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The mystery behind the Masons

In Newburyport, masons- their organization largely mysterious to the public- make their Green Street Lodge a warm, welcoming, and active asset in the community. By Kiley Jacques

When the words “he’s a Mason” are uttered, many people’s ears perk up. There is mystery, perhaps even suspicion, surrounding one of the world’s oldest fraternities and its origin. But a little research quickly reveals the good will mission of the Masons. And though it is a complicated calling with a disputed history, there are some very simple ideas underlying the brotherhood.The Masons are all about “good old community spirit,” says Eddie Powers, a high-spirited and jolly Master Mason, who has been a member for the last two years. “Masonry,” he explains, “takes good men and makes them better. It teaches you about yourself, about who you are and what you can do.” The ancient tenets of the Order include Love, Relief, and Truth, and the strengthening of a man’s character is the intent.Opportunities for “fellowship, charity, education, and leadership” are available inside a Mason Lodge, and they are the reason Powers gets such obvious pleasure out of being a brother. “The Masons,” he says with a teary glint in his eye, “quietly help people.” They don’t participate in all the hype and fanfare as do some charitable organizations; acknowledgment is not the brothers’ aim. “In some cases,” says Powers, “individuals don’t even know it’s the Masons helping them.” That is how the men prefer it. Altruism is at the core of their camaraderie, and altruism, they feel, is a mute mission.Despite its clear creed, demystifying Freemasonry is no easy matter. The stately Newburyport Masonic Center at 31 Green Street, with its second-floor “armory” brimming with swords, staffs, pins, jewelry, aprons, chapeaux, and all manner of unfamiliar regalia, is often overlooked as a place worth visiting- its ancient paraphernalia feeding the notion that Masonry is private and suspect. But, as Powers explains, “we are develop[ing] plans to take away the shadow that surrounds us. We never miss an opportunity to let people know who we are.”Though some rituals remain esoteric, the sentiments from which they stem are easily understood. Not all of the Masons’ customs are enigmatic; there are a few that are practiced, in some form or another, by nearly everyone. Take, for instance, G.E.M., the tradition whereby Masons “Greet. Eat. And Meet.” A warm welcome and a member-made or catered meal precede every Mason meeting and are among Eddie Power’s many reasons for loving the Masonic Order. It’s part of the Breaking Bread With the Brothers program and, he jokes, it is why “you’ll never see a thin Mason.”

In addition to well-fed members, the Newburyport Masonic Center is quarters to the region’s three “Blue Lodges”: St. John’s, the oldest, was established in 1766, followed by St. Mark’s in 1803, and Bethany in 1868. All three lodges were once housed under separate roofs, but in the early 1900s, they were consolidated in the Green Street Federalist Building and began serving not only as the Massachusetts 11th Masonic District Lodge, but also as a community center. In 1929, a $100,000 cornerstone was dedicated. Powers declares with enthusiasm, “The Masons love to lay cornerstones,” and he appears quite proud of what it represents: the solid foundation on which the Masons stand and serve.

Though the Newburyport Lodge sits in the center of town and is passed regularly by pedestrians, ask residents from whence the Masonic Order came and any number of responses may be given. For many, it is a complete unknown and perhaps something to which not much thought, if any, has been given. But the Freemasons’ history is a dramatic and ever-unfolding tale.

Though today’s Masons need not be stone layers, a commonly held belief links the Freemasons’ ancestry to the builders of King Solomon’s temple. Another idea recognizes their beginnings with the work of stonemasons in building the cathedrals and castles of the Middle Ages. The brotherhood of today, however, believes its history dates back to the early 1700s, with men who met in taverns to discuss and establish a constitution for free (nomadic-like) and non-working expert stonemasons. No matter the theory, it is to the men who lay ancient stone that modern Masons are related, and symbols of that trade’s tools are their inheritance-chief among them the compass and square, in honor of geometry’s role in their proud profession.

It is, in part, this symbolism that seems at the root of society’s unease around Freemasonry. Things like secret handshakes and signs, fraternity rings, and membership cards, make people question Masons’ objectives. But many of these customs, sometimes labeled “occult-like,” have rather straightforward underpinnings. As roaming freemasons of old moved around, means for identifying skilled versus novice laborers were necessary. Therefore, this kind of ritual-rich communion was a way to keep work in the right hands. Perhaps Masonry is less a cabalistic clan than an elite philanthropic club.

Monthly Lodge meetings are another source of suspicion. There is a widespread notion that strange doings define these gatherings. Truth be told, there are two primary things that happen: New members are initiated with “ritual degree work,” and business is attended to. Clearly, it is the former that fosters people’s cloak and dagger prejudice. Although the details are unknowable to all but Masons, Russell Hussey-the Newburyport Masonic Center’s Facility Coordinator-explains that this work consists of lectures designed to educate new members about the Masons’ history and doctrines. The initiation segment focuses on the Order’s allegorical aspects, the temple’s architecture, the members’ seating arrangement, and the costumes-all of which have ceremonial meaning and require lengthy explanation and study. The business portion of meetings tends to have an agenda similar to that of any organization: upcoming events, potential projects, the lodge’s maintenance, and related issues.

The dark veil shrouding Masonry has been tough to lift. During the 1960s, a significant drop in membership was the result of radical social and political restructuring. At a time marked by complete cultural upheaval, the Masons seemed anachronistic. Today, things continue to change with the times. As brothers age and pass on, the Mason population wanes further. But recruitment efforts are in full swing and include some very contemporary approaches. Social media, for example, is used to attract young people. The Internet, video games, e-books, podcasts, television, and the big screen are all used as educational resources to stimulate new interest in Masonry.

The written word also serves as a tool to reach potential members. Inside the Green Street Masonic Center, for instance, a table full of literature includes Scouting magazine, which is a publication for former Eagle Scouts. On the magazine’s cover is an image of a young man scaling a seven-story wall of ice dressed in top-of-the-line athletic gear; the photo hardly evokes the Mason image many hold. Additionally, The Rainbow Girls and the Order of the Eastern Star are sister organizations representative of the fraternity’s move to be more progressive and to form relationships with the community. According to Powers, such efforts are beginning to pay off. The Green Street Lodge now boasts a few new members ages 19 to 21.

There are many undertakings that point to the Masons’ community-aimed interests. Take, for instance, the newly installed rose garden, which was a restoration project resulting from a photograph taken in the 1930s and given to the Center by a visitor. The idea was to bring to life a piece of lost history, as well as beautify the neighborhood. A website created by Master Mason Steve Wieder and his wife Cathy not only documents the garden’s past and step-by-step reconstruction, but it also provides helpful gardening advice for anyone interested in designing and building his or her own slice of Eden. The colorful little plot is a warm and familiar welcome before a foray into a world of swords and symbols, paintings and prayers. This historic landmark, with its three floors of photographs, furnishings, and masons’ stories, is a place offering a unique education, not for only its members, but for all visitors.

Masons are one of many groups and individuals making good use of the Green Street Masonic Center. Their long-standing tradition of extending a hand to the community has led to an active social calendar and a slew of events hosted at the hall. Whether organizing its own happenings or renting the space for subsidized fees or pro bono, the fraternity is busy booking. Russell Hussey happily lists the various groups that have occupied the Center: Theatre in the Round; Newburyport Literary Festival committee; Link House, Inc., an addiction recovery program; Department of Training and Development, which offers community job fairs; Newburyport Education Foundation; Newburyport Youth Soccer Association; Northeast Outreach Center for Veterans; and the Red Cross, to name but a few. Additionally, the space is home to the Newburyport Food Bank, Clinical Social Work Therapists, Health & Human Services, and a host of neighborhood organizations. Weddings, spaghetti dinners, pancake breakfasts-even Oktoberfests-have also been known to take place in the Masonic building. Such gatherings are hardly indicative of “men who keep secrets behind locked doors.”

In addition to providing a community center, the Masons offer public resources such as the free Child Identification Program (CHIP), which is a collaborative effort with the Massachusetts Crime Prevention Officers Association and the Massachusetts Dental Society, enabling parents to gather DNA, fingerprints, and dental impressions as a protective measure should a child go missing. The Professional Geriatric Care Management (Overlook C.A.R.E.), another assistance program, provides comprehensive health care management for the elderly. Additionally, the Masonic Angel Fund raises money to “change kids’ lives-one community, one child at a time.” Whether it’s activities for young people, basic provisions for the disadvantaged, money for medical research, or college scholarships, the Masons’ work showcases their simple objective as stated by brother Powers, “We just want to help people.”

Within the walls of Newburyport’s Masonic Lodge, there are things that could be deemed spooky. Like the King Solomon-esque temple featuring a domed ceiling with pinpoints of light, which are visible when the room is darkened; they are said to represent the overhead constellation as it appeared when the building was erected. An old-timey projector adds simulated clouds and red/orange light indicative of the coming dawn, a demonstration that makes Powers chuckle and say, “Disney’s got nothing on us.” There are columns and altars and ancient rickety chairs. In the center of the temple floor, a Holy Book rests in a bright beam of light. On the long “Wall of Brothers” hang photographs of serious-looking men draped in suits and aprons, donning Knights’ and Commanders’ swords. There’s even talk of strange things and ghosts found in the attic. Such “theatrics” are, perhaps, to blame for the general public’s apprehensive attitude toward Freemasonry and its Lodges. But, all told, the Masonic Center at 31 Green Street is just a venerable old building, alive with well-intentioned people. And the Mason Brothers are at the core, just behind gladly opened doors.