For first time in 151 years, woman leads Victoria Odd Fellows

Carol Pharo joked about altering her title as she prepared to become the first female leader of one of Victoria’s oldest fraternal organizations.

The “Noble Grand” has led Lodge No. 1 of the International Order of Odd Fellows for 151 years. On Monday, Pharo became the first woman to hold the title in the region.

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“I’d like to change it to Noble Grand Dame,” she said, saying it sounded like a title fit for the likes of actor Helen Mirren.

Pharo stood at the top of a tall set of stairs in the Odd Fellows Hall behind a very ordinary- looking door on Douglas Street. At one end of the second floor, the organization hosts meetings with secret rituals under towering painted ceilings. Elaborate carved wooden panels cover the walls and velvety red curtains stretch down from above, under dim and red-tinged lighting. At the other end of the building are spaces for entertaining and unwinding, including a billiards room and a bar.

While Pharo’s assumption of leadership is significant in itself, it seems to be part of a broader trend of renewed interest in the organization, especially among younger members and women. Of the 65 members in Lodge No. 1, 15 are women and 21 are under 40. Lodge No. 2, which shares the space, is the largest in B.C. with more than 70 members.

“Many of our new members are in their 20s and 30s,” said outgoing Noble Grand John Adams, who is also a historian. “I think it’s typical of many organizations, if there is a lot of enthusiasm from new members, then they will bring in their friends and colleagues.”

The Odd Fellows formed in 1810 as an altruistic society in England, in place of a formal welfare system. A group of mostly working-class and tradespeople promised to care for one another’s family members in cases of illness and misfortune.

“They were ‘odd’ in that they were helping each other out,” Adams said.

The first North American lodge was established in 1819 in Baltimore, Maryland. Victoria became host to Western Canada’s first lodge in 1864. The Douglas Street hall now hosts two lodges (Lodge No. 2 remains all-male), as well as a chapter of the Rebekahs, a smaller group that has roots as a women’s organization, but is open to anyone. The Odd Fellows is now primarily a social group, as well as one that hosts charity and community events such as fundraisers for the Mustard Seed, poker nights and a speech contest for high school students.

The Odd Fellows opened general membership to women in 2001, said Dino Fioran, secretary for the provincial organization of Odd Fellows.

Pharo was one of the first women to join in 2005 and is the longest-serving female member in Victoria. She had recently moved from San Diego and was looking for ways to meet people, when a member suggested she apply. Pharo was attracted by the motto, “Friendship, Love and Truth,” as well as the beautiful space.

“I read the application and nowhere did it say, ‘men only.’ So being me, I thought I’d see what happened,” she said.

She was interviewed by three members and accepted. Most men were welcoming, but there was a handful who stopped attending meetings when she joined.

“There were a few guys who just absolutely didn’t like the idea of women joining, because this was their group, this was their Monday night out,” she said.

“The [others] accepted me and they were just great, there was a really warm camaraderie.”

In August, Victoria hosted about 600 global Odd Fellows who travelled from as far away as Australia. Based on attendance, Adams said it appears there are young people joining lodges outside Victoria, too. One delegation of Filipinos in their 20s and 30s was in the process of establishing its first lodge.

Lodge No. 1 member Robin Tosczak, 34, said that when she joined in 2012, she was one of the youngest members. Since then, several people in their 20s have also joined.

“I was curious, but apprehensive. It seemed kind of strange,” she said. The ritual aspect of the organization was the initial deterrent, but has since become something she looks forward to, she said. Tosczak believes many young people are looking for ways to connect with people, instead of staring at their computers or watching TV.

“We get together, we sing a little bit, we recite a valediction together. That coming together of community and just being together in the same space and taking the time is a really valuable part of my week. I didn’t expect that at all.”

Adams said he considers the Odd Fellows in Victoria a healthy organization that will continue to grow, even if it grows slowly.

“I would say the future is really bright.”

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