Matt Tiscone figured he’d check out the Sons of Italy after learning the fraternal organization was moving into his neighborhood.
But instead of sitting through an introductory meeting, Tiscone found himself helping members of the Gabriele D’Annunzio Lodge 321 convert the former Heritage Baptist Church on Hamburg Street into the Sons of Italy’s new home.
“I thought there was a meeting,” recalled the 30-year-old Tiscone while tending bar at the lodge this week. “I ended up painting.”
The experience left Tiscone with a good impression and he decided to join in June. Several weeks later, he persuaded three friends to join.
Today, Tiscone and his friends are among more than 120 new members in the 83-year-old club since it relocated to the town from Liberty Street in Schenectady. That has placed the Schenectady County chapter among the fastest growing in the state, at a time when many lodges are experiencing no growth at all.
“It’s attracting a lot of members,” said Joseph DiTrapani, the first vice president of the national order. “It’s one of the fastest-growing lodges we have [in New York].”
The change is a sort of resurrection for Lodge 321, which was among the many fraternal orders in the Capital Region facing waning numbers and an aging membership, said Chapter President Manny Aragosa. Prior to the move, the chapter had 188 members, down from its peak of more than 500.
Aragosa said the decline in members was compounded by the nearly $3,000-per-month cost of upkeep of the much larger Liberty Street hall, home since the 1950s. He said the decision to move was controversial, but necessary. “We decided to sell the building, downsize and get something we could afford,” he said.
In March, Rotterdam’s Planning Board approved a site plan waiver that allowed Gabriele D’Annunzio to begin work on the long-dormant building, which was roughly half the size of the group’s former hall. Chapter members spent nearly six months converting it.
During the renovation, Lodge 321 began to draw new members. And since hosting a grand opening in September, growth has continued. Between February and March, 45 new members have been initiated.
“And we’re still growing,” Aragosa said.
Another promising trend for Lodge 321 is the age of its new members. Aragosa said many of the new members are in their 30s and 40s.
Aragosa credited the move to a location near the sprawling Coldbrook neighborhood in Rotterdam and the predominantly suburban town of Guilderland. He said part of the problem with the old lodge was that it wasn’t near many traditional single-family developments.
“There was no neighborhood where we were before,” he said. “For some people here, it’s across the street.”
The success has caught the attention of the national organization, as it seeks ways to keep the order growing. DiTrapani said the model of owning a building within a residential community seems to be common thread among the most successful Sons of Italy chapters.
“Other organizations could absolutely learn from Gabriele D’Annunzio and how they’ve rebuilt,” he said.
Guilderland resident Phil Battaglino also said a renewed interest in his heritage played a role. The 40-year-old first-generation Italian-American said he felt compelled to help keep one of New York’s oldest chapters vibrant.
“We’re trying to keep the heritage going,” he said.
More from The Daily Gazette: