WOONSOCKET — Charity, justice, brotherly love and fidelity.
Maurice E. Berube has spent the better part of 11 years trying to promote and practice the four cardinal virtues of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. But it wasn't until last month, when he found himself the recipient of a simple act of kindness by an 11-year-old city girl, that he really understood what it meant to be an Elk.
Berube, Grand Exalted Ruler of Woonsocket Elks Lodge #850, says it happened in December when he was helping deliver 227 food baskets to needy families during the holiday season.
After delivering the last basket, he turned to leave the home when a little girl, the youngest member of the family, tapped his shoulder and handed him an envelope.
“I opened it and inside was a beautiful handmade thank-you card,” says Berube, his eyes welling. “This little girl had taken the time to create this amazing card as her way of thanking us for helping her family. It was such an emotional and defining moment for me because it really illustrated just how important the work is that the Elks do.”
The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, also often known as the Elks Lodge or simply The Elks, is an American fraternal order and social club founded 141 years ago.
It is one of the leading fraternal orders in the U.S., claiming nearly one million members and more than 2,000 lodges in communities all over the country.
The Elks is also a charitable foundation that each year gives millions in scholarships. In fact, the Elks National Foundation, the charitable arm of the order, provides more than $3.64 million in college scholarships each year and is the second largest private grantor of scholarships in the world behind the U.S. government.
The Elks organization was founded in New York City on Feb. 16, 1868, under the name “Jolly Corks” by 15 actors, entertainers and others associated with the theater. In ensuing years, membership expanded to other professions.
The fraternal order was founded “to promote and practice the four cardinal virtues of charity, justice, brotherly love and fidelity; to promote the welfare and enhance the happiness of its members; to quicken the spirit of American patriotism and cultivate good fellowship.”
The Elks is a non-political, non-sectarian and strictly American fraternity. Proposal for membership in the order is only by invitation of a member in good standing. To be accepted as a member, one must be an American citizen, believe in God, be of good moral character and be at least 21-years-old.
Building Stronger Communities
The order spends more than $80 million every year in cash, goods, and services to the nation's youth, its veterans, the disadvantaged and handicapped, and to individuals and civic groups and programs. The Elks sponsor scouting, athletic teams, a national “Hoop Shoot” free-throw contest involving more than 3 million children, physical and occupational therapy programs and patriotic programs of all sorts.
The country's youth have always been important to the order. It is for this reason the Elks drug awareness education program was launched to warn primary grade students and their parents of the dangers in drug use. Additionally, every lodge observes June 14 as Flag Day, a tradition which the Elks began in 1907 and was later adopted by Congress as an official observance.
In fact, the Elks over the years have created a quiet network of good deeds that has profoundly changed millions of lives for the better, yet there is little public awareness of the impact of their work.
“A lot of people are under the mistaken impression that being an Elk is just people meeting at the lodge to eat and drink,” says Berube. “That couldn't be further from the truth. The Elks is the greatest organization in the world. If people really understood what we do for the community they would be hanging from the ceiling to join.”
To be eligible for membership in the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, a person must be a citizen of the United States over the age of 21 who believes in God. The person must be sponsored by a member of the Elks lodge and reside in the jurisdiction of the lodge they wish to join. Candidates are then voted in by the entire membership. An indoctrination period follows in which the candidate learns more about the order’s programs and charities. Finally, the candidate participates in the solemn and elaborate Elks initiation ritual, which is shrouded in secrecy and open to Elks members only. Elk officers wear formal evening dress during the 45-minute ceremony, in which initiates take the oath of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.
After initiation as an Elk, new members can take part in all meetings and social functions of the lodge.
109 Years of Woonsocket Elkdom
The 109-year-old Woonsocket Elks Lodge #850 is one of the most active lodges in Rhode Island. The lodge celebrated a milestone in 2003 when it celebrated its 100th anniversary. Today, the lodge, located at 380 Social St., has 871 members who live throughout the state as well as out-of-state. Women make up 20 percent (163 members) of the membership, the highest percentage of women Elks in the state. The lodge's longest living member is Roger “Kay” Caron, who joined the Elks 66 years ago in 1946.
The Woonsocket Elks Lodge might be best known, locally, for its sponsorship of the annual fishing derby at Cass Pond and Goodfellows Day for the Milk Fund, but its charitable work goes far beyond that. Lodge members take part in youth drug prevention programs; sponsor Cub Scouts, Little League and Hoop and Soccer Shoot contests; and deliver food baskets to the needy. Members also visit the elderly in nursing homes and assist aging veterans.
Berube, 61, of Woonsocket, joined the Elks 11 years ago after being sponsored for membership by longtime member Armand Froment.
“I would visit the lodge as Armand's guest and hear about all the good things the Elks were involved in and eventually I decided I wanted to be involved, too,” says Berube, whose wife, Joyce, the lodge's First Lady, is a 10-year member and Elks state chaplain who serves on various lodge committees.
“Joyce is my right arm,” says Berube, who was a member of the lodge's Inner Guard and an Esteemed Grand Knight before being elected the lodge's exalted grand ruler for 2011-2012. Berube was also the lodge's 2009-2010 Officer of the Year.
Berube says his other “right-hand-lady” is Elks member Jeanne E. Fagnant, who joined eight years ago. For six of those years, she has been the lodge secretary doing everything from handling applications and collecting dues to writing and publishing the monthly “850 News” newsletter.
Like all Elks lodges, the Woonsocket lodge has a hierarchy of officers which include, in order of rank, exalted ruler; esteemed leading knight; esteemed loyal knight; esteemed lecturing knight; secretary; treasurer; tiler; esquire; inner guard; chaplain; and trustees.
The “exalted ruler” governs each Elks Lodge, which in Woonsocket's case, has 30 appointed committees.
“It's been very interesting being exalted ruler. A lot of it is learning as you go, but it's been a great experience,” says Berube, whose 49-year-old son, Michael, is also an Elk.
There is perhaps no member of Woonsocket Elks Lodge #850 more intimately familiar with the history of the lodge and the Elks as both a state and national organization than James H. Clancy, who joined the elks in 1979. Over the past 32 years, Clancy has been the lodge's exalted ruler (1984-85); vice president of state Elks (1985-88); past state president (1988-89); past district deputy grand exalted ruler (1991-92); and Grand Lodge committee member (2001).
Clancy's uncle was an Elk and his sponsor for membership back when he decided to join at the age of 39 was Lionel “Skippy” Toupin.
“The satisfaction I derive from being an Elk is that I get to be part of an organization that helps other people,” says Clancy, who's wife, Jeanne, was Woonsocket #850's first and only woman exalted ruler (2005-2006) and first female district deputy. She is expected to be named first female state president in May.
“While the Elks are known for their many charitable objectives, we're still a fraternal organization that fosters fellowship and promotes good will amongst the membership,” Clancy says.
According to Clancy, the Woonsocket lodge was instituted on May 4, 1903. It became the 850th Elks lodge in the country and was granted charter by the Grand Lodge on July 23, 1903. William H. Chase was the lodge's first exalted ruler and the very first regular meeting of the lodge was held in leased space at Columbus Hall located at 65 Main St. in the city.
In December 1909, the Lodge purchased the Willis Cook Estate on Harris Avenue for about $8,000 as its first home, but four years later would move into new leased quarters in the Federal Building on the corner of Main and Federal Streets. In 1925, a three-story building on Hamlet Avenue known as the Halcyon Inn (formerly the Holt Mansion) was purchased and became the second Elks home owned by Woonsocket #850.
In 1963, the lodge relocated to the former First National Store building on Social Street, which has been Woonsocket #850's home ever since. The building on Social Street boasts a spacious lounge; large kitchen (where members cook and serve lunch daily for members and non-members); a game room and library; and a 275-seat function hall. A new addition was constructed in the late 1980s.
Like many other fraternal organizations, Elkdom has struggled with a massive decline in membership over the past 20 years. The Elks, whose average member is 65, have lost 600,000 members since 1980 to old age, death and just plain apathy, Clancy says. Overall, the Elks are still losing about 30,000 a year as members continue to decline and age.
“In 1979 there were 2 million Elks in the United States. In 2009, there were only 926,000 Elks and only 2,105 lodges,” says Clancy, who has helped bring in 100 new members to the Woonsocket lodge in the past 32 years. “We're going the way of a lot of fraternal organizations in that our membership is declining because it's difficlut to attract younger members.”
Typically, he said, Woonsocket Elks Lodge #850 can expect to initiate upwards of 50 new members a year, but during that period, the Lodge may lost upwards of 20 members who either die or drop out, so in reality the Lodge gained maybe 30 new members. Last year, Woonsocket Lodge #850's net gain in new members was three.
Despite that, Clancy says, Rhode Island last year was the highest in the country for new Elks memberships.
Says Clancy: “Years ago, you came here with your family. Nowadays, families haven't got time for anything. Both parents have jobs and the kids are involved in everything. The problem is that the interest just isn't there. With all the new technology available, there's just too many things that are competing for a young person's interest. I don't think the Elks will cease to exist in my lifetime, but it could happen some day.”
The Warwick-based Tri-City Elks Lodge #14 comprises Warwick, Providence and Pawtucket. Both Pawtucket and Providence, which had their own lodges for many years, merged with Warwick several years ago. The Pawtucket lodge was located for years in a historic site at 27 Exchange St. The three-story lodge was built in 1926 and added to the National Historic Register in 1983. The Pawtucket lodge merged with Warwick in 2006 because it was unable to meet stringent building fire codes in the wake of the tragic Station nightclub fire in 2003.
Tri-City Elks Lodge #14 has 660 members, 40 percent of whom are women, says Grand Exalted Ruler Donna M. Warner, who was elected to the lodge's top position after only four years with the order. She was a leading knight last year and was Elk of the Year in 2010.
“Just being able to help people is what keeps me going,” Warner says.
Last year was a busy year for Tri-City Elks Lodge #14. In the spring, the Elks held a picnic at the Masonic picnic grounds for disabled youngsters. They also sponsored an Easter egg hunt and Christmas part for residents of the family shelter and along with local cub scouts crafted greeting cards for patients at the local VA hospital.
“I don't think people realize how active the Elks are in terms of veterans care,” says Warner, adding that in each of the 172 VA medical centers nationwide there is an Elk committee at work.
In fact, she says, since 1917, hundreds of thousands of Elks and their families have given generously of their time, energy and resources so that the lives of the country's ill and aging veterans are enhanced.
For Berube, grand exalted ruler of Woonsocket #850, joining Elkdom 11 years ago was one of the best things he's ever done.
“It's given me the opportunity to associate with like-minded people who are all working towards one goal - to help the people in their communities,” he says. “What's better than that?”