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North Hills Monthly

Shriners International: Supporting “World’s Greatest Philanthropy” for Almost a Century

Jun 30, 2018 11:48AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Shriners' parade

You may recognize the Shriners from their distinctive hats, or maybe you’ve attended an iconic Shriners’ parade. But who are the Shriners and what is the meaning behind their organization? We spoke with Robert W. Herbert, who served as potentate (president, CEO, and chairman of the board of directors) in 2015 for the Syria Shriners, Pittsburgh, PA, to learn more.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): Tell me about the Shriners’ history.

Robert W. Herbert (Herbert): It started in Manhattan in 1870, when some members of Freemasonry thought Masonry was a tad too focused on ritual and wanted a fraternal order that stressed fun and fellowship for men who had completed requirements in other Masonic organizations. Walter M. Fleming, MD, and Billy Florence wanted the fledgling fraternity to have a colorful, exciting backdrop and it is believed that Florence conceptualized the idea for the organization after attending an Arabian Nights-themed party while touring Europe and visiting several Middle Eastern countries.  

Together, the men designed the new fraternity’s emblem, devised a salutation and determined the red fez with a black tassel would be the group’s official headgear. The new organization would be called the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (AAONMS) for North America, and local Shriners’ chapters would be called temples. Today it is known as Shriners International and is comprised solely of Master Masons. The first temple, Mecca Shriners, was founded in New York City in 1872, and the eighth temple charter was granted to Pittsburgh on May 19, 1877.

NHM: How large is the Pittsburgh group?

Herbert: We are one of the largest temples in the system with just under 5,000 members. Shriners International has hundreds of thousands of members dedicated to the principles of brotherly love, relief and truth throughout the world and nearly 200 temples.

NHM: Where are you based?

Herbert: Our facility in Oakland was the Syria Mosque, which officially opened on Oct. 23, 1916. In 1990, we sold the Syria Mosque to the University of Pittsburgh and broke ground on a new headquarters located in Harmar Township, Cheswick. On Oct. 22, 1994, the Syria Shrine Center opened its new, 40,000 sq. ft., $10 million facility set on 43 acres. It is known as the Pittsburgh Shrine Center and has served the region's needs for a multipurpose special events venue.

NHM: Tell us about the Shriners’ hospitals.

Herbert: In the early 1920s, Shriners International founded Shriners Hospitals for Children, often referred to today as “the world’s greatest philanthropy.” The first hospital opened in Shreveport, LA, in 1922 and today, Shriners Hospitals for Children has grown into a health care system of 22 hospitals dedicated to improving the lives of children by providing pediatric specialty care, innovative research, and outstanding teaching programs for medical professionals. Shriners International continues to support this unique health care system by raising funds, assisting patients’ families with transportation, volunteering on hospital boards and much more.  

NHM: What is unique about these hospitals?

Herbert: Treatments and procedures are based on what will give the best outcome for the child and not what is dictated by insurance or expedience. Children receive expert specialty medical care at our hospitals, regardless of the families’ ability to pay, thanks to the efforts of Shriners and other generous supporters. In addition, many of the hospitals are engaged in medical research and are affiliated with the top academic medical institutions in North America. Most of the hospitals also strive to transform children's lives by providing exceptional health care through high-quality innovative medical research; we often say “Today’s research is tomorrow’s patient care.”

NHM: Do Shriners work with local children’s hospitals?

Herbert: Yes. One of our surgeons from our hospital in Erie, PA also works with UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Shriners Hospitals for Children have a collaborative agreement with Children’s Hospital where some of our patients' surgeries are performed here in Pittsburgh rather than the patient and parents traveling to Erie or Philadelphia.

NHM: How do the Shriners raise money?

Herbert: As Shriners, we only support one charity, and that is Shriners Hospitals for Children. All of our units, clubs, and caravans raise money each and every year for our hospitals. Monies can be from raffles, candy sales, auctions, golf outings, dinners, concerts, shows, speaking engagements, craft shows, poker runs, car shows, theme parties, picnics, the first lady’s project, and local merchant sponsorships. Our parade units raise money from donations made for their participation, and each unit annually passes a significant portion of those funds to our hospitals. We have an annual charitable sporting clays event held at Seven Springs where all proceeds go to our SHC-Erie Unit. We also hold an annual charitable combined concert where our Shrine Band performs, our Bag Pipe and Drum Highlanders Band performs, and our Chanters sing.

NHM: Do you still do a lot of parades?

Herbert: Yes. Our parade units split up and do community parades throughout our oasis, which covers 11 counties. Memorial Day weekend we were in Prospect, Carnegie, Sewickley, Monroeville, Lawrenceville, Pleasant Hills, Coraopolis and White Oak. We try to split up to cover more venues and get to more communities. Many of us will be in Canonsburg on the 4th of July.

NHM: What do you primarily want readers to know about the Shriners?

Herbert: Shriners come from all walks of life. When you become a Shriner, you become a part of a brotherhood of men committed to family, engaged in ongoing personal growth, and dedicated to providing care for children and families. Throughout Shriners’ history, we have sought out men of integrity, character and strength. While our backgrounds and interests may be diverse, what binds us together are shared values and a desire to have fun, do good and build relationships that can last a lifetime.