The building at 5518 W. Lawrence is a Scandinavian clubhouse.
The building at 5518 W. Lawrence is a Scandinavian clubhouse. Credit: Andrea Bauer

The Grand Lodge of the Independent Order of Svithiod sounds as though it would be imposing and a little frightening, like something out of Game of Thrones. It’s a bit of a disappointment to learn that “Svithiod” just means “Swedish” in Swedish, and that the Grand Lodge itself occupies half of a modest single-story building on the northwest side.

A century ago, the order, which was founded in 1880, had 18,000 members in 76 lodges across the upper midwest, plus a retirement community in Minnetonka, Minnesota, and a nursing home in Niles. It organized dinners and picnics, raised money for scholarships and aid for its poorer members, and chartered trips back to the homeland. Its membership was limited to men of Swedish descent; to keep out imposters, such as Norwegians, all meetings were conducted in Swedish. They wore colorful velvet robes and sashes, practiced maneuvers with swords, and posed for pictures dressed like Vikings. Memorabilia from the old days hangs on the wood-paneled walls of the present lodge, the order’s home since 1974.

In the mid-20th century the organization fell on hard times. To stay alive, the group started admitting women and, in 1962, finally resorted to letting other Scandinavians join: Norwegians, Danes, Icelanders, even Finns. (“We don’t talk about the Finns,” jokes secretary-treasurer Arlene Lindell.) Now they’ll even take spouses of Scandinavians; one of the more recent past grand masters was (gasp!) German. Lindell, a sexagenarian, is one of the younger members.

Still, membership continues to fall. There are only seven lodges left, and Lindell is afraid the group may lose the Grand Lodge building because it can no longer afford the steep property taxes. “When there’s no building,” she says, “that’s the end.

“People don’t need this anymore,” she continues. “They don’t need people who speak Swedish. They have the Internet or TV or socialize in bars. They don’t need to come to the hall and talk to people to get a job. But I hate to see an organization that’s been around so long not continue.” She points to a carved wooden frame that contains pictures of the order’s past grand masters. “Look, there’s just one space left.”