The crowd of bingo regulars filling the Eagles Hall paused to give applause one recent Thursday evening.
The organization with over 100 year’s history in Nelson was handing out its annual donations to groups and individuals in their community — to the tune of almost $19,000.
That’s no small feat considering the club, once thriving at a membership in the hundreds, is down to 20 to 25 very active members. They’re mostly over the age of 70 and work tirelessly maintaining the hall at 641 Baker Street and running the weekly bingo as a fundraiser, a practice since 1940.
The Fraternal Order of Eagles club Vice President Les Johnson says the tradition of the organization runs deeper than that.
When Johnson joined the Eagles 20 years ago it was already “an older lodge.” He is now in his 50s and settled into an organization of fast friends who find strength in giving back to their community.
“One of the reasons our members stay strong within our Aerie is that we have a camaraderie within and whether we volunteer and hour of our time or 40 hours a week, it binds us together and gives us the gratification that our time spent will somewhere, some place or some time help an individual or group within our community,” he says.
The Eagle’s longest serving member is 87-year-old Andy Peloso who’s been a member for 67 years. Along with past provincial president, now serving as Aerie chaplain, 80-year-old Norm Nance and secretary Eric McFarlane, 89, there is a solid crew of stalwart volunteers.
“These two members are active to this day with our Aerie. Hats off to them,” says Johnson.
The Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie #22 received its charter in 1899. It was the 22nd Aerie formed. Spokane was second and Rossland was 10th. There are now 3,000 across North America with a membership of about 2 million.
Originally, the 69 local founding members met in the Freemasons Hall on Baker Street and then, in 1909, this group built the brick and stone building still occupied today.
The Nelson organization is the only Eagles Lodge still situation in its original building.
“Regardless of whether there’s 20 active members or two, they’re still doing the same thing and they’re still die-hards doing it,” Johnson says.
But new members are needed, young and old, said Johnson, and last year, Brian Garvin answered an ad placed in the local newspaper. The Eagles were looking for members and truth be told, the Nelson man was initially attracted by the funds the organization is able to generate (Rough estimates have them as giving over one million to local and provincial causes over the years.) and the great asset of Eagles Hall.
Garvin, also Nelson Grizzlies Rugby society president who was born and raised in the community, knows how hard it can be to generate funds to finance projects and he saw potential.
But as he entered into the Eagles membership and passed an emotional initiation, Garvin realized he’d stumbled onto an organization with great tradition and merit — even more potential.
“The tradition is really the thing that struck me. We’re reciting this ritual every meeting that was begat in the 1890s. It brings you back and makes you realize that you’re not an island unto yourself and people have paved this way with service to the community for a long, long time. We can’t forget that,” said the 43-year-old.
“They were so welcoming and they’ve maintained for so long… the thousands and thousands of hours that those guys have put in, it’s just amazing.”
The motto of service to the community and “fellow man” no matter their place in life resonated with Garvin as does the fellowship that he says is disappearing in a modern society.
“They always talk about the good old days when they had 280 members and over 300 people for a dinner,” he says. “They used to dance, square dance and they really reminisce about the old days when everyone helped out.”
People of today are “busy surviving,” says Garvin who explains all that becomes less important when someone is busy giving back. He disparages the modern sense of community building that seems to have gone online.
“Spent time is better with a handshake,” he says. “Where does community start? It’s in gatherings.”