Fraternal groups moving out

Shrinking: Suffering from dwindling membership, groups seek new meeting places, unable to maintain their former headquarters.

May 24, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

In 1931, when the Knights of Columbus erected its Santa Maria Council headquarters in Canton, it was such a big deal that the mayor laid the cornerstone and the Catholic archbishop dedicated the edifice after a big parade.

And why not? In those days, Santa Maria, at Highland Avenue and Fleet Street in Canton, was the fraternal order's biggest council in Maryland.

Seven decades later, Santa Maria has shrunk from 1,400 members to perhaps 50 who are active, according to Darryl Jurkiewicz, a past grand knight. That's too few to support a big building. So the council is selling it, and is instead relying on borrowed church halls for its meetings.

After more than a year on the market - with a $1.1 million initial asking price - the council's 16,000-square-foot headquarters is under contract for an undisclosed amount. The prospective buyer is thinking of turning it into apartments, according to Tony Migliaccio, a real estate agent who is handling the sale.

"You have a view of the harbor" from the second floor, which is a desirable feature in gentrifying Canton's residential real estate market, he explained.

Facing demographic forces and lifestyle changes that have made their withering membership lopsidedly old, arthritic and less active than just a few years ago, many fraternal organizations in older sections of the city are selling their buildings and seeking new places to meet.

"The problem that Santa Maria is facing is that it has a relatively old membership and it has trouble recruiting new members," said Richard Sherbert, head of the Knights of Columbus organization in Maryland.

In Hamilton, the American Legion post - once among the city's largest - is trying to sell its 10,000-square-foot home off Harford Road. The asking price is $339,900, for which a buyer will get a fully equipped kitchen, two bars, a hardwood dance floor and plenty of meeting rooms.

"It's difficult to recruit members. Today's veterans do not feel a camaraderie the way old-timers do," lamented Tony Martin, 54, a Vietnam veteran who is the Hamilton post commander.

The building went on the market three months ago after "we just couldn't afford to pay the utilities," Martin said. The members are temporarily meeting in Rosedale, while trying to find "something smaller."

To be sure, many fraternal organizations are finding that buildings are less important these days, said Lee Harris, a spokesman for the American Legion national headquarters. He noted that out of some 15,000 legion posts nationwide, 40 percent do not own a building.

Harris gave his post, near Fresno, Calif., as an example. The 40 members have met for years in the conference room of a local Ford dealership.

"Some of the most successful posts are ones without post homes," he said. Instead of having to worry about maintenance costs, they can concentrate on programs that are meaningful and make recruitment of new members easier.

Thomas L. Davis, the Maryland American Legion's department adjutant, described the Hamilton post's travails as "atypical."

However, there is no denying that the American Legion is a shadow of its former self in Baltimore City. Last year, it had 2,339 dues-paying members in the city - down from about 11,000 three decades ago, Davis said.

Other veterans organizations have experienced a similar decline as middle-class residents have moved out of the city, World War II and Korean War veterans have aged or died, and younger veterans have generally expressed a lack of interest in joining.

For at least two veterans organizations, Canton's sizzling real estate market became too irresistible. They sold their homes and took the profits.

Two years ago, St. Casimir's Catholic War Veterans Post 1764, sold its building at 2901 O'Donnell St. It became Mama's on the Half Shell, a seafood restaurant that takes advantage of a prime corner location on Canton Square.

This year, the Sgt. Henry Gunther VFW Post 1858 - named after an Eastern Avenue man who was the last American soldier to die in World War II - sold its longtime rowhouse at 1001 S. Kenwood Ave.

As a physical therapy and wellness center moved in, all VFW mementos - from flags to historic pictures - were carted off to a Pulaski Highway storage facility where they are now gathering dust.

Members' apathy made the decision to sell easier, said Joseph C. Owsianiecki, the 78-year-old post commander.

"You know how many came to meetings? Six out of 176," the World War II Navy veteran said. "That's really stupid when you can't get members to your meetings."

Since then, six Iraq war veterans have joined the post. Owsianiecki hopes that will mean that "at least 12 will attend meetings."

Since selling its home, the Henry Gunther post has been meeting in church halls, as has the St. Casimir post.

The prospect of losing Canton's Santa Maria Council produces mixed emotions in Andrew Bauer, a retired salesman of janitorial supplies who has lived 53 of his 76 years in the neighborhood.

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