A Dwindling Herd

Worth A Look, Welfare, Frontier Centre

Clark Kilburn , Grand Exalted Ruler of the Benevolent Protector Order of the Elks, reigns over a dwindling herd. The fraternal organization, which had 60,000 members nationally 15 years ago, has seen its numbers drop to 20,000 today.

“There are a lot of white heads in the room and not a lot of us to carry on,” says Mr. Kilburn, the organization’s national president.

The Elks is not the only endangered species of its kind. At a time of economic turmoil when their charitable services are needed most, fraternal organizations across the country are struggling to attract and retain members.

Calgary’s Loyal Order of the Moose once boasted three lodges. Today, only the Forest Lawn Moose Lodge No. 169 survives, leasing space in a building it erected during its heyday when members packed the place for dances, bingo, cribbage and darts.

“This used to be a real busy place,” says its administrator, Helmet Sonnenberg. “If you weren’t here by 6 p.m. Friday, you couldn’t get in.”

Now there are almost more moose in Calgary than Moose. In 1980, Moose Lodge No. 169 had close to 1,000 members. Today, it has 120. Moose population figures from Alberta Sustainable Resources to the end of 2007 listed 100 moose in the immediate Calgary area.

For decades, the Moose and other fraternal organizations have provided a social safety net for those not covered by government programs, assisting sick children, the disabled, the disadvantaged and the abused. With the economy unsettled and governments facing deficits, the role they play is crucial, says Lindsay Blackett, Alberta’s Minister of Culture and Community Spirit.

Younger generations, however, have turned their backs on what they see as the anachronistic nature of these so-called secret societies, a description fraternal organizations dispute, despite their rituals, initiations and unusual hats.

“We have to bring ourselves into this century if we want to survive,” says Calgary’s Wes Nelson, 65, the grand secretary and past grandmaster of the Alberta branch of the Independent Order of Oddfellows, whose membership has declined from 1,381 in 1980 to 450 today. “We haven’t become as modern as the times. Younger people see our passwords and signs and degrees as antiquated. We have membership cards. We don’t need to whisper a password in somebody’s ear to prove we are a member.”

The Elks group, Mr. Kilburn says, has relaxed its rituals, which historically included an initiation using a skull and hoodwinks and regalia consisting of a purple fez, purple jacket and white shoes. To attract new members, Elks clubs have the option of setting up traditional or non-traditional lodges.

Some organizations that stubbornly cling to ritual, such as the Masons and its appendant group, the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, or Shriners, are surprisingly bucking the trend.

“We’ve almost solved the death problem,” says John Hart, grandmaster of Alberta’s Masonic Order.

Last year, the organization initiated 309 new members and lost 199 to death. Its provincewide membership, which was nearly 20,000 in 1960, has remained at a consistent 7,800 for the past several years, thanks in part to Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code.

“The [book and] movie is certainly part of it,” Mr. Hart says of the Masons’ recent stability.

In his bestselling book, Mr. Brown linked the Masonic Order to the Knights Templar, the medieval Christian military unit formally endorsed by the Catholic Church around 1129. Modern Masonry, however, does not claim any direct link to the medieval Knights Templar, although some of its symbols and traditions were incorporated into Masonic Templarism when it formed in the 1700s.

“With Shriners and Masons, there seems to be a bit of a resurgence. The DaVinci Code has generated some curiosity,” says Gordon Berard, potentate of Calgary Al Azhar Shrine Temple, which last Saturday night hosted its biggest social event of the year, the annual Potentate’s Ball.

Internationally, the Shriners have about 350,000 members, down from 937,712 three decades ago.

Fraternal groups and service clubs survive in Alberta through casinos, bingos, fundraising efforts and memberships.

“If it wasn’t for the bingos and gaming, we would probably be out of here,” Mr. Sonnenberg says, surveying a lodge where a stuffed moose head surveys a barroom that still sells pickled eggs.

Declining memberships put a strain on an organization’s volunteer base, making it difficult to carry on its charitable work.

Two weeks ago, the Forest Lawn Moose Lodge gave four $500 bursaries to Forest Lawn High School students. Through its casinos and bingos, the lodge’s 120 members also support causes ranging from the Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Society to the Girl Guides. Its Women of the Moose chapter knits toques for newborns at Foothills Hospital.

Founded in 1888, the Moose chose the moose as its symbol for “its fierceness as a protector, his loyalty as a companion, his generosity as a provider.”

The Calgary Elks Lodge, numbering about 600, supports a number of charitable causes including the Alberta Children’s Hospital audiology department. Calgary’s Al Azhar Shrine, with about 810 members, sends local children and their families to its Shriners Hospitals, supports a local dyslexia centre and helps fund orthodontic services for children from disadvantaged families. The Alberta Oddfellows’ charitable efforts include support of the Alberta Arthritis Society.

The Masons, or Freemasons, although not technically a service group, has an education fund that last year gave away 100 education bursaries at $2,000 a piece.

“The work these groups do embodies the spirit of Albertans that dates back to the founding days of this province, when families looked after each other,” Mr. Blackett says.

Fraternal organizations saw a boom in membership after the Second World War when soldiers sought out organizations to help maintain the spirit of camaraderie and fellowship that helped them survive, Mr. Hart says.

It was a generation weaned on the Great Depression, raised in hardship and who knew the value of helping others.

But the concept of public service has been lost to an entire generation, or perhaps even two generations, says Mr. Kilburn, the New Brunswick based head of the Elks.

“They haven’t need [for] the services that fraternal organizations provide,” Mr. Kilburn says.

Although the Baby Boomers and their offspring may be the most pampered, spoiled and privileged generation in human history, fraternal organizations admit they have been their own worst enemies.

“We, as older Freemasons, have done damage to ourselves by not teaching others what freemasonry is all about,” says Jerry Kopp, 60, grand secretary of the Alberta Masons. “Many of our members thought our organization was so secret that they would go home and not even tell their families about it.”

The Oddfellows, which have a similar structure to the Masons, were founded on the very principle of anonymity, deliberately not seeking attention for their good deeds. Such selfless altruism was unheard of when the group was founded in 18th-century England, thus making them “odd fellows” and giving rise to their name.

Without that recognition today, the organization realizes it is sealing its own doom because “prospective members will be unable to learn enough about us and what we do,” Wayne Reynolds, the Oddfellows’ general membership chairman, wrote in the organization’s North American newsletter last fall.

Service clubs such as the Lions, founded on community service as opposed to fellowship, are also facing membership losses, although not as severe as their fraternal counterparts.

Fraternal and service groups have traditionally been stronger in smaller and rural communities, but that, too, is changing.

George Copeman, 82, governor of the Medicine Hat Moose Lodge, says his lodge has 860 members, down from 3,000 in the early 1980s.

“It’s not like the old days. There used to be Moose all over the place.”