Lodging a new strategy
Monday, November 6, 2006
By Richard Robbins
It's not a retrenchment, it's a renewal. At least that's what members of three Masonic lodges hope will be in the works once a new Masonic building they will share is opened in Bullskin Township.
The three lodges in Scottdale, Dawson and Connellsville decided long ago that a single building made more sense than three separate buildings in terms of cost and upkeep. After groundbreaking at the construction site on Route 982 in September, lodge members began to look forward to opening the doors of the facility next summer.
"I'm really excited," said Stevan Shaw, past grand master of the Scottdale lodge, noting the design of the building and its location will attract the notice of passing motorists.
As much as anything, the building represents a break with the past for the once ultra-secret fraternity. While Masonic rituals will remain the closely guarded secrets of members only, other aspects of Masonry seem to be undergoing a nudging readjustment to the 21st century.
"It's not really a secret society, we've just always kept to ourselves," said Alan Sandusky, of King Solomon's Lodge in Connellsville, before asserting that Masonry, like the Elks, Kiwanis, Rotary and other fraternal groups, needs "to change with the times, if we are to grow and survive."
The three lodges -- King Solomon's Lodge 346 in Connellsville, Marion Lodge 562 in Scottdale and James Cochran Lodge 614 in Dawson -- boast a combined membership of about 800. Matthew Christner, of Dawson, said he worries that if trends continue, in a few years Masonry would consist principally of members in their 70s and 80s. Today, the majority of Masons at the three lodges are 55 and older.
Masonry reaches back to at least the Middle Ages. Its pedigree in America is stunning. The first several presidents of the United States were Masons, as were a dozen or so of the Founding Fathers. Sandusky pointed out that George Washington is an especially revered figure for American Masons, not only because he was the first chief executive but because Washington seemed to embody the Masonic ideal: piety, charity, and love and service to country.
More recently, President Franklin Roosevelt was a Mason, as were two of his successors, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. The last Masonic president was Gerald Ford.
At the same time, Masonry has come in for its share of brickbats. Because so much of Masonry is camouflaged in secret rituals and oaths, it has attracted a good number of conspiracy theories. One such theory has Masons at the heart of the murder of President Kennedy because he was insufficiently anti-communist. Some people have even hinted at a Masonic role in the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Few people take these theories of murder and mayhem seriously. In today's popular culture, Masonry is not infrequently the object of good-natured ribbing. An episode of the television show "The Simpsons," for example, features a character whose face is covered with germs. The germs are chanting, "Freemasons run the country."
Then, too, Masonic symbols were central to the plot in the runaway best-seller, and later movie, "The Da Vinci Code," and to the 2004 film, "National Treasure."
Sharing a building is not the same as merging the three lodges into a single entity. "There's no reason to merge," said Alex Christner, of Dawson.
The three lodges have such strong individual identities that shedding those identities was something members just could not bring themselves to do, added Matt Christner, Alex's son.
The Christners, father and son, appear to embody Masonry today. Alex, retired from construction, and Matt, who owns and operates a nursery, have a combined 65 years in the Dawson lodge.
"Masonry is not a religion," Matt said. "It is not a Protestant organization. It's open to everyone."
The basic requirements for membership are to be male, have a belief in a supreme being and have no obvious blemishes of either a legal or moral nature.
"Catholics, Jews, Muslims, all belong to the Masons," Alex said. "You do have to swear to a belief in a supreme being. But it doesn't have to be the Christian God."
Masons support a range of charities, the Christners said, the most prominent of which are the nationwide Shriners hospitals and other activities involving the health and welfare of children.
Sandusky speaks of "the moral tradition" of Masonry, its insistence on "brotherly love," individual honesty and tolerance. He and others hope the $550,000 Pleasant Valley Masonic Center will help further these goals.
Shaw said the lodges hope to raise the money they need for construction on their own without resorting to a bank loan. The lodges, which developed an offshoot, CDS Building Corp., to handle construction, have raised about $450,000, said Shaw, who estimated an additional $120,000 to $150,000 is needed.
"It's doable," he said.
According to Sandusky, the former grand master of the Connellsville lodge, the thinking that propelled Masonry to record-high membership in the aftermath of World War II belongs to a different era and must be adjusted. That adjustment may be as simple as descending from the top floors of their present locations in Scottdale, Connellsville and Dawson to a one-floor, handicapped-accessible building in Bullskin Township -- replete with a rentable social hall and conference room.
"We've long needed to be more visible," Sandusky said. "I think that will happen" at the new building.
Richard Robbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-836-5660.