By Mike LaBella
---- — There’s always been a bit of the old country at the Sons of Italy hall in downtown Haverhill.
From members getting together to make Venetian masks for Italian-style carnivals to hosting pasta dinners to sustaining the only drum and bugle corps in America that is still associated with a Sons of Italy lodge, this is where members stay in touch and celebrate their Italian heritage.
A fraternal order that also raises money for charities, the local Victor Emanuel Lodge on Washington Street is revisiting its role in today’s world, including how its building meets the organization’s current and future needs.
Members said the old four-story building that has been the lodge’s home since it moved from a previous location in 1964 has more space than lodge members are using. They advertised the building is for sale, but if they can’t find a suitable buyer whose idea for a business would fit the downtown, they might keep the building and make renovations. The lodge formed a committee which is studying those issues.
Carmine LoConte, long-time lodge member and former lodge president, said the building at 124 Washington St. is the only building to survive the fire of 1882 that destroyed the downtown shoe district. The city rebuilt its downtown in the ensuing years with help from bricklayers from Genoa, Italy, using bricks that were made in the city, LoConte said.
”We are an organization that is underutilizing a building in the center of town that could have better uses in a central business district,” LoConte said. “This is a perfect spot for someone who wants to be part of the downtown renaissance.
”We’re in no rush to get out of here,” LoConte said. “Our master plan steering committee is looking at ways of using our building more efficiently. We’ll find a way to keep going. We’d even be willing to stay here as a renter.”
LoConte said the lodge bought the building when there were many vacant buildings downtown and prices were low. Within 10 years, the lodge sold the right side of the building. Currently, the lodge is located between the Lasting Room restaurant and the Blue Finn Grille restaurant.
In the late 1800s, the Haverhill Italian community formed the Victor Emanuel Society as a social and fraternal organization which provided help, such as doctor’s care and temporary benefits, to out-of-work or ill members, LoConte said. In 1932, the society joined the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts and formed the Victor Emanual Lodge No. 1646.
One of the factors that led to the lodge exploring ideas for the building is that it is an organization with many aging members and fewer new young members taking their place, LoConte said.
”Most of the new members are entering through the drum and bugle corps and they are very passionate members,” LoConte said. “Some of them are the ones who are looking into ways we can better utilize the building. That could mean many things, including our renting a portion of the building or renting out space.”
But in the meantime, the lodge’s various committees are busy planning several popular annual events, including the Pasta Fagioli Cookoff on Sept. 21, the annual Italian Dinner on Oct. 19 (October is Italian Heritage month), the Miss Italy Contest, with a date to be announced, and the annual Turkey Raffle on Nov. 1.
”It’s a great feeling of family when you’re involved in our events,” said lodge president Rick Picone. “When we have 45s tournaments on Monday nights, we have all-you-can-eat pasta for $3.”
The lodge’s events raise money for operating expenses and for charities, including Cooley’s Anemia Foundation, Cancer research to help children, Casa Monte Casino providing free housing to families coming from aboard seeking medical care in Boston, the Don Orione Home (a nursing and rehabilitation center in East Boston) and for Alzheimer’s research.
”We give money to the grand lodge and they distribute it to charitable organizations we specify,” LoConte said.
The lodge is a place to socialize and to learn, especially when it hosts events such as historical presentations on subjects ranging from music to the economy to famous Italian people and their contributions to the world.
Picone, a real estate broker with ReMax in Haverhill, is marketing the property and said it would be attractive for use as a restaurant or other retail business, while the two upstairs levels could be turned into apartments or condominiums.
”The back of the building has a panoramic view of the river and the boardwalk,” Picone said. “You could put a big deck out there for an eating establishment, or if you wanted residential on the top two floors, you could build balconies.”
Picone said he has shown the building to people looking to open a restaurant, which would fit the city’s restaurant district.
”We have four floors, but we only use the main street floor and the basement floor,” Picone said. “The third floor is used for storage for the drum and bugle corps and the fourth floor is empty.”
He said the lodge also owns land behind the building that would allow for building a set of enclosed stairs with an elevator. There is also parking behind the building.
Happenings at the Sons of Italy in Haverhill:
45s card game tournaments are Wednesdays at 7 p.m. led by Ray Farmer and Tony Santoro, and Fridays at 7:30 p.m. led by Bob Maffeo and Katie LoConte
The Sons of Italy Drum & Bugle Corps is in the midst of its parade season. For more information, contact Bob LaFountain at 978-373-0437.
Pasta Fagioli Cookoff is Sept. 21. To sign up, contact Katie LoConte at 603-689-4772 or Carmine LoConte at 978-373-1447.
An Italian Dinner is Oct. 19. October is Italian Heritage month.
A Turkey Raffle is Nov. 1.