First Greek-Australian Womens’ Group Keeps Greek Culture Alive and Thriving

The nation of Australia, as most people are aware, is home to the most Greeks living outside of the country anywhere in the Greek diaspora.

Accordingly, Sydney, its largest city, which alone has a population of 127,274 Greeks, is the headquarters of a large and thriving women’s organization called the Hellenic Lyceum of Sydney, which reflects the indomitable strength and illustrious history of the Greek people.

Keeping its members and its mission fully on course despite the pandemic of 2020, the organization, under the helm of President Iliana Vertzayias, is already planning its gala 70th anniversary celebrations for 2021.

Helping New Immigrants in the 1950s 

The organization, a branch of the Hellenic Lyceum Athens, a member of the International Association of Lyceums, came into being in 1951, a time which saw great waves of Greek immigration to Australia.

The original members of the Hellenic Lyceum Sydney in an undated photograph, showing beautiful traditional costumes in their collection. Credit: HLS

As Vertzayias relates in an interview with Greek Reporter, with many of the new arrivals needing immediate help and orientation in their new home on the other side of the world, the Lyceum sprang into action, organizing language translation for their medical and hospital needs, and assisting them to find work and accommodation.

The ladies of the Lyceum would also organize buses to pick up women from the migration camps where they lived to bring them to Sunday church services — and even take them on picnics as well, just to make their lives a little brighter so far from home.

The Lyceum, the very first branch of the Athens Lyceum to be accredited outside Greece, took on these most vital tasks before it would have the opportunity to pursue more leisurely things that the Athens Lyceum was already known for, such as advancing the status of women and revitalizing and preserve Greek customs and traditions.

Kalliroi Parren, early Greek feminist and Journalist. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Kalliroi Parren, Early Greek Feminist and Journalist

Kalliroi Parren, an extraordinary woman who was both a journalist and an early feminist, founded The Hellenic Lyceum of Athens in 1911 after she saw a crying need to uplift women in the completely male-dominated world of that time.

Parren also published the very first women’s magazine in Greece. She once declared “The Lyceum doesn’t just aim to unite us in the respect and the love of woman but also aims to work for the woman, the family and Nation.”

HLS member Sophia Salapatos holding a copy of the first women’s magazine in Greece, published by Lyceum founder Kalliroe Parren. Credit: Hellenic Lyceum of Sydney

As Vertzayias relates, the Sydney branch of the Hellenic Lyceum was founded on the same principles, ideals and aims as the original Athens organization. “Where more was this need necessary,” she asks, “than here in Sydney, where thousands of unprotected women came from Greece, post-World War II?”

Rather than start out as a networking organization for educational and cultural opportunities, which the Athens Lyceum was by then noted for, the Sydney group had a much more down-to-earth function in its first years. “They played the role of social workers in an era when the state provided no such services, Vertzayias says. “That was the Lyceum’s work in its first two decades of existence.

“The inception of the Lyceum took place in 1951 under the guidance of its founder, the then acting Consul of Greece, Angelo Goumas,” she adds.

“There are now over seventy Lyceums all over Greece, with the latest one established in 2018 in Castellorizo, and sixteen branches worldwide. The Sydney bureau is the most active outside of Greece,” Vertzayias states with pride.

Historical Greek clothing, part of the collections of the Hellenic Lyceum Sydney, as displayed in the Australian Parliament. Credit: Hellenic Lyceum, Sydney

The original members of the Sydney society were Lady Rene George, Liane Patterson, Maree Caroni, Tasia Varvaressos, Zoi Cominatos, and Presvytera Lefkothea Evangelinidis. Its first President was Nena Fosteropoulos, a Red Cross nurse and daughter of the Chief Justice of the Areopagus, Greece’s Supreme Court, and who served from 1951-53.

Preservation of Greek Culture Becomes Paramount as Assimilation Begins

Historic Greek clothing curated by the Hellenic Lyceum Sydney. Credit: Hellenic Museum Sydney

Vertzayias says “as our community began to integrate into Australian society, the Lyceum devoted more time in building up its collection of costumes, teaching folkloric dancing and promoting Greek culture. We now have over 200 authentic Greek costumes from every corner of Greece, Cyprus and Asia Minor.

“In fact the Lyceum has the largest collection of costumes outside of Greece,” she states, adding “Our costumes are either originals or authentic copies.” A small selection is on permanent exhibit at the Office of the Consulate of Greece in Sydney.

Traditional Greek clothing displayed by the Hellenic Lyceum Sydney. Credit: Hellenic Lyceum Sydney

Amazingly, the central Lyceum in Athens has a workshop which makes authentic hand made reproductions of the extraordinarily lovely regional costumes of the Greek countryside.

“We have purchased some from there, some have been donated, and in recent times committee members have visited regional Greece seeking out original costumes from villages and antique centers which were subsequently purchased,” Vertzayias explains to Greek Reporter.

The colorful costumes are then given life when they are worn by the Hellenic Lyceum Dancers in their many public performances.

Members of the Hellenic Lyceum of Sydney Meeting in Volos, Greece, 2019.

The Hellenic Lyceum of Sydney, among all its other firsts, organized the very first group of traditional Greek dancers in Australia. Using authentic choreography and national regional costumes, dances were taught and performed. “The new dance group was the first to perform at public events, balls in Sydney and interstate,” she states.

Traditional greek headgear on display during the gala for Melbourne Cup Day. Credit: Hellenic Lyceum Sydney

One of the highlights of the entire history of The Hellenic Lyceum s surely when its dancers were invited to perform at the official triumphal opening of the Sydney Opera House by Queen Elizabeth II in October of 1973.

But even before that, Vertzayias says, “beginning in the late 1960’s the Lyceum, in addition to the costumes and dancing, also focused on promoting Greek culture by a series of lectures such as those by Sophia Salapatas, who is now the curator of the Lyceum library in Athens.”

In the 1980’s, the Lyceum began to share its stunning collection of folk costumes with the public, she relates, exhibiting “traditional clothing, jewelry, embroidery and historical artifacts at public venues such as the Royal Easter Show, Hordern Pavillion, David Jones, Ethnic Communities and nationally.”

Some of the members of Hellenic Lyceum Sydney at the Melbourne Cup gala. Credit: Hellenic Lyceum Sydney

In the intervening years, she says, the Sydney Lyceum has helped keep Greek culture alive and vibrant by sponsoring many talks, lectures, symposia, book launches, and other artistic and cultural experiences to help Australian born Greeks to connect to their Hellenic heritage and to promote Hellenism in the wider Australian society.

Some of the noted symposia have even attracted critical acclaim for their quality, such as “Pioneering Hellenic Women of Australia,” sponsored by the Australian Archaeological institute of Athens at Sydney University in 2013; “ Hellenic Threads” at State Parliament, Alpha Restaurant and Hellenic Club Canberra in 2015;” and “Lifting the Veil – Challenging the Stereotype of the Hellenic Woman Throughout History” in 2016.

Vertzayias says in addition, the Hellenic Lyceum “has also organized three spectacular dance concerts at the John Clancy Auditorium in the University of New South Wales in the years 2011, 2013 and 2015 (commemorating 100 years after Gallipoli-Lemnos)”.

Australia Day, 2014. File photo

These ambitious programs were made possible, she says, “with the participation of visiting dance groups and musicians from Lyceums in Greece to complement over 250 local dancers in the presence of an audience of 1,000.”

As part of the Hellenic Lyceum’s annual calendar, she adds, gala luncheons are held on Mother’s Day and on the day of the Melbourne Cup horserace, allowing the ladies to let their hair down, have some fun and enjoy each others’ company.

Hellenic Lyceum Dancers. Credit: HLS

At the 2019 Mother’s Day luncheon, which was the last one held due to Covid restrictions, at Parliament House, SBS’ Alex Tarney from the program “Insight” moderated a panel composed of families who were featured in the book “Νύφες” by Dr. Panayota Nazou.

True to form, these indefatigable Greek-Australian ladies wouldn’t let a thing like the coronavirus put a damper on all their many activities, however. “During the pandemic,” Vertzayias relates to Greek Reporter, they “couldn’t let the 2500th anniversary of the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis pass unnoticed.

“Our multimedia production which had been planned as part of the Greek Festival had to be cancelled because of Covid,” she admits. However, not to be thwarted, “modern technology came to our assistance and a video presentation launch was held in the presence of Bishop Emilianos ,Greek Consul General Christos Karras, Dr. Yvonne Inall, and Nia Karteris.”

Although the event had to be limited to only 60 guests, it was a huge success. The presentation can be viewed on Youtube on the channel for Hellenic Lyceum Sydney.

Even during the pandemic, Vertzayias says, they “managed to have a very successful Melbourne cup luncheon at the Novotel, where our trivia quiz brought in elements of Greek history, women and Australian folklore.”

Bringing this amazing organization back to its original roots in Australia, she relates that it still engages in a great many philanthropic ventures, apart from the many cultural events they have sponsored.

The Hellenic Lyceum, she tells Greek Reporter, “has been involved in philanthropic activity with donations to the Children’s Hospital, Motor Neurone (ALS) Disease Society, the Estia Foundation, St. Andrews Theological College, earthquake and fire relief appeals in Greece and the bushfires in Australia.”

Priceless Costumes from Greek History

For many years, Vertzayias says, these priceless textiles were housed in the Hellenic Club in Sydney, “but since 2018, she adds, “they have been housed at the St. Basils complex in Randwick, where there is also a small exhibition area. Visitors to the Greek consulate at Sydney may also view a small sample of our collection.

With this incredible treasure trove of Greek history in the form of costumes and jewelry,  it is clear to the Lyceum’s members what must be done next. Vertzayias says the “main objective is now to acquire — by purchase or donation — an exhibition center/museum to house our very large collection of costumes, jewelry, artifacts, embroidery, books and antique furnishings.”

Looking Always Ahead

Despite the myriad problems posed by the worldwide pandemic this year, the Lyceum has not wavered in its planning for important events in the futures, such as a spectacular dance concert, called “Paliyenesia,” which is being planned with the Lyceum of Yanitsa’s dancers accompanied by musicians playing traditional Greek organs. As if that isn’t enough, Vertzayias says, there will be another 250 local dancers taking part in the gala event.

Additionally, she adds, “We also have a costume exhibition in collaboration with the archdiocese beginning in March of 2021 and which will run for two months, along with an art exhibition with an original work entitled “Women of Byzantium.”

The organization will also be participating in the Hellenic Lyceum’s conference, which is held every two years, in Kalamata, to coincide with the 200th commemoration of that city’s liberation in 1821.

Another major event planned for 2021 will be the celebration of the Hellenic Lyceum Sydney’s 70th anniversary with a gala dinner.

As its president says, as always, the members of the group continue to “look forward to the future with great optimism and enthusiasm.”