Citizens Voice - N.E. P.A.
Area shriners battling sinking membership
By Heidi E. Ruckno, Staff Writer
SCRANTON - The Irem Temple Shrine bid farewell to its downtown Wilkes-Barre mosque last week when it was sold to the Greater Wilkes-Barre Development Corporation to make room for new development downtown.
The aging building was purchased for nearly $1 million.
However, the organization itself faces more challenges than a dilapidated building. Like most service organizations, today's shriners struggle to maintain existing membership, as well as recruit new members to keep themselves going.
"There's a lot of competition out there nowadays," said Shrine Recorder Don Hoppes.
When membership peaked around 1920, Irem Temple brought in 1,058 new shriners, the organization's Web site said. Now, a class of 150 is a good one, Hoppes said.
In its heyday, there were nearly 7,000 members of the Shrine, according to the Irem Shrine Web site. Currently, there are only 3,714 living shriners, and Hoppes said only 750 of those are active.
"That gets progressively worse because we're declining," he said. "We are an older membership."
Since its inception, the Shrine has provided free medical care to thousands of disabled children through its hospitals and burn centers. It must now reach out to younger men to keep itself going.
Hoppes said classes have risen and fallen over the years, with last year's class coming in at a healthy 362. The Class of 2005 should see 150 new shriners inducted, he said.
In order to be a shriner, a potential member must first become a mason. Hoppes believes masons are successfully getting younger men to join.
"We have to work hard to get masons so we can make them shriners," Irem Membership Coordinator Richard Shannon said. "It's tough. All the organizations are going downhill."
Flinn Mueller, 25, of Forty Fort, became a mason last year. He joined because he's always had an interest in the organization, and because his father, Bob Stanley, is a mason.
They are both members of the Blue Lodge No. 468, Wyoming.
"If you're to look at just about any mason, they're an example of what a man should be," Mueller said. "They're moral, upright and upstanding."
While Mueller isn't currently interested in joining the Shrine, Stanley plans to join at some point.
Wilkes-Barre Councilman Jim McCarthy, who is also a shriner, believes 60 percent of the area's membership is over the age of 60. Ironic, he thought, because the Shrine's main purpose is to help the young.
"The majority of the people are not young and you need new blood to keep it going," he said.
The Shrine is not alone in its struggle, McCarthy said. Organizations like the Elks, the Catholic War Veterans, and the Knights of Columbus are also seeing a decline in membership.
But on Saturday, more than 300 new masons were initiated at the Scranton Cultural Center. Many of them were young.
Among those was Hugh Merritt Hughes IV, a 37-year-old Wilkes-Barre resident. He is a fourth-generation mason.
Also initiated Saturday was 42-year-old Michael Jones of Wyoming. Jones, a former youth sports coach, joined because he wanted to stay involved in the community.
"All the different branches of the Masonic community constantly give back to the community," he said.
Despite an overall decline in membership, Hoppes is optimistic about the Shrine. He believes the organization will thrive for generations to come.
"I think with the increase in the number of younger members who have joined over the past three years, I think the Shrine here in this community will continue to flourish."
In 1984, most of the Shrine's operations had shifted to the Irem Temple Country Club, Dallas. Although the downtown building saw limited use for better than 20 years, Hoppes is still going to miss it.
"Memory wise, it's probably worth millions. Physically speaking, that's debatable," he said.