Benevolent Irish Society looking to grow St. John's membership after 210 years

An institution that's been in St. John's for more than two centuries is hoping a makeover of its building will help attract new members.

Organization recently upgraded Harvey Road space to make it more accessible

Benevolent Irish Society President Shawn Skinner has been with the organization for 35 years, and spoke with the St. John's Morning Show prior to the grand opening of its newly renovated space on Harvey Road. (Paula Gale/CBC)

An institution that's been in St. John's for more than two centuries is hoping a makeover of its building will help attract new members.

The Benevolent Irish Society (BIS), which was started in 1806 by Irish immigrants who wanted to support each other in Newfoundland, has been called the oldest philanthropic organization in North America.

These days, the group is mostly focused on fundraising for the School Lunch Association and the Iris Kirby House, and rents out its location on Harvey Road for weddings and other events to generate revenue to cover costs.

The Benevolent Irish Society moved into this space on Harvey Road in 2000, and has just recently renovated the building to make it more accessible. (Google Maps)

After months of renovations that made its building fully accessible, the group's space will be shown off to the public Friday night to try and attract possible renters and potential new members of the BIS.

"We're hoping it will bring more people in," said president and former politician Shawn Skinner, who's been with the society for 35 years. "Probably the biggest challenge I face is trying to keep our membership up and keep people active."

The heritage building in the background of this archival photo was the home of the Benevolent Irish Society from 1880 until 2000. Gower Street United Church is on the right. (CBC)

Skinner said in his nearly four decades with the BIS there have been a lot of changes, with perhaps the biggest being when the group moved from its original location on Queen's Road in one of the oldest buildings in the city.

The group finally decided it couldn't keep up with the aging building and sold it to a condominium developer before moving to its Harvey Road location.

Inclusion of women members

Another big change was allowing women to become members.

"It was a debate, we had some older members who were very strong in their opinion should not be able to join, that we should stay male only," Skinner said.

"Women were always involved in the society but they were never formally members, and we felt that was a disservice."

After 188 years of being male-only, women were finally permitted to join the Benevolent Irish Society in 1994. Here they are seen walking in that year's St. Patrick's Day parade in St. John's. (CBC)
With membership currently at around 200, only 50 to 75 are what Skinner would call active members, and the BIS is hoping to bring in some fresh blood.

He said the group is fairly loose with its requirement that members have Irish ancestry, and would like to hear from anyone looking to get involved in helping those in need.

"I think there are people who could benefit from being a member of an organization like ours," he said. "There are social activities, you can contribute to the community, help raise funds for some things."

With files from St. John's Morning Show