Masons boast years of contribution to society
BY KEVIN GARCIA
January 16, 2005 — Secret handshakes, arcane symbols, traditions dating back to the foundations of the United States and beyond. This is knowledge entrusted to His Worshipful Master Fred Arias.
Although the title may seem high and mighty, the 50-year-old doesn’t let it go to his head.
“My wife calls me Grand Poobah all the time,” Arias said.
Unlike the Order of the Water Buffalo (Fred Flintstone’s fraternal organization), Ariasbelongs to a very real group with centuries of history and countless contributions to society — the Freemasons.
Depending on who you ask, this male-only worldwide organization can be traced to the Knights Templar in the 13th century Crusades, or King Solomon, who lived more than 900 years before Christ.
The Masons include such notable figures as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Ludwig Van Beethoven — a testament to the group’s role in shaping the modern world and its beliefs.
Centuries ago the group consisted primarily of actual masons, the people who designed and built many of Europe’s great buildings. Today, the Masons include many members of the business and political community — including 144 people in the Brownsville area.
The title “His Worshipful Master” is bestowed on the leader of a local lodge, in this case Rio Grande Lodge No. 81 in Brownsville. Arias was elected to the position earlier this year.
When asked how one becomes a mason, he replied: “To be one, ask one.”
Every Mason must be well-versed in the meaning of the group’s symbol, the compass and square, which represent key concepts of Mason philosophy.
The square represents affirming one’s virtues and actions. The compass represents setting one’s boundaries. Often the letter “G” is placed in the center, and can represent God, geometry and other concepts that provide structure to the world. Masons consider God to be the “Great Architect of the Universe.”
Prospective members also must be male, 21 or older, and believe in a god, Arias said.
“People think we are against religion,” he said. “I myself am a Catholic.”
Prospective Masons submit signed petitions from people supporting their membership, and have friends and family interviewed to verify the prospect’s character.
“You go through an investigation process,” said Pete Mitchell, 70, commander of Hidalgo No. 90 of the Knights Templar of Texas.
The Knights Templar are the highest degree of York Rite Masons — one of two major branches of Freemasonry. The York Rite is a Christian-based branch, and the Scottish Rite does not discriminate between religions.
He said Masons are voted into the group, but to progress the new member must study at a symbolic or “blue” lodge — such as the one in Brownsville — to complete the first three degrees of Masonic study. Each degree signifies a greater understanding of Masonic philosophy.
Philosophies range from mathematics to science to government, which includes the United States’ founding belief that all men are created equal.
The third degree is a Master Mason, who can join other branches of the group, including York Rite, Scottish Rite or Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (Shriners). Members can be part of multiple branches simultaneously.
Miguel C. Gonzalez Sr., 77, of Brownsville is a 33rd degree Mason, the highest possible degree in the Scottish Rite. The 32nd degree can be achieved rather quickly with study and dedication, but the 33rd degree is only bestowed to honor a life of service.
According to popular myths, the secrets of the universe are offered to 33rd degree Masons.
“We have no secrets,” Gonzalez said. “Everything is written; you can find them in libraries.”
Other myths persist thanks to novels and movies like “From Hell” that show the Masons as an evil secret society, but Masons say the new movie “National Treasure” helps correct that.
“(‘National Treasure’) is actually a good introduction to who we are,” said Joe Rodriguez, former grand master of the Brownsville lodge. “It gives you a good history of the principals of Freemasonry, and of the founding fathers, who were Masons.”
The founding fathers, from Washington to Stephen F. Austin, were Masons. Austin was initially prevented from starting a Texas lodge under the Mexican administration because that country was having political trouble at the time, but the Grand Lodge of Texas was formed in 1837.
The Brownsville lodge was formed in 1850 and chartered in 1851, which means the Rio Grande Lodge was here before the city, since the current city charter was adopted in 1853.
Aside from the view of Masons as a secret society, the other popular image involves the Shriners, another branch of Masonry. Although seen as fez-wearing retirees who drive in small cars during parades, Tip-o-Tex Shrine Club President Dillon Vanderford said there is more to being a Shriner.
All Masonic groups are involved in some form of community service, he said, and Shriners specialize in helping disabled and injured children. Vanderford became a Shriner at age 22 to get involved with charity work.
“We are known for partying,” said Vanderford, 29. “Of course it’s always fun dressing up for parades, but the focus is children.”
The Rio Grande Lodge plans to reach out to other children with a DeMolay youth program, starting next month. DeMolay offers a similar fraternal organization for boys 13 to 21 and offers spiritual guidance as well as camping and athletic activities.
On Jan. 23 the Rio Grande Lodge will be open to the public from 2 to 5 p.m. where Ariashopes to answer questions and dispel myths during the lodge’s 154th anniversary celebration.
“I’ve been asked to make sure that the misinformation stops,” he said. “We want to answer any and all questions about what is and is not a Mason.”
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