Masons let 'light shine in,' try to shed image of secrecy
As part of a multimillion-dollar renovation of its Grand Lodge, the Masons will put windows in the windowless facade, add a doorway along Tremont Street, and put on display a vast collection of Masonic memorabilia.
Visitors will see long-hidden objects associated with some of the most famous men in American history: the trowel used by Lafayette at the cornerstone-laying for the Bunker Hill Monument, a pistol owned by Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones, and a lock of George Washington's hair encased in a tiny gold urn cast by Paul Revere.
''We've got to get out of the 19th century and into the 21st,'' said Max Ludwig Jr., director of the Masonic museum and library. ''If we want the world to know what we are, we've got to have more visibility. We have to open the walls and let the light shine in.''
The endeavor is part of a global effort by Masons to burnish their image and bolster their membership rolls, which have been shrinking since the mid-20th century. Grand Lodges in London, New York, and Philadelphia have already taken steps to open up to the public.
The new museum, which the Masons hope to open late next year, will also mark the latest indication of the stunning turnaround at the corner of Boylston and Tremont streets, where the Massachusetts Masons have been headquartered since 1861. The area, once dominated by the nearby Combat Zone, has been reclaimed by Emerson College, the new Loews Boston Common Theatre, and the soon-to-open Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Towers.
The Masons, founded in 18th-century England, have a long history in Boston - the local Grand Lodge was established in 1733 and is the third oldest in the world.
Over the years, the all-male society has been controversial and mysterious, despite the publication of numerous books outlining many of its supposedly secret passwords and handshakes and rituals. It has periodically been accused of being anti-Christian, and in the early 19th-century the disappearance of a man who had given away Masonic secrets sparked an anti-Masonic furor in America.
But the organization re-emerged and thrived between the Civil War and the mid-20th century as a fraternal organization with little talk of religion, except to encourage members to participate in some form of religious life.
Today, the Masons emphasize the promotion of patriotism, morality, and truth, and fund charitable work that in Massachusetts includes financial help for needy children and education centers for disabled children.
''In the late 19th century through the early 20th century, Freemasonry was the most prestigious and most popular fraternal order in the US, and anybody who was anybody joined it,'' said Lynn Dumenil, a professor of American history at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
The group was more open than many parts of American society, inviting in not only Christians but Jews as early at the late 19th century. And, although it was accused of being overly cozy with the Ku Klux Klan in the mid-20th century, it also boasted a number of famous black members long before many private clubs integrated.
Famous Masons have included Harry Truman, John Adams, John Hancock, John Wayne, Fats Waller, and Duke Ellington, the Masons say.
The Masons' longest-standing problem has been with the Catholic Church, which has consistently opposed the society as anti-Christian. The Catholic bishops of the United States, under the guidance of a committee chaired by Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, ruled in the mid-1980s that Catholics should not join the Masons, and that remains the position of the church.
''Masonry is in some senses a religion, and that aspect is incompatible with Christianity and particularly with Catholicism,'' said Law's spokesman, John Walsh.
But the Masons say they have many Catholic members, as well as those of other faiths. The group remains all-male, is open only to those age 21 and over, and refuses to admit atheists.
Paul W. Rolston, grand secretary of the Massachusetts Masons, said there are about 6 million Masons in the world, including 2 million in the United States. He said there are 50,000 Masons in Massachusetts, down from 120,000 in 1965, and the average age of members in the state is over 60.
Scholars say the Masons have been victims of the same social phenomena that have afflicted other fraternal organizations, and that in fact they are faring better than others.
''If you get a Boston city directory from 1930, you will see not only dozens of organizations but dozens of chapters of those organizations, and most of them have disappeared - they've just aged out of existence,'' said Peter Dobkin-Hall, a lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
He said organizations have also been hurt by suburbanization and other cultural phenomena.
''The Masons always offered something extra - what we today call networking,'' Dobkin-Hall said. ''But as American life became more national in character, and education became more important, the kind of social credential a fraternal organization represented became less important.''
The Masons say they can now revitalize by reaching out to younger men, and say some of their longstanding practices, such as eschewing recruitment, have hurt membership. Now they are trying such tactics as billboards on the Massachusetts Turnpike with toll-free numbers, touting their charitable work.
''We were our own worst enemies by not talking about Masonry openly,'' Rolston said.
But the museum will be the most public face of Freemasonry in the Bay State, situated at an intersection already passed by many visitors to the city's historic sites. The Masons had debated selling their building and moving to the suburbs to be closer to their members, but instead decided to stay in the heart of downtown. They have hired a local architectural firm to renovate their nine-story building at an estimated cost of $8 million to $12 million.
The Massachusetts Masons boast the largest collection of Masonic aprons in the world - garments worn by Masons in the Grand Lodges. They also have coins and stamps signifying Masonic events or depicting famous Masons, medals, and jewels indicating a Mason's rank and honors, and a library that they say holds the best collection anywhere of literature about Masons.
There is an assortment of unusual objects: a mantle of a Polish Torah given by a Jewish member who wanted Masons to have a Jewish as well as a Christian Bible, circus items associated with the midget showman and Mason, Tom Thumb, and the original nails used to hang lanterns in the Old North Church.
Many objects are associated with Revolutionary War figures who were Masons, including not only Revere but Joseph Warren, who was killed at Bunker Hill. Among their possessions are several bottles of tea supposedly retrieved from Boston Harbor after the Boston Tea Party, which some historians believe was led by Masons, and artifacts from a Boston bar called the Green Dragon, where the Masons were meeting just before the Tea Party.