The Hellenic Community of Western Australia (HCWA) will celebrate the centenary of its foundation this year, a major milestone for the organisation which has provided so much for the state’s Greeks.
Speaking with Neos Kosmos, HCWA President Paul Afkos OAM, says in light of the momentous anniversary the community is in the process of finalising a calendar of celebrations that’ll run right through the year.
“It’s not every day a community marks its 100th year, it’s something we’re very proud of,” he says.
Founded in September 1923, the HCWA was created to cater to the needs of early Greek migrants who, as was often the case in those years, were viewed as outsiders by the established Anglocentric settler presence in the region.
It was not just the absence of an established community, but the lack of a Greek Orthodox Church, which added to the adversity faced by WA’s first Hellenes.
So great were the community’s cultural and spiritual needs, that clergy from Australia’s eastern states would travel to Perth and attend to the far-flung flock.
Fathers Serafim Phocas and Athanasios Kantopoulos would make regular trips across the country, following their arrival in Australia around 1905.
“Sometime in March celebrations will begin with a centenary church service at St Constantine and Helene, and joined by a number of WA’s other Greek associations, we’ll all come together to mark the occasion,” Mr Afkos says.
“And soon after we’ll celebrate our church’s name day, traditionally we’d host a lunch at its hall but seeing as we expect a crowd of around 500, of course we’ve secured a larger venue.
In 1911 the nascent community’s first resident priest, Fr Chrysanthos Constantinidis, arrived, succeeded in 1913 by Fr Germanos Illiou.
Still lacking a dedicated place of worship, the services that had in earlier years been conducted in people’s homes, were later held in halls of Anglican and Presbyterian Churches.
This was in large part thanks to the efforts of the newly formed Castellorizian Association of WA, who had nurtured a relationship with the established ministries.
So, to that end, when the HCWA was formed, its first order of business was naturally the construction of an Orthodox church in Perth.
So much so that the idea was enshrined in its 1924 constitution.
“The object of the Association is the erection of a Greek Orthodox Church, Greek school and the improvement of the religious, moral, mental and social conditions of its members,” it read.
And so fundraising efforts began in earnest, the women of WA’s burgeoning Greek community playing a significant role in the push.
Concerts, markets and afternoon teas were held, often in the homes and businesses of Perth’s Hellenic diaspora, so that the dream of a church built by and for the community could be realised.
Soon enough on 24 July 1924, just 12 days after his arrival from Greece, the newly instated Metropolitan of Australia, Christophoros Knitis, presided over a ceremony blessing the church’s foundation stone.
The honour of laying that stone was given to Mrs J Michelides and Mrs T Kalafatas, two of the community’s respected elder women at that time.
However, before the church was built, it was decided that the construction of a hall would be the organisation’s first step towards firmly establishing its presence in the state.
“Today our general meetings regularly see an attendance of about 650 members, we’re a very active community,” Mr Afkos says.
In 1925 the Hellenic Hall was completed, acting as both a religious and social venue during the interim period, where efforts to secure funds for the church’s establishment continued.
Though progress was severely delayed in the last half of the 1920’s, as the Great Depression saw economic instability wrack the entire nation.
A far cry from today; Mr Afkos notes the HCWA has a turnover of $22 million per annum across the enterprise, up from just over $500,000 30 years ago.
He says the organisation now employs 192 people in total, through businesses such as its school, aged care facility and community hall.
Hellenic Community Aged Care in the Perth suburb of Dianella, operated by the HCWA provides for the community’s elders in both low and high care settings, while also housing a dementia wing.
St. Andrews Grammar, which provides education from kindergarten through to year 12, was built by the community in 1991; it now boasts an enrollment of 730 pupils.
“What was of paramount importance to us in the early 90’s, was that we establish a school which would continue to promote our language, our culture and also our religion well into the future.”
By 1934 economic stability had returned to Western Australia and the Hellenic Community finally found success in their efforts to pool together enough resources from various Greek bodies and fraternities in the final drive to finance the church.
In late 1935, architectural plans were drawn, and on Sunday 18 April 1937 the church was finally consecrated as the Greek Orthodox Church of Saints Constantine and Helene, in a ceremony conducted by Archbishop Timotheos Evangelinides.
Quickly becoming an integral part of the lives of many Greek families in Perth, it ushered in a new chapter for the community as the cultural tie to their new home was finally cemented.
Post Second World War migration saw the number of Greek settlers in the westernmost state continue and resultantly, the HCWA flourished. A slew of new associations and venues developed during this period.
The Hellenic Youth Association, for example, was one such body which fostered the development of the community’s youngest members, particularly in relation to sports.
In 1968 the Hellenic Hall, which had paved the way for the community’s rise to prominence was demolished to make way for a modern replacement; the Hellenic Community Centre, completed in August ’69, which serves its purpose today.
100 years on, the HCWA continues to provide for the community whose prosperity it played the leading role in ensuring, from 336 Greeks in the first decade of the 20th century, Western Australia’s Hellenic community is now over 16,000 strong.
Though Mr Afkos suspects that including 3rd and 4th generation descendants, that number may be closer to 20,000.
Its membership includes the likes of Kenneth Comninos Michael AC, WA’s 30th governor and its first of Greek heritage; the late Professor Byron Kakulas, founding director of the Perron Institute a pioneer in the study of muscle diseases; and Perth’s incumbent Lord Mayor Basil Zemples.
“While their contribution to the state has righty been recognised outside of the community, I’m not ashamed to say the HCWA takes some sort of prestige from their accomplishments,” Mr Afkos admits.
The year of celebration will have its finale in a gala ball for all to enjoy, a formal send off for the centenary which will undoubtedly be remembered fondly by the community for years to come.
And the community also plans to mark the milestone with a hard cover book chronicling the organisation’s history and the observance of its 100th anniversary for the benefit of future generations.
“This will be tangible history for the youth of tomorrow, it’ll inspire the future presidents and members of our committee to maintain the HCWA and continue its work,” Mr Afkos explains.
“It will be a joyous year for our community and we welcome everyone to come and celebrate this once in a lifetime achievement with us.”