History of Shriners International

History of Shriners International


having fun helping kids


How it all began

In 1870, several thousand of the 900,000 residents of Manhattan were Masons. Many of these Masons made it a point to lunch at the Knickerbocker Cottage, a restaurant located at 426 Sixth Avenue. At a special table on the second floor, a particularly jovial group of these men used to meet regularly.

The Masons who gathered at this table were noted for their good humor and wit. They often discussed the idea of a new fraternity for Masons, in which fun and fellowship would be stressed more than ritual. Two to the table regulars, Walter M. Fleming, M.D., and William J. “Billy” Florence, an actor, took the idea seriously enough to do something about it.

William Florence


Billy Florence was a star, after becoming the toast of the New York stage, he toured London, Europe, and Middle Eastern countries, always playing to capacity audiences. While on tour in Marseilles, France, Florence was invited to a party given by an Arabian diplomat.

Florence, recalling conversations at the Knickerbocker Cottage, realized that this Arabian theme might well be the vehicle for the new fraternity.

Dr. Walter Fleming


Dr. Walter Fleming was a prominent physician and surgeon. Born in 1838, he obtained a degree in medicine in Albany, N.Y., in 1862. During the Civil War, he was a surgeon with the 13th New York Infantry Brigade of the National Guard. He then practiced medicine in Rochester, N.Y., until 1868, when he moved to New York City and quickly became a leading practitioner.

Fleming was devoted to fraternalism. he became a Master Mason and completed some of his Scottish Tite work in Rochester. Fleming then completed his Scottish Rite degrees in New York City and was coroneted a 33 degree Scottish Rite Mason on September 19, 1872.

Fleming took the ideas supplied by Florence and converted them into what would become the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.M.S.).

With the help of other Knickerbocker Cottage regulars, Fleming drafted the ritual, designed the emblem and costumes, formulated a salutation, and declared that members would were a red fez.

The initaiation rites, or ceremonials, were drafted by Fleming with the help of three Brother Masons: Charles T. McClenachan, lawyer and expert on Masonic Ritual; William Sleigh Paterson, printer, linguist and ritualist; and Albert L. Rawson, prominent scholar and Mason who provided much of the Arabic background.

The Crescent was adopted as the Jewel of the Order. Though any materials can be used in formiThe Crescent was adopted as the Jewel of the Order. Though any materials can be used in forming the Crescent, the most valuable are the claws of a Royal Bengal Tiger, united at their base in a gold setting. In the center is thehead of a sphinx, and on the back are a pyramid, an urn and a star. The Jewel bears the motto “Robur et Furor,” which means “Strength and Fury.” Today, the emblem includes a scimitar from which the crescent hangs, and a five-pointed star beneath the head of the sphinx.Dr. Fleming and his colleagues also formulated a salutation used today by Shriners — “Es Selamu Aleikum!” — which means, “Peace be with you!” In returning the salutation, the gracious wish is “Aleikum Es Selamu,” which means “With you be peace.” Nobles Florence and Fleming received The Order of the Mystic Shrine on August 13, 1870; the other 11 nobles on June 16, 1871. The Fez The red fez with a black tassel, Shriners’ official headgear, has been handed down through the ages. It derives its name from the place where it was first manufactured — the city of Fez, Morocco. Some historians claim it dates back to about A.D. 980, but the name of the fez, or tarboosh, does not appear in Arabic literature until around the 14th century. One of the earliest references to the headgear is in “Arabian Nights.”

The Fez

blank fez

The red fez with a black tassel, Shriners’ official headgear,has been handed down through the ages. It derives its name from the place where it was first manufactured — the city of Fez, Morocco.Some historians claim it dates back to about A.D. 980, but the name of the fez, or tarboosh, does not appear in Arabic literature until around the 14th century. One of the earliest references to the headgear is in “Arabian Nights.”

The First Meeting

On September 26, 1872, the first temple in the United States was organized in the New York City Masonic Hall. Charles T. McClenachan and Dr. Fleming had completed the ritual and proposed that the first temple be named Mecca. The original 13 Maons of the Knickerbocker Cottage lunch group were named Charter Members of Mecca Temple (now Mecca Shriners). Noble Florence read a letter outlining the “history” of the Order and giving advice on conducting meetings. The officers eledted were Walter M. Fleming, Potentate; Charles T. McClenachan, Chief Rabban; John A. Moore, Assistant Rabban; Edward Eddy, High Priest and Prophet; George W. Millar, Orinetal Guide; James S. Chappel, Treasurer; William S. Patterson, Recorder; and Oswald M. d’Aubigne, Captain of the Guard.

The organization was not an instant success, even though a second temple was chartered in Rochester in 1875. Four years after Shriners’ beginnings, there were only 43 Shriners, all but six of whom were from New York.

imperial seal

The Imperial Council

At a meeting of Mecca Shriners on June 6, 1876, a new body was created to help spur the growth of the young fraternity. This governing body was called “The Imperial Grand Council of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for the United States of America”. Fleming became the first Imperial Grand Potentate, and the new body established rules for membership and the formation of new temples. The initiation ritual was embellished, as was the mythology about the fraternity. An extensive publicity and recruiting campaign was initiated.

It worked. Just two years later, in 1878, there were 425 Shriners in 13 temples. Five of these temples were in New York, two were in Ohio and the others were in Vermont, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Iowa, Michigan and Massachusetts.

The number of Shriners continued to grow in the 1880’s. By the time of the 1888 annual session (convention) in Toronto, there were 7,210 members in 48 temples throughout the United States and one in Canada.

While the organization was still primarily social, instances of philanthropic work became more frequent. During an 1888 yellow fever epidemic in Jacksonville, Fla., members of Morocco Shriners and Masonic Knights Templar worked long hours to relieve suffering. In 1889, Shriners came to the aid of the Johnstown Flood victims. In 1898, there were 50,000 Shriners, and 71 of the 79 temples were egaged in some sort of philanthropic work.

At its 1900 Imperial Session, representatives from 82 temples marched in a Washington, D.C., parade reviewed by President William McKinley. Membership was well over 55,000.

The Fraternity Flourishes

As the hospital network grew, the fraternity continued in its grand tradition. In 1923, there was a Shriner in the White House, and Noble/President William G. Harding viewed the Shriners parade at the 1923 Imperial Session in Washington, D.C. The East-West Shrine Game

The East-West Shrine Game was established in 1925 in San Francisco with the motto “Strong Legs Run So Weak Legs May Walk.” Throughout its history, this college all-star game has raised millions of dollars for Shriners Hospitals and helped millions of people become more familiar with the organization’s story. Before the game, players visit patients at a Shriners Hospital, so they can experience the real purpose of the game.

Shrine Peace Memorial in Toronto, Ontario 2 - small

Shriners Peace Memorial in Toronto Canada

The Peace Memorial

In 1930, the Imperial Session was held in Toronto. For his Session, Imperial Potentate Leo V. Youngworth wanted something special. With

appropriate approval, the leader of 600,000 Shriners commissioned a peace monument to be built in Toronto. It was to face south, commemorating 150 years of friendship between the United States and Canada. The Peace Memorial was relocated and rededicated during the 1962 Imperial Session, and it stands today outside the National Exposition grounds in Toronto. When the Shriners returned to Toronto in 1989 for the 115th Imperial Council Session, the memorial was again rededicated, representing a renewed commitment to international brotherhood and fraternalism. The plaque reads: “Erected and dedicated to the cause of universal peace by the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America June 12, 1930.”

The 1930 Session was Shriners’ own antidote to the pervasive gloom of the Great Depression. But it was only temporary. For the first time in its history, the fraternity began to lose members — the nobles just could not pay their dues. The struggle to keep the hospitals and the fraternity going during these years was enormous. It was necessary to dip into the Endowment Fund capital to cover operating costs of the hospitals. To ensure the financial distinction between the hospitals and the fraternity, a corporation for each was established in 1937.

Shriners and the hospitals survived the Depression. In the 1940s, like the rest of North America, Shriners adjusted to wartime existence. Imperial Sessions were limited to business and were attended only by official representatives. Parade units stayed home and marched in local patriotic parades. During the four years of war, more than $1 billion was invested in government war bonds by and through Shriners. The hospital corporation also invested all of its available funds in government securities. After World War II, the economy improved, and men found renewed interest in fraternalism. By 1942, membership was once again increasing.


_Shrine_Room1 ___Shrine_Theater   


Shriners International Exhibit

The newly renovated Shriners International Exhibit is located at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Va. The exhibit went from being three rooms filled with Shriners’ memorabilia, to a visual Shriners and Shriners Hospitals adventure, complete with a life-size replica of the “Editorial Without Words,” a wall of fezzes encased in glass, and a room devoted entirely to Shriners Hospitals for Children. The original exhibit was the dream of Past Imperial Potentate Alfred G. Arvold, who initiated the design of the rooms in 1945. The exhibit shares space in the memorial with the Scottish Rite, the York Rite and various other Masonic organizations.


Shriners International Headquarters

Until 1928, national offices were in Richmond, Va. With the growth of the fraternity, there were increasing pressures to locate headquarters in a city that would be more convenient to all temples. Thus, in 1958, the building at 323 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago,

was purchased. Twenty years later, at a special Session held April 10, 1978, in Tampa, Fla., representatives voted to relocate headquarters from Chicago to 2900 Rocky Point Drive, Tampa. The Tampa headquarters houses the administrative personnel for both the Iowa (Shriners of North America) and Colorado (Shriners Hospitals for Children) corporations, fraternal and hospital records, the attorneys who monitor the many estates involved in Shriners Hospitals for Children, and various other departments that support day-to-day operations of the fraternity and the philanthropy. An expansion project began in 1987 to meet ever-increasing needs of the fraternity and Shriners Hospitals. A third wing, or pod, was added to the rear of the existing building, and the boardroom and executive offices for the fraternity and hospital system were relocated to the new area, allowing several departments to expand their offices in the original sections. The new, enlarged boardroom provides space for meetings of the Joint Boards and their committees, and for conferences. In 1993, the Commemorative Plaza was built, with its larger-than-life-sized statue of a Shriner carrying a child. The statue represents what has become known as the “Editorial Without Words.” The polished marble plaza features a semi-circular wall engraved with the names of every Imperial Potentate (chief executive officer of Shriners of North America) and his year served. In addition, below the statue is a cylindrical base engraved with names of the 22 Shriners Hospitals, surrounded by a fountain. Around the fountain are large inlaid marble squares bearing the names of each of the 191 temples, each temple’s cityand state, year of incorporation and Shriners’ insignia (the scimitar). To the rear of the Commemorative Plaza and in front of the headquarters building are four flag poles with flags of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Panama, representing the countries with membership. In early 1999, a major construction and renovation effort began that would add 35,000 square feet to the existing facility, bringing the total office area to about 120,000 square feet. This effort was initiated to accommodate the health care initiatives and trends taking place in the industry in the late 1990s. The exterior work came to an end in December 2001, with the installation of a three-dimensional 11-by-9-foot scimitar on the front of the building. The new windows on the building have a bluish-green tint, giving the building a different appearance than the gold-tinted windows, which had served as a landmark to identify the headquarters for two decades. On Feb. 24, 2002, the newly renovated Shriners International Headquarters was rededicated.