When the Hellenic Community of Western Australia was formed in 1923, its primary concern was the building of a church.

To this day, the Greek Orthodox church of Saints Constantine and Helene in Perth remains central to the Community’s espoused aims.

But, much has been added on and changed since those early days. Tensions have also been part of the story.

“In the early 1990’s the Community was faced with some controversy when our previous President and Secretary attended a National meeting of the Federation of Greek Australian Associations to discuss their membership on the Federation which had groups which were not aligned with our present Archdiocese,” President Paul Afkos OAM tells Neos Kosmos.

The plan of moving away from the Archdiocese and aligning with the Patriarch of Jerusalem did not eventuate, thanks to late Archbishop Stylianos, Mr Afkos says.

From its inception, the HCWA aspired “to leave a lasting legacy for the future generations of Greek Australians”.

“It now has significant membership […] and employs over 200 people.”

Celebrating the HCWA centenary at St Andrew’s school in November 2023. Among those pictured at the school amphitheatre watching a students’ performance, (front row from left) is Greece’s Consul in Perth Georgia Karasiotou. Photo: Facebook

Community members are predominantly Perthians.

Around half of them live in the western suburbs of the state capital, followed closely by those residing in the central suburbs north of Perth. The remaining 10 per cent live south of the Swan River, Mr Afkos shares.

As for the 200-plus employees, most work in one of two main establishments the Community has invested in, in recent decades; the Hellenic Community Aged Care Facility – established in 1993 and originally known as Villa Hellas – and what started in 1991 as the state’s only Greek day school, St Andrew’s Grammar.

Both entities have grown in space, with new buildings added; and size, with an opening up to the broader community.

Management committees of the past three decades, Mr Afkos says, “have driven this major growth of our community generating $24 million annual turnover.”

The HCWA moving into the provision of mainstream education and aged care appears to have played a big part in this success story.

In 1972, the Church of Saints Constantine and Helene was proclaimed a Cathedral. Photo: Instagram

“Those two institutions have been very important in helping maintain Hellenism. But in both of those, the bulk of the student body and the aged care facility residents are not Greek,” historian Dr John Yiannakis, OAM tells Neos Kosmos.

“That actually has been in some ways to the benefit of the Community, because one of the things it’s tried to do is to take Hellenism to the mainstream and not close itself off,” he goes on explaining.

“It’s made itself, its facilities and its culture open. So, for example when we have things like a glendi we try to embrace the broader community. That’s what has helped keep it relevant and alive.”

Much like its beginnings, St Andrew’s Grammar owes its expansion in recent years, to the support of a range of actors.

Paul Afkos is the only HCWA president who has served twice, during the 1995-2005 period and now in his ongoing tenure since 2021. “I have returned because I could see potential to plan and grow the school and aged care with some major upgrades and the challenge of rejuvenating Northbridge has been an ongoing vision.” Photo: Supplied/Paul Afkos

Funding for the initial construction came for Greek Brotherhoods, Associations and individual donors, in addition to a Commonwealth Government Grant.

A group of key community members, including Emanuel Petrelis, Athanasios Limnios and Tony Missikos, are said to have been influential in convincing the State Government then to make available 10.6 hectares of land in Dianella for the school.

In its founding year, St Andrew’s had a student population of no more than 25.

Over 30 years on, the school remains the only Greek Orthodox School in the state but today over 45 nationalities are represented in the student body.

“In the past couple of years, the school has increased student numbers from 347 in 2019 to over 775 students,” Mr Afkos notes.

Meanwhile, the HCWA’s headquarters are in Northbridge where a plot of land was purchased way back in 1922 by the Castellorizian Association, which preceded the HCWA.

Archival photo of an OXI Day commemorative service at the Sts Constantine and Helene church, c. 1996. Photo: Supplied/John Yiannakis

“Through to the late ’50s, early ’60s, they [Castellorizians] were the dominant group of Greek settlers in WA,” Dr Yiannakis explains.

But since its formation, the Hellenic Community of Western Australia, “took over the pan-Hellenic responsibilities from the Castellorizian Association” in the state.

Dr Yiannakis explains the HCWA emerged as an umbrella body.

“It’s not the oldest Greek organisation here. But the Hellenic Community was a much broader Panhellenic organisation and it still is the peak Greek body in WA.”

“And there’s also crossover. So, people who are on the Castellorizian Association or the Hellenic Club, a lot of them are also on the HCWA or they begin on one and move across to the other.”

The New Year whole School Blessing at St Andrews occurred in conjunction with International Greek Language Day, celebrated on 9 February. Here, shot from student attendees at the event. Photo: Facebook

Dr Yiannakis, who has in the past served as a Board member of the HCWA, the school and the aged care facility, has taken up writing the book documenting the Community’s historical trajectory.

“And how it’s evolved really from initially being focused on getting up at church and running an after-hours Greek school, through to now having an aged care facility, a day school, a hall, a church and various other operations that it performs and how and why that happened.”

Retaining and improving what is already existent is the first part of their vision for the future, says President Mr Afkos.

The second part includes infrastructure targets “to appeal to third and fourth generation Greek Australians.”

Primary Presentation Assembly in December 2023 at St Andrew’s Grammar. Photo: Facebook

“This will require more development away from Dianella and into the city. For this we’re planning a $35 million development in Northbridge,” he says outlining plans including a Byzantine musem, a city school campus to complement St Andrew’s and a move “into the social media world to communicate with this generation who do not require a ‘community centre’ as their meeting place but do so with digital media.”

The Saints Constantine and Helene Cathedral is not Perth’s only Greek Orthodox church. Pictured here, faithful at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation of Our Lady – Evangelismos established in 1958 in West Perth. Photo: Supplied

According to 2021 census data, there are around 16,000 people of Greek descent in WA.

That’s roughly 4% of the total population of Greek ancestry estimated to live in Australia.

“The challenge for the Community is to attract the third generation, most of whom reside in families of mixed ethnicity,” Mr Afkos admits.

“‘Mingled or mixed’ marriages represent the largest proportion, by far, of marriages in the Church of Saints Constantine and Helene.”

Dr Yiannakis explains why.

“You know, one of the things that’s different here to Melbourne and Sydney and Adelaide is that the Australia-born Greek population started to outnumber the Greece-born population earlier. In Melbourne it didn’t happen until the mid-1980s, because they had such a huge influx of migrants after WWII.”

The Hellenic Club of WA was founded in 1918, a few years before HCWA. Here, shot from a club gathering. Photo: Facebook

This was crucial in spearheading the community’s opening to the mainstream, Dr Yiannakis says.

“It accelerated in the ’90s and ’00s, in part because more and more groups were marrying non-Greeks. If you wanted to remain relevant, you had to try to keep those people, embrace them.

“So, it meant that the community had to start shifting its focus to ‘how do we cater not just for the new arrivals, but also how for the Greek youth that are born here?'”

Ultimately, diversity, Dr Yiannakis believes, could be the best bet for the Hellenic Community’s longevity in WA.

Members of WA’s Hellenic community in the early years. Photo: Instagram

Paired with another key factor; the ability of WA Greeks to turn their “disadvantage” in numbers into a strength.

“When you go to Melbourne, you see it’s very Greek, people talking Greek out in the streets, which is not as common here. But you also see heaps of Greek associations.

Having a big Greek population is on its own a plus, he agrees. But it comes with a “disadvantage”.

“It allows people to fragment and have their smaller pockets of Hellenism. Whereas here yes, we have got pockets of Hellenism, but they’re not as many. And that’s helped the main groups like the Hellenic Community, keep going and remain relevant.”