RACINE COUNTY — Roma Lodge, a fraternal organization, is celebrating 100 years of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” this year.
Throughout 2023, Roma Lodge members and the Racine community have spent time reflecting on this milestone and celebrating the success of the place that serves as a notable hub for Italian-Americans.
The existence of their organization for the past century has had an immeasurable impact on the Racine area.
One member and former President of Roma Lodge, Rick Bonanno, shares his family ties and connection to the place that laid a foundation for Italian-Americans in Racine.
Rick joined in 1976, although his family has been a part of the club since its start in 1923. The Bonanno family is just one the many families to dedicate themselves to the Italian-based organization.
Growing up just moments away from the “old club,” Rick’s life and many others were positively impacted by the development of Roma Lodge.
Italian immigration leads to development of Roma Lodge
“When you think of Roma Lodge, you have to go way back to Italian immigration. The major immigration happened between 1880 and 1920. When you go back to that time period and realize what was happening there, especially in European countries, especially in Italy, there was an influx of immigration,” says Bonanno.
The Bonanno, Matranga, Giacinti, and Tempesta families, which make up Rick’s ancestors, made the move to the United States in search of a better life, along with many other families. They were influential in the creation of Roma Lodge.
“Our family is not the only family that did anything for the lodge. We can just give it to you from our perspective, but it’s really important to realize that there were hundreds and hundreds of people that have and continue to work with the Roma Lodge to benefit Roma Lodge,” states Bonanno.
“When they came over, they lacked even speaking English. They had no language ability. They didn’t have any financial resources. And in most cases, they lacked job skills. It was hard for them to come over,” explains Rick about the barriers many Italians faced.
The trek wasn’t easy by any means, but in Racine, Italian families found hope in the bonds they made with each other.
They formed together in the early 1900s, establishing two distinct communities, the Northside and the Southside, also known as Lakeside, in Racine.
It was in these communities that the newcomers had everything that encompassed what they needed to live, work and play.
“What these immigrants possessed was four really strong things that come to mind…the first one is a real love of family, second is a strong sense of community, they had an outstanding work ethic, and they had a burning desire to make a better life for themselves, obviously, but I think they were really thinking about future generations too,” says Rick.
Mutual Aid Societies
There were no social programs available, which led to the Italians taking the horse by the reins.
It was across the United States that Italians banded together, through the formation of Mutual Aid Societies, which later became affiliated with the national organization, the Order Sons of Italy in America.
“They were established to provide support for each other. Just as the name implies, mutual aid. They basically paid sick and death benefits. They help people find jobs, they helped them get naturalization. They help them get language skills, English classes, the whole thing, just to help them,” shares Rick.
In 1917, the Lakeside Italians established Roma Hall, although no longer established, and then in 1923, a permanent Roma Lodge building was opened on N. Memorial Drive, run by those on the Northside.
These places served as major resources in their communities.
Rick shares it was a place for uniting, a place where Spaghetti dinners took place, receptions, events and a building that continues to hold onto values that the founding members possessed.
Even when membership outgrew the building in the city, the move of Roma Lodge in 1987, to Mount Pleasant, at 7130 Spring St., helped expand the organization and its efforts.
The official attachment to the Order Sons of Italy has been dropped, but will forever be a reminder of the historical importance of Roma Lodge.
“The aspect of the spirit of the original mutual aid societies lives very strongly in Roma Lodge today. It’s a spirit that we founded to help each other and it continues to this day,” shares Bonanno.
100 years of community
Since its formation, and now 100 years later, Roma Lodge has reached beyond what it once was but continues to foster Italian-American culture through social, cultural and entertainment events, scholarships, and through civic work and outreach with local charities.
They have a Cares Committee, a yearly Italian fest, which was recently brought to the Roma Lodge grounds, weekly Bingo, and a restaurant, of course. They raise scholarship funds for students pursuing higher education, are the home of the Vittoria Colonna (a women’s group), donate financially to health and other local organizations, and more.
They also have an additional entity, the Racine Italian Welfare Association, to handle the business aspect.
“Our purpose is to help our community and help people, not only ourselves, but try to extend it out as well,” says Rick.
These days, there are over 300 members.
“The members, I see guys there and they love Roma Lodge. You can tell they are there and they couldn’t be happier just to be there to help each other and to work. Working is a part of it, but there’s a real sense of community there and what we do to help the community is very, very gratifying,” says Rick.
“Our principles are Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. We have to be good stewards of this facility and our membership. What we’re all about is to keep the principles in mind, always, and then realize that those guys (the founders) did the bulk of the work and we got to make sure that we carry it on,” states Bonanno.
An oasis for Racine
Over the past 100 years, everyone who is – or was – a member, or even community members who have participated in Roma Lodge-related outings like Pancake Day, or those who have enjoyed a fish fry at their venue, have fond memories of what this place and these people mean to them.
Rick’s earliest memories include the Christmas parties at the old club, receiving a sack of goodies, being with the ones he loved, and getting to go sit on Santa’s lap.
He also loved playing on the Roma Lodge softball team back in his twenties. Now, he enjoys being a Bingo caller and continuing to keep the history of Roma Lodge alive.
Others share the memory of uniting in marriage with the one they love, volunteering, gathering at brunch, playing a game of bocce ball, or just coming together to share stories.
Whatever the reason or connection to Roma, Rick believes Roma Lodge is an oasis for Racine.
“Roma Lodge is an oasis for us,” says Rick. “We have strong bands, and we work together, but we’ve got to think of it, at least this is my opinion now, you’ve got to think of it as an oasis. It’s a place we go to get away from the drudgery of the world… not put our heads in the sand… but it’s to really enjoy each other and enjoy the time.”
An historic celebration
Throughout 2023, the club has been celebrating its 100th year of existence.
The big celebration will soon happen. Members of Roma Lodge will celebrate on Sept. 30 with an evening of gathering at Roma Lodge. Dinner, drinks and dancing will take place during the event, along with a special guest speaker. It will be a chance for members to connect and mark this significant milestone.
For the next 100 years, the hope is to continue to remember the past while striving to grow into the future while living out Roma Lodge’s mission.
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