The Founding of Zembo

Zembo Shrine was constituted on Wednesday, October 12, 1904 at the old Lyceum Theatre on Locust Street, in Harrisburg, PA. We were the 93rd Shrine Temple to be chartered by Imperial Council, A.A.O.N.M.S. (Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine) (Now known as Shriners International).  Its original jurisdiction, which still stands to this day, consists of the counties of Dauphin, Cumberland, York, Adams, Franklin, Lebanon, Perry, Juniata, and the concurrent jurisdiction with Rajah Shrine of Reading in Lancaster County.

Col. William F. Richardson, First Potentate of Zembo Shrine

It all started with 294 Shriners who lived in the Harrisburg area but were primarily members of Rajah Shriners, in Reading, PA. Together, they petitioned the Imperial Council, now known as Shriners International, to start a new local organization with Harrisburg as its headquarters. Zembo was the 92nd Shrine to be constituted. Zembo’s first Potentate was Ill. Sir Col. William F. Richardson, an officer in the Pennsylvania National Guard. At the close of its first day it boasted 487 members.  It now has close to 1,500 members and is the 32nd largest of the rough 200 Shrine organizations.

The origin of the name Zembo was long thought a mystery.  Its meaning was determined in 1977 when Nobles of the Shrine did research to establish the meaning and origination of the title “Zembo”.  During the research, it was necessary to learn the hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptian language. This research confirmed the meaning of “Water Spirit” – a fitting name for a group founded on the banks of the Susquehanna River.  Confirmation was made by the Metropolitan Museum and the Smithsonian Institute of the United States and the Papyrus Institute of Cairo, Egypt.

The growth in activities and membership of the Harrisburg Masonic Shriners had, by the end of the 1920’s, resulted in the demand for a grand new facility. “Zembo Mosque,” as it was once called, is one of the truly outstanding architectural buildings in the Harrisburg area. Its cornerstone was laid on April 4, 1929 by Grand Master J. Wilson Smith of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, Free and Accepted Masons. It was constructed from 1928 to 1929 and dedicated on May 19, 1930. The Potentate at the time of dedication was Illustrious Sir William C. Fisher, who served for two years as Potentate during the erection and dedication of the Shrine. It’s dedication culminated almost 26 years of effort by a group of men determined to contribute to the history of the city, state and country, and to our Masonic and Shrine heritage.

Although, the Shrine is not a reproduction of any existing building, the architect, Charles Howard Lloyd, stated that he “dipped deeply into the spirit of the North African styles” and there are instances of an especially beautiful Moroccan detail. The interior design includes examples of beautiful Moroccan influenced arches, chandeliers and ornate hand-painted motifs. The estimated cost at building was one million dollars. The Zembo Shrine Building was added to the National Register of History Places in February 2024!

Today, Zembo Shrine is still an active location for Shrine events, as well as to the public for event rentals, such as churches, club or organization meetings, fundraisers, weddings, banquets, concerts, sporting events, proms, and other such functions. Rental information can be found here.

Looking for information on Zembo’s official PA State Historical Marker? Get the details here.


The Time that JFK Visited Zembo

As PennLive’s John Luciew  wrote of the gallery:  “JFK flew into what is now the Capital City Airport in Fairview Twp.  He addressed a throng of 7,000 supporters in Harrisburg’s Market Square.  He spoke to 9,000 during a televised address at the Zembo Shrine and Scottish Rite Cathedral, where a $100-a-plate fundraiser was held.  And he rolled past many more admirers in his convertible, as it rolled along routes in New Cumberland, Harrisburg, Lebanon, Lancaster, York, and Reading.”


What is Shriners International?

Shriners International is a fraternity based on fun, fellowship and the Masonic principles of brotherly love, truth and relief. There are 194 temples located throughout the world, with approximately 325,000 members. Men who wish to become Shriners must first join the fraternity of Freemasonry and achieve the status of Master Mason.

In 1870, a group of Masons gathered frequently for lunch at the Knickerbocker Cottage, on Sixth Avenue in New York City. At a special table on the second floor a particularly  fun-loving group of men met regularly.  Among the regulars were Walter M. Fleming, M.D.  and William J. “Billy” Florence, an actor.  The group frequently  talked about starting a new fraternity for Masons – one centered on fun and fellowship,  more than ritual. Fleming and Florence took this idea seriously enough to do something about it.

Billy Florence had been on tour in France, and had been invited to a party given by an Arabian diplomat. The exotic style, flavors and music of the Arabian-themed party inspired him to suggest this as a theme for the new fraternity. Walter Fleming, a devoted fraternity brother, built on Fleming’s ideas and used his knowledge of fraternal ritual to transform the Arabian theme into the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S.). With the help of the Knickerbocker Cottage regulars, Fleming drafted the ritual, designed the emblem and costumes, formulated a salutation and declared that members would wear the red fez.  The first meeting of Mecca Shriners, the first temple (chapter) established in the United States, was held September 26, 1872.


The fez  is one of the most recognizable symbols of Shriners International, and was adopted as the Shriners’ official headgear in 1872. Named after the city of Fez, Morocco, the hat represented the Arabian theme the fraternity was founded on. It also serves as an outward symbol of one’s membership in the fraternity. Much like the white apron worn by Masons as a symbol of their brotherhood, the fez is worn only by Shriners as a symbol of their membership in this unique fraternity.

Today the fez is worn at Shriners’ functions, in parades and at outings as a way of gaining exposure for the fraternity. Members customize their fez to show their allegiance to their temple. Look closely at a fez and you will also learn other important information about its wearer, such as membership in Shrine clubs, special roles within the organization and much more. Each fez is custom made and a Shriner may own more than one fez depending on his activities and memberships.


The emblem on the front of the fez, the crescent and scimitar, is an important part of the fraternity’s theme, and is representative of the characteristics embodied by the Shriners. The scimitar stands for the backbone of the fraternity, its members.  The two claws are for the Shriners fraternity and its philanthropy.  The sphinx stands for the governing body of the Shriners.  The five-pointed star represents the thousands of children helped by the philanthropy each year.  The emblem also bears the phrase “Robur et Furor,” which means “Strength and Fury.”


Shriners Believe in Brotherhood   Shriners are a brotherhood of men committed to family, engaged in ongoing personal growth, and dedicated to providing care for children and families in need. Our backgrounds and interests are diverse, but we are bound together by our shared values and a desire to have fun, do good and build relationships that can last a lifetime.  Shriners come from all walks of life.  We are plumbers and professionals, salesmen and CEOs.  We are fathers, uncles, and sons. We are also brothers.  When you become a Shriner, you become part of a brotherhood of men committed to family, engaged in ongoing personal growth, and providing care for children and families in need. While our backgrounds and interests may be diverse, what binds us together are shared values and a desire to have fun, do good and build bonds that last a lifetime.

Shriners Believe in Family  Although Shriners International is a brotherhood, it is also an organization focused on bringing families together. Many of our fraternity’s activities are designed to involve family members, promote our shared values and help develop the next generation of community and business leaders. A variety of affiliated groups for both women and children, emphasizing personal growth, fun and friendship, participate with Shriners.  

In many cases, being a Shriner is a family tradition. Although Shriners International is a brotherhood, it has a family component. Many of the fraternity’s activitIes are designed to involve family members, promoting our shared values and helping develop the next generation of community and business leaders.  A variety of affiliated groups for both women and children, emphasizing personal growth, fun and friendship participate with Shriners.

Shriners Believe in Leadership  You may be surprised to know that Shriners count among their ranks presidents, senators, local business leaders, professional golfers, country music stars, astronauts and actors. But, we think it’s just as important to be a leader in your personal life, to be a role model, to be a sounding board, and to simply be a friend.   As a Shriner, you will become part of a powerful network of mentors who can help you grow as a man, a father and a husband. You will develop relationships that benefit your business and help you reach your career goals. And you will find that you’ve become a mentor yourself, passing the lessons of leadership along to the next generation.

Shriners Believe in Giving Back  In 1922, the Shriners dedicated themselves to providing expert medical care for children regardless of the patients’ ability to pay. Today, that philanthropic effort supports 22 Shriners Hospitals for Children® across North America that provide specialized medical care for children with orthopaedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft lip and palate.   Many Shriners Hospitals for Children® are also premier medical research centers and are affiliated with top academic medical institutions in North America.


The basic organizational unit of the fraternity is the temple, which is governed by an elected board, known as the Divan. The Divan is headed by a Potentate, who is the presiding officer of the temple. All temples are subordinate to Shriners International Headquarters. The Imperial Divan, the fraternity’s governing board, is headed by the Imperial Potentate and consists of 13 elected officers. A new officer is elected to the Imperial Divan each year. Every officer, except the Imperial Treasurer and Imperial Recorder, moves up the “line” each year, eventually becoming Imperial Potentate. The Imperial Treasurer and Imperial Recorder may be re-elected. Within each temple, there are also clubs and units for members with various interests and hobbies. The fraternity may be best known for its colorful parades, circuses and clowns – but there are also many other opportunities for members. From leadership development and public speaking to networking and special interests – there truly is something for everyone. The Imperial Divan is the international governing body of Shriners International. This governing body works as a corporate Board of Directors and consists of 13 officers, each of whom is elected to the lowest position on the Divan and moves up one position each year (with the exception of the Imperial Treasurer and Imperial Recorder).  The highest leadership position within Shriners International is Imperial Potentate. The Imperial Potentate is both president and chief executive officer of Shriners International, and is elected for a one-year term.  The Imperial Potentate will spend his year in office visiting many of the Shrine temples (chapters), attending regional Shriners meetings and visiting Shriners Hospitals for Children®.   He also serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors for both Shriners Hospitals for Children and the fraternity.  This same organizational structure is followed at the local level within each of the 195 temples (chapters) across the United States, Canada, Germany, Mexico, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and the Republic of Panama.


All Shriners are Masons, but not all Masons are Shriners. Shriners International is a spin-off from Freemasonry, the oldest, largest and most widely known fraternity in the world. Freemasonry dates back hundreds of years to when stonemasons and other craftsmen gathered after work in shelter houses, or lodges. Over time, the members organized into Masonic guilds and the tools of their trade – the square and compass – became the symbol of their brotherhood.   Over time, Masonry evolved into an organization that began to accept members who were not craftsmen. Today, Masonry is built upon a foundation of improving character and strengthening communities, though the square and compass are still the symbols of the fraternal brotherhood.   When Shriners International was first founded in 1872, the organization built on the principles that guided Freemasonry, while adding an element of fun and, ultimately, philanthropy, that set Shriners International apart.   The two organizations are also structured similarly:  Shriners have temples; Masons have a Blue Lodge or Craft Lodge.  Members of the Masonic lodges are required to learn about their fraternity and earn a series of Masonic degrees.  When a member has completed the third and final degree he becomes a Master Mason and is then eligible to become a Shriner.  Additional courses of Masonic study are available – these are known as the Scottish Rite and the York Rite.  To learn more about how to become a Mason and a Shriner visit


From its earliest days the Shriners were known for their philanthropic efforts across the country.  During a yellow fever epidemic in Jacksonville, Florida, members of the new Morocco Shrine and Masonic Knights Templar worked long hours to help the sick. In 1889 Shriners came to the aid of the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood victims. In fact, by 1898 there were 50,000 Shriners, and 71 of the 79 temples were engaged in some sort of philanthropic work.  By the early 1900s, the fraternity was growing quickly. And as the fraternity was growing, so was the support for establishing an official charity. Most temples had local philanthropies, and sometimes the Shriners’ organization offered aid. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake Shriners sent $25,000 to help the fallen city. Shriners contributed $10,000 for the relief of European war victims. But neither of these efforts, nor the projects of individual temples, satisfied the membership.  The idea to establish hospitals for children was brought to the membership in 1919 by Freeland Kendrick (P.I.P., Lu Lu Shriners, Philadelphia)  after he visited a Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children in Atlanta. This visit made Kendrick aware of the overwhelming need to care for children with orthopaedic disorders.   During his tenure as Imperial Potentate in 1919 and 1920 Kendrick traveled more than 150,000 miles, visiting a majority of the 146 Shrine temples and campaigning for an official philanthropy to be established. 


During his year as Imperial Potentate in 1919-1920, Freeland Kendrick visited every Shriners temple in the United States. At the Imperial Session of 1920, held in Portland, Oregon, Kendrick proposed that the Shriners build a hospital for children.  Conservative Shriners had their doubts, both about the two dollar yearly assessment from each Shriner, and what it would mean to assume this kind of responsibility. The prospects of the plan being approved were fading when Noble Forrest Adair (Yaarab Shriners, Atlanta) rose to speak.   “I was lying in bed yesterday morning, about four o’clock, and some poor fellow who had strayed from the rest of the band stood down there under the window for 25 minutes playing ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.’”   Adair said that when he awoke later that morning he thought again of the wandering musician. “I wondered if there were not a deep significance in the tune that he was playing for Shriners… ’I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.’”

Looking out on the assembled nobles, Adair went on. “While we have spent money for songs and spent money for bands, it is time for the Shriners to spend money for humanity. I want to see this thing started. Let us get rid of all the technical objections. And if there is a Shriner in North America who objects to having paid the two dollars after he has seen the first crippled child helped, I will give him a check back for it myself.”  Noble Adair settled himself back into his chair to the sound of thunderous applause. In that moment, the tide had turned. Although there were other speakers after him, a historic decision had already been made. The resolution was passed unanimously.  A committee was chosen to determine the site and personnel for the Shriners Hospital. After months of work, research and debate, the committee concluded that there should not be just one hospital, but a network of hospitals throughout North America.  This idea appealed to the Shriners, who liked to do things in a big and colorful way. When the committee brought the proposal to the 1921 Imperial Session in Des Moines, Iowa, it too was passed.


 By June 1922 the cornerstone had been laid for the first Shriners Hospitals for Children® in Shreveport, Louisiana. The first patient to be admitted in 1922 was a little girl with a clubfoot, who had learned to walk on the top of her foot rather than the sole. Through the remarkable foresight, commitment and fundraising skills of the Shriners nearly one million children have been treated at one of the 22 Shriners Hospitals for Children across the United States, and in Canada and Mexico.


As Shriners Hospitals for Children® sprang up across North America, the mission behind this unique organization also grew. The Shriners quickly learned that there were two additional needs in supporting their mission to care for children. The first was research to help develop better medical treatments. The second was to educate medical professionals. The result is a three-pronged mission that has impacted medical care not just for children, but for people of all ages all over the world.  Research  Shriners Hospitals for Children conduct clinical research in every area of care, including orthopedic disorders, burns, spinal cord injury treatment, and cleft lip and palate. These ongoing clinical studies are possible in large part because these hospitals are among the only facilities of their kind with a large population of children who have a variety of conditions. In many cases, what is learned in these research studies is able to be applied and shared right away so that care is constantly improving.

So-called “bench” research is also a hallmark of the organization. This laboratory-based research has led to major discoveries in genetics, nutrition, metabolic function, wound healing and much more.  However, Shriners Hospitals for Children may be best known for its work in burn research. In fact, many of the treatments used as standard practice in burn centers across the country today originated within Shriners Hospitals for Children.  Education   When it comes to pediatric orthopedic care, Shriners Hospitals for Children are the experts, bar none. Virtually every pediatric orthopedic specialist in the United States has done a rotation during their education at a Shriners Hospitals for Children.   Each of our hospitals holds a close relationship with a major university medical center or hospital, and many of our surgeons and physicians are also professors. Shriners Hospitals for Children are also a training ground for other medical professionals like nurses, physical therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists and others. This focus on education helps keep Shriners Hospitals for Children on the front lines of medicine, while helping disseminate the wealth of information learned here over the years.

In the early 1980s, Shriners Hospitals for Children opened the nation’s first spinal cord injury rehabilitation centers specifically designed for kids. There, patients receive long-term rehabilitation and intensive physical, occupational and recreation therapies. Cleft lip and palate was officially added to the health care system’s treatment disciplines in 2005. This program provides surgeries, orthodontic work, audiological, speech and psychological therapies for children with this condition. Shriners Hospitals for Children relies on the generous donations of Shriners and the general public to continue changing the world through caring for kids.