Belmore Church. Photo: Supplied/Billy Cotsis
For sheer athleticism, Rugby League is a sport which can entertain and embrace people. In Belmore, the blue and whites of the Canterbury Bulldogs are beloved by all, the same colour as the Greek national flag.
Long before other sports truly understood multiculturalism, league was a pioneer. A bit like Belmore, a suburb that embraces everyone; a suburb that has embraced Hellenes for decades.
League was a working-class game, built on the shoulders of tough men, with no room for distinguishing between ethnicities and cultural stereotypes, this was a game that welcomed everyone with talent. I always saw that in Belmore, too.
In keeping with that theme, I was lucky enough to have a coffee a while back with Dr George Peponis, the first Mediterranean born player to lead Australia. This is a true giant of the game who played at a time when society (overall) in Sydney was not yet ready to shake off its prejudices towards migrants or those perceived to be different. Yet, Dr Peponis was to prove one of the most revered and respected players in the game, from the mighty Bulldogs of Belmore.
Born in Tripoli in the Peloponnese, arriving in Sydney as an 8-month-old in 1954, Dr Peponis explained how readily he was accepted by his peers in Belmore and in the game. Dr Peponis was your typical young Greek boy, attending Greek school, becoming a papadaki at the Belmore Greek Orthodox Church and enjoying sport. For those who have been to Belmore Sports Ground, you will notice the beautiful white of the All Saints Greek Orthodox Church, visible beyond the railway. The stadium is also home to Sydney Olympic – a Greek team that won titles in the old NSL and in the current NSW Premier League.
Dr Peponis was the captain of Australia for the 1979 Test series against Great Britain and the following year against New Zealand. He was an inspiration to players in the game, especially for those of Greek heritage as more ethnic players took up Rugby League in the 1980’s.
Dr Peponis recalled, “Billy, I still practice 35 hours a week, in addition to my (then) role as Chair of Canterbury Leagues.” That Belmore hard-working ethos never goes away.
That theme was evident when I also sat down with one of the Socceroos’ greats, Peter Katholos, who once played for Olympic, and DJ Georgie D at Belmore Cakes – I have lost track of the galaktoboureko I have eaten there and of course it also gives me the chance to practice my Greek language skills with staff. Though two doors up at the newsagent, run by a beautiful Vietnamese family, I usually bump into Greeks to speak with. The owners, of course, love it and it helps them stock Greek items and Bulldogs merchandise.
Take a walk down the main street and you will find the six or seven shops that are Greek owned or managed and you will hear Greek spoken. How many times have I observed former Olympic midfield maestro Peter Katholos having a coffee and people coming up to him for a chat in Greek!
I had invited Peter and Georgie D aka George Soravia to come for a chat about Belmore. While they had met before, neither knew that the two were actually connected via family. Turns out George’s mother-in-law was baptised by Peter’s grandfather! Two degrees of separation. Peter was also born in the same part of Greece as George’s mother-in-law. This is Belmore, where almost everyone seems to be connected. George spoke to me about how that week he helped set up St. Basil’s NSW/ACT ‘1821 Greek Art Exhibition’ at Sydney Town Hall as part of the Greek Festival. One of the many talents that George possesses. Countless hours and toil, as well running his own business, yet here he was chatting with me in a rare moment away from his various projects. George lives nearby to Belmore. He epitomises that hard work ethos of Belmore and the surrounding areas, and people such as George who add layers to the Greek and local culture with his creativity. He also makes religious timber masterpiece icons, by hand. His music or gigs are streamed, and he can generate a crowd as he has many a night, at various times in the past, at Megisti Blue and Feggaria/Defi. Both are of course night venues in Belmore. George points out, Megisti is now more for functions, whereas Feggaria is a regular nightclub and concert experience. Where else can you get two Greek night offerings such as these in Sydney on the same street? These venues have been a good outlet for live musicians and DJs such as George over the last two decades.
If you were at the Let’s Go Greek Festival at Parramatta in September, chances are you heard Georgie D play.Belmore, as Peter points out to me, is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country. The people and shops represent an estimated 70 nationalities. Greek is the second most spoken language at home. Nestled amongst a plethora of eateries you will find Greek bakeries, frappe to tie you over, Hellenic produce shops and a gyros shop. Yiro Yiro shut its doors a few months ago and a new one, Big Fat Greek, replete with Greek music playing and Greek products to purchase, has opened on the corner with Canterbury Road and Burwood Road. On the other side of Belmore, on the way to Canterbury, one will find the impressive Lemnos Club (don’t miss Greek music night first Thursday of every month), while back on the main street, you can find the Limnos fish shop. Many of these shops proudly display their allegiance to the Bulldogs; no one would dare to support another team.
When Canterbury makes a grand final, the carnival like atmosphere lasts the entire week. You will see Lebanese, Greek, Pacific Islander and older Australians blocking traffic, singing and dancing. Again, the working-class roots come to the fore in a sea of unified celebration and chants of ‘Doggies’.
Estimations place Belmore Greek speakers at over 1200, while the large Canterbury district boasts 9.5 per cent of people with Greek ancestry. Canterbury as an electorate is of course represented by the Labor Member for Canterbury, Sophie Cotsis, continuing that flavour of Greekness across the area.
The Greek Parish in Belmore was established in 1964, with the Church coming to fruition in 1969 and I myself was baptised in the church in 1977 as a cute chubby baby, and I still make an effort to visit the church annually. Today, the parish is led by two priests, Father Dimitrios Papaikonomou and Father Christos Triantafyllou. The impressive co-education All Saints Grammar school (Kindergarten to Year 12) was established in 1990. The school and church, with impressive indoor sports offerings, is a sight to beholden. Just like the architectural triumph of the church, the school is white and stands out to passers-by. The school is one of the most prestigious in Sydney, with kids, teachers, parents and the community praising the high standards of the school.
Just like Belmore, Rugby League has had a long line of players with Greek heritage, including the wonderful talents of Willie Peters, Steve Georgallis, who was also caretaker Bulldogs coach in 2020, John Skandalis, Jason Stevens, Glenn Lazarus, Michael Korkidis and coach Jason Demetriou the current Souths where Lachlan Ilias and Peter Mamouzelos play.