Keeping Our Values

The Maltese Cross has been an honored symbol within the Clarkson College community for decades. The icon forms a cross with eight distinct points, and tradition says these points represent the Beatitudes delivered during the Sermon on the Mount. The virtues laid out in the Beatitudes closely relate to the Clarkson College culture and support the Values established by the institution.

The connection to the past is clear, but have you ever wondered why the Maltese Cross symbol was chosen many years ago to represent the College? The possible answers may come as a surprise.

The Maltese Cross and its history are tremendously fitting to Clarkson College and its community members. The Beatitudes state blessings to the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful and the peacemakers. Together, the blessings offer guidance about what it means to lead the compassionate, purpose-driven (or called) life of health care professionals.

Since its earliest days, the Bishop Clarkson Memorial School of Nursing assisted and instructed caring health care providers. Bishop Robert Harper Clarkson and his wife Meliora wanted to support the Omaha community by caring for its children and providing a much-needed hospital in the area. Bishop Clarkson died from pneumonia on March 10, 1884, and Meliora—in conjuction with the church deaconesses—completed his vision of establishing a nurses’ training program at the Bishop Clarkson Memorial Hospital for Children in 1888. As the training institution progressed and grew, it expanded its services to provide medical assistance for those in need throughout the growing city. Meliora’s actions marked the beginning of a long relationship between the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska and what is now known as Clarkson College.

Although early pictures of Bishop Clarkson and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral do not display the Maltese Cross, the symbol’s meaning and significance have played an integral part since the organization’s earliest history. Clarkson School of Nursing and Clarkson Hospital began using the Maltese Cross in the early 1930s when nurses wore the symbol on their uniforms as they cared for patients.

The Historical Significance of the Maltese Cross & the Knights of Malta

Searching for answers about the Maltese Cross led to world-renowned trauma surgeon Dr. Juan A. Asensio, FACS, FCCM, FRCS, (England) KM. Dr. Asensio is Professor and Vice-Chairman of Surgery for Creighton University College of Medicine, as well as Chief, Division of Trauma Surgery and Surgical Critical Care and the Director of the Trauma Center and Trauma Program at CHI Creighton University Hospital- Bergan Mercy in Omaha, Neb. In addition, he is a Professor of Surgery at the Uniform Services University of the Health Sciences Walter Reed/ Bethesda Medical Center, known as “America’s Military Medical School.” He is also a modern- day Knight of Magistral Grace and soon-to-be Knight of Obedience of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta—as in the famous Knights of Malta. These warriors were monks, healers and protectors who adopted the Maltese Cross as their symbol.

An interview with Dr. Asensio revealed many historical facts about the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, which has a long history dating back to the first and all subsequent Crusades since the 11th century. “With 700 strong and 1,200 Spanish soldiers, the Knights defeated the Ottoman Empire, conquering their land, naval force and more than 50,000 elite soldiers,” said Dr. Asensio. “It was the greatest siege of all military history.”

Dr. Asensio explained that the triumphant outcome established the Knights to be known as the “Knights of Malta.” “Subsequently, the Knights destroyed the Ottoman empire in the Battle of Lepanto, one of the greatest sea battles of all time. Spain’s greatest writer, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, also fought in this conflict,” said Dr. Asensio. “These battles preserved the sovereignty, culture and Christian religion in many European countries.”

Originally, members of the Order were tasked with protecting the Christian faith and caring for pilgrims as they traveled to the Holy Land. Brothers from France, Auvergne, Provence, Castille, Aragon (Spain), Italy and England (Scotland and Ireland) joined other Knights from around the world. They dedicated themselves to healing the sick and wounded, regardless of race, religion or nationality. Drawing on inspiration from other healers of the time, the Knights performed their works while displaying the Maltese Cross, which became a symbol of hope and honor. Thus, the Order adopted the motto “Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum,” which means “Protection of the faith and service to the poor.”

“Our mandate was to defend the homeless, protect the weak and the poor, defend the Christian faith and be healers,” Dr. Asensio said. “Not all of the knights were physicians, but there were many. The Order had close partnerships with both Jewish and Arab doctors. As a matter of fact, the Order learned a lot from the doctors, many of whom were based in Syria.”

The Order’s works and mission are very much alive today and remain a constant presence in the world and its members' lives thanks to representatives like Dr. Asensio. While its inner-workings are often shrouded in mystery, the Order currently has diplomatic relations and embassies in 107 countries. It has an enclave that is considered its own country and is located within their palace on the Aventine Hill in Rome and their offices in Via Condotti. The Order even issues their own passports, which are recognized by the vast majority of countries. They are still considered the Army of the Pope and are only subject to his Eminence.

Just like the Knights of old, Dr. Asensio devotes his life as a professor and trauma surgeon to bettering humankind and the never-ending search for peace. As a reminder of his calling and involvement in the Order, Dr. Asensio prominently displays Order of Malta flags in his office at Creighton University. The first flag is the Order’s symbol, a white Maltese Cross on a black background. Another is the U.S. Calvary flag, marking his service operating on the wounded during multiple conflicts. The final flag features a red background separated into four sections by a large white cross. This is the Order of Malta battle flag and can only be displayed after a member sees combat.

According to Dr. Asensio, there are less than 7,500 Knights of Malta in the world today. Receiving Knighthood is a tremendous honor that is offered by invitation only. Inductees must demonstrate their integrity and willingness to go above and beyond their duty by performing works that greatly benefit society and complete the rigorous training required to receive Knighthood. Dr. Asensio and his fellow Knights, along with 80,000 volunteers and 25,000 Order of Malta employees, are active in 120 countries caring for people in need through medical, social and humanitarian works.

Dr. Asensio states that the Order conducts numerous projects, including clean water initiatives in underdeveloped countries, assistance in the aftermath of the Mexico earthquakes and support for Puerto Rico residents after Hurricane Maria. The only hospital operating in Syria’s war zone is a Knight of Malta hospital. Their yearly pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France is a worldwide event to heal the sick.

Members of the Order display the Maltese Cross everywhere they go, and it remains a symbol of protection and a badge of honor. Their work builds upon the promises the Knights made centuries ago to provide service and care to anyone in need. The pledge remains alive today, and Dr. Asensio and his fellow Order members personify what it means to be compassionate health care providers.

“We’re not here to judge,” he said. “We cannot and will not discriminate, and we don’t interfere with other country’s politics. We are there to help, heal and protect people.”

Exploring the Past to Make Way for the Future

While members of Clarkson College are still on a quest to determine when and why the institution adopted the Maltese Cross, meeting with Dr. Asensio offered insight into the symbol’s rich historical significance. Just as the Knights of centuries past were united by a pledge of mercy and courage, Clarkson College students and alumni dedicate themselves to helping others and living out the College Values. The Maltese Cross serves as a continual reminder to draw inspiration from other healers, both past and present, as we commit to a lifetime of providing compassionate care.