William Jermyn Conlin, a.k.a. William Jermyn Florence
Dr. Walter Millard Fleming
In 1870, there were several thousand Masons in Manhattan. Many of these Masons made it a point to lunch at the Knickerbocker Cottage, and at a special table on the second floor, a particularly jovial group of Masons used to meet regularly, and often discussed the idea of a new fraternity for Masons, in which fun and fellowship would be stressed more than ritual. Two of the table regulars, Walter M. Fleming, M.D., and William J. Conlin, an actor with the stage name William J. Florence, took the idea seriously enough to act upon it.
Billy Florence, was a world-renowned actor, and while on tour in Marseilles, he was invited to a party given by an Arabian diplomat. The entertainment was something in the nature of an elaborately staged musical comedy. At its conclusion, the guests became members of a secret society. Florence took copious notes and drawings at his initial viewing and on two other occasions, once in Algiers and once in Cairo. When he returned to New York in 1870 and showed his material to Dr. Fleming.
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.N.M.S.). While there is some question about the origin of the Fraternity's name, it may not be a coincidence that its initials, rearranged, spell out the words "A MASON."
The group adopted a Middle Eastern theme and soon established "Temples" meeting in "Mosques" across the continent. Another Masonic group, the Mysterious Order of the Veiled Prophet of the Enchanted Realm (known colloquially as the "Grotto"), adopted a similar theme in 1890. The Middle Eastern theme was popular at the time and alluded to the mystery and ceremony of the Arabian Nights, with its elaborate parties and frolic.
Despite its theme, the Shrine is in no way connected to Islam. It is a men's fraternity rather than a religion or religious group. Its only religious requirement is indirect: all Shriners must be Masons, and petitioners to Freemasonry must profess a belief in a Supreme Being. In order to further minimize any confusion with religion, the use of the word "Temple" to describe Shriners' buildings has now been replaced by the phrase "Shrine Center."
Until 2000, before being eligible for membership in the Shrine, a person had to complete either the Scottish Rite or York Rite degrees of Masonry, but now any Master Mason can join.
The Shriners often participate in local parades, sometimes as rather elaborate units: miniature vehicles in themes (all sports cars; all miniature 18-wheeler trucks; all fire engines, and so on), an "Oriental Band" dressed in cartoonish versions of Middle Eastern dress; pipe bands, drummers, motorcycle units, and even traditional brass bands. Some Shrines sponsor and participate in an annual circus in their city.
The Shriners are committed to community service and have been instrumental in countless public projects throughout their domain. They also host the annual East-West Shrine Game which is a college football all-star game. Once a year, the fraternity meets for the Imperial Council Session in a major North American city. It is not uncommon for these conventions to have 20,000 participants or more, which generates significant revenue for the local economy.
The Shrine's charitable arm is the Shriners Hospitals for Children, a network of twenty-two hospitals in the United States, Mexico and Canada. It was formed to treat young victims of polio, but as that disease was controlled, they broadened their scope. They now deal with all pediatric cases, most especially with orthopedic injuries and disease and burns. The Shrine has pioneered new treatments for these conditions.
There is never any charge for treatment at a Shriners Hospital. There is no requirement for religion, race, or relationship to a Freemason. Patients must be under the age of eighteen and treatable. Local Shrine temples most often provide free transportation to the nearest hospital. In 2002, a mascot named "Fez Head Fred' debuted, primarily to visit their children's hospitals.
On March 19, 2007, an article in the New York Times suggested that problems with fraud and poor accounting are plaguing the Shriners.. Meanwhile, In 2005, Shriners Hospitals approved 37,755 new patient applications, attended to the needs of 123,385 patients and provided the following free of charge:
Shriners Hospitals' total budget for 2006 is ocer $750 million, of which $700 million is targeted for operating expenses (including $33 million for research) and $33 million for buildings and equipment expenditures. During the 89-year history of the Shriners Hospitals, approximately $7.6 billion has been spent to operate Shriners Hospitals, and over $1.73 billion has been spent on construction and renovation.