The Freemasons are a family to us
When she lost her husband and home, Paula Kilshawe-Fall faced emotional and financial chaos. Glyn Brown meets the almoners who helped Paula rebuild her life
We all know that the masonic movement gives support and financial assistance to society at large through its charitable and philanthropic work, but there’s another aspect, which is the aid that an almoner, sometimes called a ‘caring officer’, provides for lodge members and their families in time of need.
A job that’s quiet and often unsung, an almoner needs to be an adviser, supporter and friend. Crucially, they also need to detect that help is required in the first place. Almoners embody the spirit of Freemasonry; their community work is not performed for show but because of a concern for others.
Someone who has experienced this is Paula Kilshawe-Fall. Seven years ago, the kindness and advice she received from local almoners helped her to rebuild a life that was falling to pieces. It’s a story of stoicism, hope and bravery.
Ernie Greenhalgh is Provincial Grand Almoner for the Province of West Lancashire. ‘Between the Craft and the Royal Arch we have just over 500 almoners,’ he says, ‘and their role has been to look after members’ widows and their families, those who are elderly or in difficulties, to help with the filling in of forms and to dispense grants.’
Ernie believed that filling in forms was getting in the way. ‘Now we have a team that focuses solely on admin, which frees up the almoners to focus completely on pastoral care.’
Being an almoner can be demanding, requiring time and perceptiveness. ‘Lodge members and their families have a sense of privacy. They don’t want to need assistance,’ says Ernie. Which is where an almoner needs to be alert, to notice things. In winter, is the house cold? Why isn’t the heating on? ‘So an almoner sits down for a chat, and often the real story will come out.’
‘I used to call him my fairy godfather – he gave me advice and emotional support.’ Paula Kilshawe-Fall
It can be hard to find the right people to be almoners. ‘You’re looking for someone with tact, patience, humour and compassion – and who listens actively, searching for the meaning underneath what’s being said.’ So do you have to be a saint?
‘Not exactly. But you need dedication and discretion, because people will tell you heartbreaking things, and you must keep those to yourself.’
The plus side, of course, is that almoners are making a difference. ‘There’s an incredible upside,’ says Ernie. ‘To be able to say, “We’ve got a grant for you,” or “We’ve got you a chance to have that operation earlier” – it’s wonderful. Whatever I’ve done in my life, I’ve done something here that’s worthwhile, that’s made a change for the better.’
From theory to practice
Seven years ago Paula’s husband Adam died unexpectedly. He was 39, she was 34, and their children, Sarah and Adam, were four and three.
Adam Snr had run a property maintenance firm and it was only when he died that Paula realised how badly things had been going. Within weeks, she began to be harangued by creditors. ‘I didn’t realise the extent of the debts until Adam died. When he’d gone, I saw how he’d shielded me from the truth.’
Paula and the children lost their home and sought refuge with her parents. Worse was to come, though, because Adam had used that house as collateral and soon it, too, was swallowed in the debt. ‘My parents lost the home they’d been in for 40 years,’ says Paula, whose father died soon after.
She was alone. Or thought she was. After Adam’s death, Paula had written to his lodge to notify them. The lodge contacted the Provincial Grand Almoner and, within days, almoner Brian Mason visited Paula. He saw that the family needed financial and emotional support if they were not, despite Paula’s best efforts, to sink.
First, Brian took Paula through the state benefits she was entitled to. Next, he helped her to apply for grants from the masonic charities. She received awards from both and cried when she found out. ‘The masons had become our guardian angels,’ says Paula. A one-off grant from West Lancashire Province lifted the family out of homelessness.
‘I was desperate to get some stability for the children. We’re now in a rented council house, but I’ve made it pretty inside, and it’s ours.’
There were still unpaid debts, however, and Paula was told that the only way forward would be to declare herself bankrupt. Brian supported her by going with her to court. She could finally start anew.
Paula is an upbeat, resilient woman, glowing with pride in her daughter and son, who are able to go on educational trips thanks to help from the masonic charities. ‘I thank God every day that my husband had a connection with the Freemasons.’
As for Brian? ‘Well,’ she laughs, ‘I used to call him my fairy godfather. He gave me advice and emotional support – he was like the kindest uncle.’
Brian recently handed over his role to a younger almoner, Tom Bradfield-Kay, who sees Paula regularly. According to Tom, he has one of the best jobs. ‘When I retired last year, I needed something to give me the stimulation I got from my career, and the satisfaction you get from helping is immeasurable.’
For Paula, the future is hopeful. ‘The Freemasons – well, to us, they’re a family. My son wants to become a mason one day, and I’d like that. It seems such an amazing thing to be.’