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People > Life Stories > Speech by John Nicholas Comino about his grandfather...

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submitted by Kytherian World Heritage Fund on 10.12.2009

Speech by John Nicholas Comino about his grandfather...

...John Demetrios Comino, on the occasion of the launch of the books, Life in Australia, in both Greek and English, at the MacLaurin Hall, Sydney University, on the evening of the 9th December, 2009.

125 Years ago a formidable man with a Vision made the long sea journey to Australia from the Island of Kythera in Greece, on the m. v. Potosi.

That man – John Demetrios Comino – made this momentous decision at the invitation of his brother Athanassios who had arrived here five years earlier.

As I stood within the remains of the stone cottage in the Village of Perlengianika with my father in 1974, I was overwhelmed by a strong feeling of what thoughts must have been flowing through my paternal Grandfathers mind when he was looking out at the valley below contemplating the unknown. Leaving family and his home to go to the other side of the world in search of opportunity fuelled by a strong desire to provide for a better life for his parents, brothers and sisters.

During his life, John Demetrios Comino demonstrated strength of character, vision and leadership in the Australian and Greek Communities.
He married Anna Phocas one of five daughters of Reverend Seraphim Phocas who is featured at page 115 of Life in Australia. That union produced four sons, the eldest Demetrios later becoming the founder of Dexion, a major international corporation.

At the turn of the century John formed partnerships with two Irish Australians operating Oyster Leases in the Shoalhaven and Clyde Rivers in NSW. He and his Brother Athanassios established a chain of Oyster Bars and John rapidly acquired the title Oyster King. Their first shop was at 36 Oxford Street and that building with A J Comino inscribed on the upper façade still stands today.

John with his brother Athanassios helped numerous early Greek migrants with accommodation and work and then with financial assistance to start their own businesses in Sydney, regional NSW and other parts of Australia. The history of this Greek café tradition is documented by Denis Conomos in his book Greeks in Queensland published in 2002 where he describes the roots of the Greek café industry in Queensland are to be found in the early Greek cafes of NSW.

During the 1890’s the Comino Brothers became significant employers of Greek labour acting as guardians to many young Greek migrants offering them work and lodging and keeping a watchful eye over their welfare.
John, in particular, would counsel his young charges on life in Australia and even help them financially to set up in business.

Life was hard for the small colony of Greek migrants in the early years of the 20th century and they worked long hours many being painfully homesick longing for their families.

In the midst of all these endeavours, John recognised the need to extend spirit of community beyond the limited time for rest and recreation and with other Greeks in 1897 the first steps were taken to form a Greek Orthodox Community.
John was elected Honorary Life President of the Greek Orthodox Community of NSW and provided the land in Bourke street Surry Hills for the construction of Sydney’s first Greek Orthodox Church, Aghia Triada (Holy Trinity)
In 1898 the foundation stone was laid and the Church was completed in 1899 with the Consecration conducted by his father in law as part of the Easter celebrations that year.

The Dedication in the Book, authored by John, reads “to the well beloved patriotic and progressive Greeks of Australia as a mark of deserved respect for their courageous and uncompromising sentiments.”

In these brief but poignant words John captures the struggle and commitment of the early Greek migrants which is developed in the accounts of Australian life and culture of the time, the political system, agriculture, mining, industry and politics setting the background of the achievements of the many early Greek families featuring their Life in Australia.
Together with the authors John created in Life in Australia a landmark book detailing life in early 20th Century Australia and the achievements of the pioneering Greek families of the time.

Its translation was not an easy task the original having been written in the formal Greek language of the time.

The process started some five years ago when Angelo Notaras wrote to me recognising that copyright had lapsed long ago but sought approval of our Family. That was given immediately and the rest is history apart from some interesting challenges with proof reading the translated text against the original. One interesting example was tackling the greek colloquial expression, Pese Pita na se phago and coming up with dinner to fall ready cooked out of the sky (p.21). This was used in the text when warning migrants that all is not milk and honey and that rewards rather come as a result of honesty, hard work & dedication.

The immense value and historical significance of Life in Australia cannot be underestimated. Its translation into English at the instigation of Angelo Notaras with the assistance of George Poulos brings my Grandfathers work back to life and makes me truly proud to stand here today with him proudly watching over my shoulder.

John Nicholas Comino
6th December, 2009.

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