2017-08-04 / Community

Feeling hidden in plain sight

Odd Fellows in South Portland look to recruit new members to their ranks
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Michele Trynor shows off the collection of ceremonial gowns that belong to Unity Lodge No. 3 of the International Order of Odd Fellows, many of which believed to date to the 1920s, or earlier. (Duke Harrington photo) Michele Trynor shows off the collection of ceremonial gowns that belong to Unity Lodge No. 3 of the International Order of Odd Fellows, many of which believed to date to the 1920s, or earlier. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Since a 2014 move to Brown’s Hill in South Portland, where it took over the former First United Methodist Church building, Unity Lodge No. 3 of the International Order of Odd Fellows has hoped to make its presence known. That’s been a little hard, members say, because of city restrictions on their site, such as a limit on signs to no greater than 2.5 square feet.

Recent notoriety, however, has been unwelcome, as many residents are upset over the lack of maintenance at Brown’s Hill Cemetery and have pointed a finger at the fraternal organization. While the Odd Fellows did pay an outstanding $1,500 cemetery maintenance bill for the church as part of its closing, they do not own the cemetery. The Odd Fellows fear they are getting a bad rap from not taking on maintenance of the burial ground anyway, as a presumed moral obligation given their purchase of the church, if not a legal one. And that would be too bad, the group says, because, contributing to their community is a cornerstone of the Odd Fellow charter, and the group donates more than $40,000 per year to the area.

However, with a dwindling membership base of about 20 active members, many of whom are in their 60s, or older – one reason they don’t mow the cemetery themselves – the Odd Fellows are badly in need of new blood, to keep that charitable giving going beyond the next decade.

On July 21, South Portland residents Ralph and Michele Trynor gave the Sentry a tour of the renovated church and spoke about the Odd Fellow organization, what it does, what it needs and it’s desire to draw new members. Ralph is the order’s current treasurer, while Michele four years ago became the first woman to make the leap from Union Lodge No. 3’s sister group, the Rebekahs, to become a full-fledged Odd Fellow. She has since served a term as the order’s Noble Grand – the equivalent of its president – and currently acts as lodge chaplin.

SENTRY: How old is your group?

R. TRYNOR: The Odd Fellows are one of the oldest fraternal groups there is. It began in England in the early 1700s and came over to America in the early 1800s. Our lodge was founded in 1877. So, this is our 140th year. And yet people don’t know about us. Everyone has heard of the Elks or the Eagles, but few people know about the Odd Fellows. Not to disparage any other group, but one of the main reasons is that we are not out there getting drunk and having the police called on us all the time. That is not at all what we are about.

SENTRY: And what do Odd Fellows do?

R. TRYNOR: Pretty simply, like our website says, our purpose is to “improve and elevate the character of mankind by promoting the principles of friendship, love, truth, faith, hope, charity and universal justice.” We hold the belief that “all men and women regardless of race, nationality, religion, social status, gender, rank and station are brothers and sisters.”

SENTRY: Isn’t one of the requirements to join that members must profess a belief on God.

R. TRYNOR: Right — well, a higher being. It doesn’t matter if someone is Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or anything else. But on an international level, the Odd Fellows are actually thinking of changing that “supreme being” part to being something about your character. The only reason there’s even a reference to a supreme being is because, at one time, way back when the Odd Fellows was founded, that was thought to be the best judge of your character, to deem whether you were good-hearted. That’s why the initiation rituals we do as members advance into each level are all about instructing on different stories in the Old Testament of the Bible, like the story of the Good Samaritan, they’re stories that are universally true, without reference to a particular religion.

SENTRY: And what do the tri-colored chain links in your logo represent?

R. TRYNOR: Yes, you’ll see on our materials three colored chain links, white, blue and red. The white is friendship, the blue is love, and the red is truth. So, they represent the links that bind us all together. So, after the first initiatory degree, the degrees a member works through are friendship, love, and truth.

SENTRY: And doesn’t the advancement through these degrees involve secret rituals, much like Freemasons?

R. TRYNOR: Well, they’re “secret rituals,” but they’re not. They’re just the Bible stories — again, like the tale of the Good Samaratin, how he came to be, and where that phrase comes from — done in a form like a little play, with each of the members playing a certain part and the initiate being the audience member who is led through the play to hear and understand the story. It’s all based in the Old Testament, so none of the plays bring into it any denomination. There’s no trying to convince anyone they need to believe and follow Jesus, or anyone else, just that they appreciate the message behind what are essentially morality plays, about how one leads a good and useful life.

M. TRYNOR: And we only do those ceremonies when we have a new member. So, it’s not like something we do every meetings. And, sometimes, when we don’t have a lot of new members, we’ll get together with other lodges and we’ll all do the degree for our new members together.

R. TRYNOR: We’ll all get together in one location and run all the degrees in one day. And sometimes we have to rely on a DVD because we won’t have enough members to fill all the roles in the play.

SENTRY: How many members do you have?

R. TRYNOR: We have about 50 members officially on our rolls, but about 20 who are what we’d call active members.

SENTRY: How can someone become an Odd Fellow?

R. TRYNOR: They can go to our website, unitylodge3.org, or just show up here for our Wednesday get-togethers, about a half-hour before the 7 p.m. start. We meet every week, except in the summertime, when it’s once a month.

SENTRY: How long did it take to renovate the former Methodist Church for use as your meeting hall?

M. TRYNOR: We’ve put thousands of hours, just between the two of us.

R. TRYNOR: We spent almost every free day here. We actually took our vacations just to do the dining hall floor, starting early in the morning and working until late every singe day. The small room off the dining hall that we now use as an office had carpeting and three layers of paint on it, with mold and everything. It was just a nightmare. We also did a lot of work to the sanctuary, redoing the entrance and adding lighting, and we’re working on the kitchen, where we’ve already added a new hood fan over the stove.

SENTRY: Just off the new entryway, you have a storage room will all kinds of colorful ceremonial gowns. Are those used in your initiation rituals.

M. TRYNOR: Yes, there’s one for someone to wear who represents the king, and ones for other roles in the plays. Most of the costumes are quite old, dating back to early 1900s — 1920’s at least. Just looking at them you can see how old they are, and, it’s kind of funny, but they’re kind of tiny, because back then the average guy was a lot smaller than today. So, a lot of these don’t fit our guys anymore, although we have some more recent ones we’ve had made.

SENTRY: So, size is an issue, what other modern problems do Odd Fellows face?

R. TRYNOR: Our biggest problem is members. Because without members you have no money. If we get to the point where we can’t get five members for a meeting, they pull the charter and whatever money you have all goes back to the Grand Lodge. It stays in a fund for a few years in case you get enough members to restart, but if not, then it’s dispersed and that’s it. And then there’s not that money for the local area. People don’t think about it, but we represent $40,000 spent in this area every year. That’s a lot of money, any way you want to look at it. That’s going to be gone unless we get new members.

SENTRY: Who is an ideal new member?

R. TRYNOR: Basically, anyone who likes helping other people. We are primarily required by the IRS as part of our nonprofit status to do things for our members. We are not a 501 c3. We are a 503 c8 — that means we are a beneficial organization, which means we benefit our members first, and then we go out to the wider community. One big reason to join is, if you’re young and you’re going off to college, if you attend 75 percent of our meetings in six months, you get a $500 scholarship to your school. You can get $1,000 per year as long as you are in school, or until you don’t attend enough meetings to qualify. We also offer $250 in eyeglass or contact benefits every two years, and a $1,000 death benefit to help with burial costs. And, of course, we consider our Wednesday suppers a benefit as well, and during the year we have at least four outings. That’s not bad for a $50 application fee and $25 per year in dues. But it’s what we mean when we say our tax status requires us to take care of our members first, but then we still do all the things we do for the community besides, and the members each get a say in how that is spent.

SENTRY: Besides annual dues, where does your money come from?

R. TRYNOR: Fortunately, we have invested well over the years and are in very good financial shape. The $40,000 we give each year is just spending from interest. We never touch the principal, and we put some of the interest we make each year back into it. So, that’s something we can pretty much count on every year and we’re always going to be ahead of the game. We’re never going to run out of money. Some lodges aren’t so lucky. They have to worry about having beano to do stuff. We don’t have to worry about raising money. But the resource we have that’s in danger of disappearing is our people, who meet every week to vote to donate money.

SENTRY: What are some of the things you donate to? R. TRYNOR: There are lot of things we give to every single year. There’s the veterans homes, the National Guard fund for the families of people stationed overseas who need help. We send kids to summer camp and give to the Boys and Girls Club. And since we’ve been in South Portland we’ve put on a Halloween party for all the kids in the neighborhood. We’ve done that two years now and the people have absolutely loved it. We also have $12,000 in college scholarships we give out locally each year. We give eight $1,000 scholarships to graduating high school seniors, plus two to people who are already university students and two to people who are going to college at home, taking online classes with a Maine-based accredited school.

M. TRYNOR: But we had four that we didn’t even give out this year because nobody applied, because not enough people know we’re here.

SENTRY: With all the money that you give in the community, why is it you are not more well known? M. TRYNOR: Well, apart from the scholarships, or the Halloween party, most of what we do are donations that we give to the agency that is doing the work, so the people who are receiving the funds don’t always realize where the money is coming from. M. TRYNOR: Well, apart from the scholarships, or the Halloween party, most of what we do are donations that we give to the agency that is doing the work, so the people who are receiving the funds don’t always realize where the money is coming from.

SENTRY: And with the money you have, you also plan more exterior work to your

R. TRYNOR: Yes, we give away $40,000 each year and we plan to put another $40,00 into the building, although that has been a nightmare trying to find somebody to do the work. They have to be able and willing to take care of lead abatement, which is funny, because way back when this paint was put on, the government actually required that you use a lead-based paint. But once we can find someone, we will be taking off the entire front section and steeple, which have a lot of rot in then, and then building them back up on the same footprint, except only as high up as the current rooflines, to kind of get away from that church look.

SENTRY: And haven’t you had a few other issues with local government?

R. TRYNOR: Well, the planning board made us put a fence up between our parking lot and our back lawn, which kind of limits us, should we want to hold a cookout, or some other kind of outdoor get-together. The strange thing is, the neighbors have since told us they did not ask for the fence and, in fact, they do not want it. We also are very limited in what we can have for signs, which makes it somewhat hard to let people know who are are and that we’re here. We actually plan to petition all the neighbors for support, to see if we can get the city to allow us to put up a 3-foot by 5-foot sign out front, where the light is. We want people to know who we are.

SENTRY: What do you envision for the future of the Odd Fellows in South Portland?

R. TRYNOR: Our problem is that we are dying. Our members are all old. We lost 12 members last year to death. To make the donations that we do in the local area, we need members. Otherwise, that’s it. We have money enough to go on forever the way we manage it, but at the average age of our members, we only have members enough to last, maybe another 10 years. After that, probably every member we have now is going to be dead, or too old to make the meetings. So, if we don’t get new members, that’s it, there is no future.

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