluntatis placing the Knights and their Hospice under the direct protection of the Holy See.
A church, to honour St John the Baptist, was erected by the Knights on his accepted burial site and became the Conventual Church of the Order. The Order has since then been known as The Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. Saint John the Baptist’s Feast Day, 24 June, is the religious Feast Day of the Order. The Hospitallers continued their charitable and military activities in the Holy Land for the next 200 years.
The Order in the New Century
In the 21st Century this ancient and chivalric Order thrives on its collective mission—the care of the sick and poor, the marginalised and the disenfranchised. It has a democratically elected leadership, continuation of the customs and traditions of its past, and the vitality of more than a 1500 members in Grand Priories, Priories and Commanderies located in thirteen countries:
- The Priory of the Pacific;
- The Priory of the Eastern USA;
- The Priory of Eastern Canada, Order of the Hospitallers;
- The Russian Grand Priory of Malta and Europe;
- The Nordic Priory;
- The Priory of Austria;
- Priorato d’ Italia; Ordine di San Giovanni di Gerusalemme Cavalieri Ospitalieri;
- The Priory of Sweden;
- The Swiss Priory;
- The Grand Priory of Australasia
The entire Order operates through local non-profit entities created under the laws of their respective countries. Each Priory and Commandery carries out humanitarian projects under its charitable trusts, while promoting good works undertaken separately by its Members.
We are governed by a Grand Priory of Australasia, in which there are Priories in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. Victoria has two Commanderies – Geelong, and Ballarat, plus the Mornington Peninsula Gippsland Group, the Melbourne Metro Group, and includes members residing in New Zealand, Indonesia and Sydney.
The motto: Pro Fide, Pro Utilitate Hominum (For Faith For Service to Humanity) is upheld by all
Members of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller ensuring currency to our
collective or individual work within our local and regional communities.
The Order strives to provide for the sick, poor and the needy to the best of its ability. Members work together to raise funds at events and projects, to support those beneficiaries and to introduce and welcome new members to the Order.
Who finances the activities of the OSJ?
OSJ members are all volunteers and its philanthropic and humanitarian activities are funded entirely by its members. Charitable funds come from member oblations and the private (unsolicited) donations of its members, friends and the general public.
Humanitarian and community support varies according to each ‘unit’s’ ability to raise awareness about the humanitarian need or cause. Whether it is a domestic and localized project or an international situation requiring member attention, members rally to raise funds to meet the need.
At an international level, some resources are acquired from other non-profits and hospitals, or from in-kind contributions of equipment and supplies that are repurposed and shipped at OSJ expense to an intervention site.
The OSJ enjoys excellent relations with the U.N. and several governments, the European Commission and NATO. These relationships have greatly facilitated the distribution of humanitarian aid secured by OSJ members and their supporters.
Where is the Order’s headquarters located?
The Knights of St. John settled on Malta in 1530 and flourished on the island for 268 years. Malta has always been considered the ancestral home of Knights and Dames of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller.
After the loss of the island to Napoleon in 1798, the diaspora of the Order was created and fuelled by religious affiliations and nationalistic splits among the knights. For example, the contingent of English-speaking knights sought the protection of the English king, Catholic knights settled permanently in Rome (with the Pope as its protector), while the remaining knights (primarily non-Catholics and Orthodox) sought the protection of Czar Paul I in Russia.
The OSJ (Malta) eventually returned to Malta where its international headquarters is now located at 223 St. Paul St., Valletta, Malta.
Current Leadership of the Order
The Lieutenant Grand Master of OSJ Malta is HE Paul Borg OSJ.
The Grand Prior of OSJ Australasia is David Wilkens CJSJ
The Prior of OSJ Victoria is Dame Barbara Abley AM GCSJ FACN
The Australian Experience
The history of the Grand Priory of Australia, which is relatively recent, began in 1969 when Chevalier Roland Podesta was commissioned by HE Bailiff Professor Gaston Tonna-Barthet, Grand Prior of Malta, to form a Commandery in Australia. Thus the Queensland Commandery was established.
The Commandery became a Priory in 1974, within the Grand Priory of Malta. In 1977 it achieved independent status as a Grand Priory under the first Grand Prior, Roland Podesta with Priories in Victoria and Queensland and Commanderies in Geelong, South Australia and the Darling Downs. Following this a Commandery was established in Canberra, ACT. Later South Australia and New South Wales both achieved full Priory status.
Following the death of Roland Podesta, Dr Douglas Hodges of Brisbane was elected as the next Grand Prior of Australia. His term of office saw a period of growth and consolidation which brought Australia into the mainstream of the Order. Bailiff Hodges died suddenly in 1989 and HE Bailiff Sir Hubert Opperman became Acting Grand Prior until HE Bailiff Robert Halliday was elected Grand Prior of Australia in Sydney in April 1989. In 1991 Grand Prior HE Bailiff Robert Halliday moved the Grand Priory of Australia to the London based administration.
On the death of HE Bailiff Robert Halliday OAM, GCSJ, in May 2001, the Grand Master appointed HE Bailiff Ian Vassie AM, GCSJ, CMSJ, of Victoria, the fourth Grand Prior of the Grand Priory of Australia. The appointment was confirmed in August 2001 at a meeting of the Order’s Sovereign Council held in Ypres, Belgium.
In 2004 the Rhodes Sovereign Council granted equal rights to Knights and Dames. This decision was welcomed in Australia as it was congruent with the Australian Government’s legislation and acceptance of the principles of equality, in conforming to the declaration of the United Nations. Dames of the Order now had the right to hold all ranks, attend meetings and vote, a privilege not granted under the King Peter II Constitution of 1964.
Bailiff Vassie retired from office in March 2006 and in June of that year, the Grand Master informed members of his decision to divide the Grand Priory of Australia into two Grand Priories, that of Southern Australia, being the States of Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia and that of Northern Australia consisting of the State of Queensland and the Northern Territory.
HE Bailiff Victor Techritz AM, GCSJ of South Australia was appointed Grand Prior of the Grand Priory of Southern Australia to succeed Bailiff Vassie and under his leadership Commanderies was re-established in the Australia Capital Territory (Priory of New South Wales), and established in Tasmania (Priory of Victoria) and Western Australia (Priory of South Australia).
Following Bailiff Victor Techritz’s retirement as Grand Prior of the Grand Priory of Southern Australia in October 2009, Bailiff John Robb AM, GCSJ, as Senior Deputy Grand Prior, assumed the office of Acting Grand Prior, a role he served with distinction for 13 months.
In view of widespread disquiet among many members of the Order concerning the imperious attitude of the leaders of the London based Order, their failure to recognize the company’s Constitution and the absence of, or at best their poor standard of governance, it was deemed appropriate to seek affiliation with the Malta based Order.
At a meeting of the Grand Chapter on 31 July 2010, members voted to apply to the OSJ Malta to become a Grand Priory within that Order and if accepted to terminate the association with the London based administration of the Order of Saint John. The application for affiliation to OSJ Malta was granted on 25 August 2010.
The World Headquarters of OSJ Malta is at St Paul Street 223, Valletta VLT 1213, Malta.
A second Grand Chapter meeting on the 30 October 2010 voted to amend the Constitution of the Company to enable the transfer of the Grand Priory of Southern Australia and the Company to OSJ Malta.
The name of the Grand Priory was changed in June 2011 from the Grand Priory of Southern Australia to the Grand Priory of Australasia, a change that will more accurately represent the boundaries of the Order both within Australia and if and when the Order extends to New Zealand. The anachronistic term ‘Sovereign’ was also removed from the Order’s title in 2011.
On the retirement of Grand Prior Emeritus, Bailiff Peter Wiltshire OSJ, Chevalier David Wilkens CJSJ was elected as the 10th Grand Prior of the Order in Australasia November 2019.
The Prior of OSJ Victoria is Dame Barbara Abley AM GCSJ FACN.