Local “Shriners” gather for fun and philanthropy

Tripoli Shrine Center located at 3000 West Wisconsin Ave. Photo by Martina Ibanez-Baldor [email protected]

Nestled between two churches at 3000 W. Wisconsin Ave., the Tripoli Shrine Center could pass for just another temple or mosque in Milwaukee’s diverse scenery to an untrained eye. But this building is neither a temple nor a mosque — it is the home base for Wisconsin and Milwaukee’s Shriner activities.

Just a mile west of campus, the Tripoli Shrine Center, formerly known as the Tripoli Temple, was the 21st Shriners International center built in the world. The Milwaukee chapter was founded in 1886. Currently there are 194 centers around the world.

Shriners International is an international fraternity of approximately 500,000 members. There are orders throughout the United States, Mexico, Canada, Panama and most recently Heidelberg, Germany.

Members of the Tripoli Shrine Center and “Shriners” worldwide are all male and must be Masons.

Masons are men stemming from the Freemasons, an organization known for itssacred rituals and policy of members helping each other. Members of the organization must believe in a higher power.

“The Shriners are the largest international fraternity in the world,” said Jim Christie, current recorder, or secretary, of the Tripoli Shrine Center. He is also an ex-Potentate, or president, of the center.

The concept of the Shriners started with a group of men who met for lunch at the Knickerbocker in New York City in 1870.

“The two main men were a doctor and an actor who said, ‘Hey, we have the ritual side of Masonry, but where is the fun and frivolity?’” Christie said.

The greatest number of participants in Wisconsin was in 1963, when the Shriners had 9,000 members. Currently there are 1,300.

The eclectic exterior of the Tripoli center has Roman paneling with vibrant pastel colors painted on the dome. The center was completed in 1928 after construction began Nov. 9, 1925.

The architectural firm, Clas, Shepard and Clas, based its prototypes on North African Muslim architecture and as an homage to the Taj Mahal in India.

The interior features statues of kneeling camels, which are a focal point. Placed at the grand south entrance, the camels were presented by Noble Louis Kuehn at a cost of $8,000 and were sculpted by the French master Paul Mouton of LeHarve, France. Each camel is eight feet long and five feet high and weighs five tons.

Christie said the camels are a great source of history and joy for children who visit the center.

With the decline in membership and dues, the center has opened its building as a venue for fundraisers, charities, weddings and more.

Other fundraisers and public events held in the intricate building include Mardi Gras, the Potentate’s Ball, the Red Fez Pancake Breakfast, DeMolay youth prom, Sportsman’s Night and a fashion show put on by the wives of the Shriners.

On a local level, the Tripoli Shrine Center has completed its most notable philanthropy by funding the Shriner Hospital through the Shriner Circus (Feb. 23-26 this year), its biggest fundraiser, and other smaller fundraisers.

John Bugajski, treasurer of the center, joined in 1980 and praised the group’s medical efforts.

“These hospitals help children up to age 18 free of charge,” Bugajski said. “Patients don’t have to be a Mason or affiliated with the Shriners — it’s open to everybody. Our primary resource is in orthopedics, but we also have two burn units.”

Christie said fundraising from the circus helps with upkeep but is primarily given to the Shriner Hospitals.

“We hope to raise $225,000 (this year through the circus),” Christie said. “On an average day the hospitals take $6 million a day to run. We also sell Vidalia onions in the end of April and beginning of May all over. We make about $30,000 in one weekend.”

Marquette sociology professor Robert Greene recalls the Shriner Circus that was held annually where he lived, and said all philanthropy is necessary.

“There are so many organizations that need help, and with the lack of public concern for social programs eroding over time, these organizations become even more vital,” Greene said in an email.