In 1952, a motion to allow women to become members of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria was defeated at an Annual General Meeting with members present making comments such as “Let women look to their own households,” and “Let women concern themselves with washing their dishes.”

Vignettes of this nature which speak volumes about the ethos of members of our oldest community organisation are carefully selected in Georgia Harpantidou’s recently published: «Σάρκα και Οστά της Μακρινής Πατρίδας», (Flesh and Bones of the Distant Homeland), a history of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria from its foundation, to 1972. The title is somewhat disconcerting, until one discovers within the pages of the book that this is exactly how GOCMV president Dimitris Elefantis characterised his organisation at the 1972 Annual General Meeting, going further to also describe it as an Oasis and an Ark in which a member can “spend his life within Greek Orthodox ideals.”

If there is a running theme within Harpantidou’s study, and there are several, surely one of the most important is to highlight the ever evolving sense of mission possessed by those in charge of running the GOCMV. Through extensive study of the GOCMV archives, especially minutes of meetings, Harpantidou allows the reader to follow a Community founded primarily for religious reasons, torn between catering to the needs of multilingual and multicultural co-religionists and excluding them on the basis of race as ethnic narratives evolve or are created, struggling to determine whether the operation of Greek language schools is within their purview, grappling with the appearance on the scene of rivals for the secular and religious representation of Greek migrants in the form of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, and finally, seeking to define itself against new and to some, subversive notions of socialism or communism, with the conservative leaders of the GOCMV going so far as to brand Metropolitan Theophylaktos, a dangerous communist sympathiser.

Even before the reader is plunged within the heady waters of intrigue, skulduggery and internecine strife that characterises much of the culture and ethos of the GOCMV during the period covered by the book, Harpantidou makes a valuable contribution to the historiography of the Greeks in Australia by seeking a historical and socio-cultural theoretical context in which to place them. Whereas other writers such as George Vassilacopoulos and Toula Nicolacopoulou have convincingly chosen as the starting point for their analyses, the violent seizure of Australia by the white colonialists and the formation of organisations according to laws that are made by and acknowledge the hegemony of the ruling class and thus legitimise their dispossession of the First Peoples, Harpantidou sees the formation of the GOCMV as belonging to a lineage of Greek migrant associations, first formed in Europe during Ottoman rule, that have their origin in the merchant associations and companies formed in the West during the early years of the development of capitalism. Her brief discussion of various earlier Greek communities founded in the diaspora provides an invaluable benchmark for comparison and analysis. In effect, Harpantidou is asserting a historical and socio-cultural precedent for the structural inclusion of the GOCMV as an institution and diaspora communities within a broader Greek historical narrative, in a manner never before attempted. This approach, along with many of the matters that she raises within the book cry out for further research and discussion.

As the study is based primarily on GOCMV archival material and in particular minutes of meetings, the historical evolution of the Community is presented in a matter of fact, neutral manner. Nonetheless, the pace is relentless and this is perhaps a good thing, for this is no hagiography. If anything, it is a study of the nature of power and how our founding fathers employed that power in order to perpetuate ruling classes and exclude others. As a chronicle of conflict, between Greeks and Syrians, between Ithacans and Samians, between “Old” Greeks and “Ottoman” Greeks, (and her exposition on the emotional attachment Greeks from unredeemed Hellenic regions had for the Ecumenical Patriarchate as opposed to those who derived from free Greece is as fascinating) between GOCMV members and the Church, between Conservatives and Communists, Harpantidou’s narrative makes for confronting reading. There are no attempts to tie the motivations of the main protagonists to lofty ideals of patriotism, nor to make generalisations about the perennial nature of Hellenism, no matter the land in which it thrives. Instead, a “warts and all” approach is adopted, which while extremely unedifying in relation to our ‘hallowed’ founding fathers, makes us wonder if the real achievement of the GOCMV and indeed our broader community in general in the period examined, is managing to remain in existence with some semblance of coherent sense of common identity despite our fractious and antagonistic nature. In this regard, Harpantidou’s mention of barely attended Annual General Meetings and periods of complete alienation of the membership allow us to adopt a macroscopic view of the progression of the GOCMV, albeit as an opportunity that privileges the written word.

Flesh and Bones of the Distant Homeland book cover. Photo: Supplied

This is where Harpantidou’s work, like all good histories, provides innumerable jumping off points for further research. No amount of meticulously kept minutes can shed light on the inner monologues of the main protagonists of the period, such as the born-to-rule magnate Lekatsas, the motivations of the members, especially those from regions other than those of the ruling caste or indeed the perspectives of other rival organisations. Harpantidou’s extensive discussion of the uneasy relationship between the GOCMV and the Orpheus Club, for example highlight the fact that there has never been attempted a proper historical survey of Orpheus. Similarly, although the 1952 Annual General Meeting is most probably indicative of the manner in which the place of women was conceived within the organisation during the period studied, the minutes reveal nothing of the aspirations or opinions Greek women held at the time regarding the GOCMV, or the manner of their participation. Harpantidou’s inclusion of this salient event underscores a need for a further future historical study in gender relations within the GOCMV.

Likewise, while Harpantidou positions within her text instructive and indicative accounts of prominent members of the GOCMV defending Greek interests, such as the continued union of the Ionian Islands with Greece, and briefly discusses, among other things, the Kalgoorlie riots and the White Australia Policy, the minutes cannot provide us with a full picture as to how the Australian broader populace or minority groups within it saw or engaged with the GOCMV and indeed, conversely how the GOCMV saw and/or engaged with them, or how this changed over the seventy five years that the book covers, although the inclusion of the Grecian Ball 1950 programme within the text, comprising a photograph of Queen Frederica and an oleaginous profession of thanks to the Australian community provided us with some clues. This too is a matter for further research.

Harpantidou’s analysis of the conflict between the GOCMV and the Church similarly cannot purport to be an extensive or exhaustive account, considering the fact that she has not had access to the Archdiocesan archives. The historical material she does analyse however, paints stakeholders as variously employing the running and construction of churches as a religious imperative, a national obligation, a means of maintaining power or outmanoeuvring rivals, and as a source of income. There is much here that the reader will find distasteful and rightfully so. Mercifully, Harpantidou avoids the interminable blow by blow accounts provided by other historians of the conflict and merely provides us with the broad schematic. There is enough there for the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Few historians of the Greek community and its institutions have been able to offer more than a chronological narrative. In tying her account to broader theoretical and thematic perspectives, Harpantidou has provided us with an invaluable resource that goes a long way in arresting the historical amnesia that each successive generation of Greek-Australian experiences when attempting to view or understand the past history of the community in which we all belong, as well as fostering debate and inspiring deeper examination. As such, and in the hope of understanding just how far we have come together and why, «Σάρκα και Οστά», a volume whose translation into English is pending, (hopefully with a much needed index, which is lacking in the Greek) is a must read both for all those who purport to be the Flesh and Blood of a Distant Homeland and those who seek to understand the historical evolution of ethnic communities within the Australian context. The GOCMV is to be commended for making the publication of a resource of such integrity, possible.