Ray DeGroote is wearing a dark suit with a Masonic insignia on his lapel–a capital G under what looks like two baseball bats. He’s sorting through an accordion file stuffed with envelopes and bills, occasionally pulling one out and passing it to Jim Oehler, his buddy of nearly 35 years, to sign. Oehler–who wears a sweatshirt that says “If you can read this you are too educated,” in Latin–is the treasurer of Paul Revere Masonic Lodge 998, in Uptown. DeGroote is the secretary.

“We’re one of the last ones anywhere in Chicago,” says DeGroote, who’s been a Mason for 51 of his 73 years. “There was a Masonic temple next to Saint Jerome’s, near Clark and Lunt. There was one at Irving and Keeler, Byron and Damen. The one right across the street, the Indian center–we call it the tepee–was a Masonic temple, big massive building. The whole thing. So there were two within a block, both fully rented and tenanted.”

DeGroote, who worked for 30 years in the freight business, and Oehler, a retired high school teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, are paying some of the last bills for the Paul Revere Masonic Temple, at 1521 W. Wilson, which has housed one lodge or another for more than 80 years. Built on two lots on the corner of Ashland and Wilson in the 1920s as the Ravenswood Women’s Club, it has grown too expensive to keep up: with membership dwindling over the past decade, Lodge 998 no longer takes in enough dues money.

The building is a barnlike wood frame structure covered in bright blue shingle siding. The interior is large and drafty and more than a touch decrepit. Floors creak as Oehler lumbers through, flipping on lights in rooms that look like they haven’t been used since the 70s. There’s a basement room with fold-out tables and an adjoining pool hall (“God knows the last time this was used,” says Oehler), a ground-floor library of books on Freemasonry next to disused living quarters for groundskeepers, and two enormous assembly halls on the top floor.

“Everything’s getting old,” says DeGroote. “If you had piles of money you could probably restore it, but we don’t have that kind of money. This is a wooden building….You gotta paint every three, four, five years. It’s a huge amount of work. The roof is always in need of repair….And the younger ones really don’t want to [fix it]. It’s not their thing. Where in the old days we used to do work parties around here, come out and do stuff, that’s kind of a thing in the past. A work party? No.”

For several years the lodge had been considering selling the building and moving, but this year the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” according to Oehler and DeGroote, was the porch inspection. The city inspector didn’t even come inside, DeGroote says, laughing: “He just gave up. ‘The porch is bad. You failed.'”

DeGroote and Oehler both grew up on the north side. DeGroote, whose father and grandfather were both Masons, joined the Masonic youth group DeMolay as a teenager and automatically became a Mason when he turned 18. Oehler joined the lodge a few years later, and they’ve been friends ever since. “That’s another thing that happens from Masonry,” says DeGroote. “You do tend to make lifelong friends.”

The origins of the Masons are unclear. Some say the group evolved out of the Knights Templars, a religious order that protected pilgrims during the Crusades; others say they grew out of the professional guild of stonemasons in medieval Europe. The first grand lodge was founded in Britain in 1717, and lodges opened in the colonies shortly thereafter. Today there are 13,200 across the country and thousands more around the world.

If you’ve ever been cornered at a party by someone wielding a folded dollar bill, prattling on about the eye in the pyramid and the Illuminati, then you probably know that a good number of the founding fathers and early presidents–including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Paul Revere–were Masons, and that a certain segment of the population believes that the order is a nefarious cabal bent on world domination. Masonic conspiracy theories are almost as old as the Masons themselves. Most likely they’ve developed because of the secrecy that has long shrouded the group’s rituals. To this day people have a hard time finding out just what it is Masons do.

DeGroote says it’s really not that complicated. “It’s a fraternal organization; it has multi purposes. Strong tenet for charity, and then of course a social get-together with people and a way to teach people how to live better lives. There’s some moral lessons that are taught…that hopefully make you a better person.”

By learning these lessons, members (all male) ascend a hierarchy of “degrees,” each with its own initiation ritual. After a member has attained a high enough degree he can join additional organizations such as the Scottish rite, the York rite, or the Shriners. But mainly, DeGroote says, the purpose of Masonry is “just to get together with a nice bunch of people and have a nice time.” “It’s always been fun,” says Oehler. “If it ain’t fun, I ain’t doin’ it.”

Back when DeGroote and Oehler joined the lodge, Chicago Masonry was thriving, with more than 220 local lodges. The Masonic charities and hospital, funded by dues and the accrued wealth of the Masonic grand lodges, provided opportunities for service, and morale was high. “There were nights when the chairs would all be filled,” says Oehler. “And sometimes,” says DeGroote, “both meeting halls would be used at the same time.”

DeGroote and Oehler recall these days with a gleam in their eyes. They recount barbecues, trips to foreign countries, and a 1976 stunt for the bicentennial that involved a young member riding around the intersection of Wilson and Ashland on horseback while someone read the Declaration of Independence from the lodge’s porch.

More recently, however, Chicago Masonry has fallen on hard times. In the last few decades many temples have been closed, and the Illinois grand lodge says the state’s membership has dropped dramatically as well. “The numbers are pretty scary,” says Raymond Belstner, Lodge 998’s current Worshipful Master, or head of the lodge. “Fifty years ago [Illinois] had 250,000 members. Today we have about 77,000. The median age is roughly 65–which means in the next 20 years our membership is going to drop even more.”

Everyone in the lodge has a pet theory about why. “There are just so many other things taking up their time,” says Oehler of today’s young men. “Number one is struggling to get by.” Frank Braun, 40, who joined ten years ago, agrees. “Companies are forcing people to work 10, 12 hours a day. When you get home at six, seven, eight o’clock, hell, do you want to go sit in a meeting?”

DeGroote, squinting over his round glasses to inspect a bill, says that the drop is part of a larger trend. “Masonry in general, along with other fraternal organizations–the Eagles, the Moose, the Elks, the VFW–they’re all declining, and they’re all aging. That’s why we need young guys like you. You could join.” He looks at me. “We’d be happy to have you. Seriously, we need young guys and that would help bring things back. But in the meantime there’s so many people who joined after World War II, and they’re all just getting to the point now like myself, they’re gonna go. Can’t help it, but that’s gonna happen.”

Belstner, who is a member of several societies dedicated to documenting the history of the Masons, says that after the Second World War, Masonic membership grew dramatically as men came home from the front having learned about the organization from fellow servicemen. But then the baby boomers came along. “The baby boomers were a rebellious bunch, and they were not the least bit interested in conforming to the establishment,” Belstner says. “That’s when the median age started creeping up, up, up, and fewer and fewer men were joining.”

Declining membership poses a dilemma for the Masons. Traditionally the fraternity has strictly prohibited recruiting. But last year the Grand Lodge of New York made headlines when it announced that it would break with centuries of tradition and start actively going after new members. The members of the Paul Revere Lodge don’t seem keen to follow New York’s lead, but they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. The best they can muster is a slightly awkward come-hither approach. “Theoretically, we’re not supposed to go out and ask people to join,” says Oehler. “We can kind of say, like, ‘I’m gonna go to the lodge tonight,'” adds DeGroote, “and a guy says, ‘What kind of lodge?’ and then that’s a perfect opening right there. That’s happened a couple of times. But we won’t go out and drag someone by his collar.”

Belstner expresses some frustration with the hand-wringing about what the group could do to attract more members. “Right now we’re a little too focused on pumping up our numbers….To become a Mason requires a lot of contemplation, a lot of thinking.”

Belstner, a software systems analyst, is 33 and carries himself with a kind of nerdy authority. He’s ascended through the ranks quickly, becoming Worshipful Master in only three years, and is convinced that Masonry has appeal for people his age.

“Remember in Fight Club these guys were looking for something more. They felt that society was screwing them, that they weren’t going to have anything to look forward to. So they joined Operation Mayhem. Masonry gives you the exact same thing without the subversiveness, without the need to destroy, and without the schlockiness you find in most churches.”

In the past year the lodge has initiated nine new members in their 20s, six of whom are actively involved, and DeGroote and others seem upbeat about their prospects. “Younger people are coming in now,” DeGroote says. “They may find some stuff on the Internet. It may be wrong–you gotta be careful….But they do get an interest and they come in.”

Most of the lodge’s members seem to think selling the building will allow them to focus less on mundane matters of maintenance and more on activities. Oehler, who’s taken up real estate in his retirement, says he has an interested buyer. The next owner will most likely want to raze the building and put in condos, but for that to happen the lots will have to be rezoned. In the meantime, members have started the laborious task of going through the temple’s files, books, and furniture, preparing for a move in late April to the Jefferson Park Masonic Temple. They’ll save money by sharing space with a few other lodges already meeting there, and it’s smaller and brick, so it’ll be far easier to maintain.

DeGroote says he’ll miss the current building. “It’s a little like an old friend. We know all the crooks and crannies, where all the goofy light switches are.” But he also looks forward to no longer having to devote so much energy to the building’s upkeep. “I’ll certainly be glad to be relieved of all this responsibility, cutting the grass in the summer, shoveling snow in the winter. I’m getting too old for this stuff.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.