300th Anniversary of Freemasonry—160 years in St. Marys

Open House Planned

By Allan Stewart

On June 4rd 1717, 1,300 Freemasons formed the Grand Lodge of England. Grand Lodges are the governing bodies of the various lodges in their area. This was the first official declaration of the existence of Freemasonry. (Obviously for a group of existing Masons to bring their lodges into one governing body, Freemasonry must have already been in existence. The first Canadian lodge to receive a constitution was in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia in 1738.)

For the next 117 years, Freemason lodges sprang up throughout the new world. In Canada, these lodges were under jurisdiction of the various “Old World” Grand Lodges in England, Scotland, or Ireland. The first such lodges sprang up around forts as freemasonry was (and still is) quite popular in the military. In 1855, the Grand Lodge of Canada was formed and over the next few years most of the lodges in Ontario and Quebec switched their allegiances to the new governing body.

In 1857—ten years before confederation—a group of men in St. Marys applied for a warrant with the Grand Lodge of Canada. As per custom, the warrant had to be reviewed before being fully accepted. But the men were allowed to have lodge meetings “under dispensation”. However, there was a problem with the elected Master of the Lodge and by the time of the onsite review, the Grand Lodge refused the application. The men reapplied and were accepted the following year. So, unique in Ontario, St. Marys has the distinction of having two “start” dates. We even have two older signs with the conflicting dates on them as a humorous nod to the period.

No one knows when or where Freemasonry actually started. Legend has it that Freemasons built King Solomon’s temple. But it is commonly believed that Freemasonry evolved from the work guilds that existed in Western Europe during Medieval times. Guilds existed for almost every trade that operated in those times. They served a function similar to that of modern day professional associations and trade unions, establishing professional standards, overseeing apprenticeship programs, and providing member welfare. Masons were the construction workers of the day. As such, they would have controlled the building of all the great cathedrals and palaces.

Because building a cathedral could take up to eighty years, having a guild that ensured a continuation of qualified workers so as to maintain building standards would have been extremely important. Masons and their families would live on the site for generations. Therefore, it is easy to see how the Masons Guild would have grown beyond mere professional standards and development to include lessons in morality and charity. As the scope of the teachings in the Masons Guild grew, so did the roster of non-builders. These men were called “Speculative” Masons.

When a particular building project was completed, the Masons would be out of a job and have to move to another project. In order to do this in medieval times, the person would have to be a “free man” (as opposed to a serf). This is where the term Free Masons comes from. Today, we use that name to distinguish ourselves from a modern mason or brick layer.

Out of these Freemasons’ Guilds grew a fraternity that has helped shape the world that we live in today. The basic tenets of Freemasonry include brotherhood, equality, virtue, honour, morality, charity and benevolence. Freemasonry’s encouragement of equality has helped shape the world’s great democracies. British Monarchs, John A. MacDonald, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Simon Bolivar were all Freemasons. It is commonly accepted that the Constitution of the United States (authored by Thomas Jefferson) was based on the basic tenets of Freemasonry.

The fraternity has also helped shape the world in which we live in more subtle ways as well. Freemasonry and all of its connected organizations (including Shriners) is one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world. In St. Marys, like most lodges, our members have included retired soldiers, mayors, business leaders, ministers, sports coaches, police and firemen, Members of Parliament, doctors, lawyers, and of course, everyday citizens. One of the basic tenets of Freemasonry is to quietly and humbly give back to the communities in which we live.

Freemasonry is not a secret society – it is a society with secrets. People often ask, “Why – why not have open meetings? Why the secrecy?” The reasons for this are both practical and historical.

First, there has always been a need to be able to identify fellow masons. When the great cathedrals were being built, the project leaders needed a way of identifying the skill set of wandering masons. A master mason might not be able to have an opportunity to prove his engineering skills until well into the project.

Second, Masons then and now, have an obligation to help fellow masons who are down on their luck. A medieval mason who was injured on the job was provided for. Masons who could not find a job at a particular site were given food and shelter. Today, Freemasons are obligated to help a brother who is in need. As such, being able to identify a fellow mason is imperative.

Third, the fraternity has always attracted leading citizens who believe in the equality and rights of mankind. Because of this, they have always been the target of dictators. Freemasonry was banned by the Communist leaders in Russia after 1917. Freemasons were persecuted and sent to concentration camps by Adolph Hitler. Although Masons are not allowed to discuss politics or religion during meetings, it is well known that the perpetrators of the famous Boston Tea Party were all Masons.  More recently, Freemasons have been targeted and harassed by certain groups who wish to exert more control and authority over its own members.

Today, Freemasonry is a fraternity whose mission is to; “Take good men and make them better”. Lodge meetings that are held regularly in small towns and cities all over the world teach its members how to become better men. Through stories and lessons, using allegory and metaphors, Masons learn about the importance of charity and benevolence, treating people with dignity and respect, and basically how to be good citizens. There is a strong spiritual element to Freemasonry.

The French slogan of Fraternity, Equality and Liberty was borrowed from Freemasonry. The Constitution of the United States was written by Freemasons. Freemasons (through their affiliate group, the Shriners) own twenty-two children’s hospitals and pour over a million dollars a day into them.

Like many volunteer organizations today, the membership of Freemasonry is declining. With long commutes, cities are especially hard hit. And, the Freemason’s philosophy about attracting new members exasperates the problem. (Freemasons are not allowed to recruit—to become a Freemason, you have to ask. Only “good” men are allowed to join. Atheists are not allowed.)

We, in St. Marys have been fortunate. Our membership, especially among young men is growing. Several retired men who have moved to St. Marys have joined or affiliated with us. We meet once a month (the third Monday), and sometimes visit other lodges in the area. All of our meetings are split into two parts: The official lodge meeting where the ritual provides growth opportunities, followed by an informal social gathering.

If you want to learn more about Freemasonry and its history or are just curious about what the lodge looks like, we are hosting a breakfast and open house on Saturday, May 27th at the lodge building. The building is at 10 Thames Road (beside the Ford Dealership). Breakfast is served at 8:00 am and tours of the building continue until 10 o’clock.

Everyone is welcome.

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