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Over 120 years of combined service to local Masonic Lodge

by Chris Daponte

FERGUS - Many people, influenced by historical half-truths and recent pop culture references like Dan Brown’s novel The Lost Symbol, still view Freemasonry as a mystical, secretive sect with odd customs.

But two long-time members of Fergus’ Mercer Lodge (#347) say most Masonic stories have been blown out of proportion and the organization is known more today for offering fellowship and community service.

“It’s really not a secret,” said David Beattie, a member of the Mercer Lodge for over 60 years.

He smiled and continued, “I was once told, ‘If it was a secret organization, you wouldn’t know who its members were’.”

John Carter, who was recently named the Mercer Lodge’s historian, agreed and said much has changed since he first joined the Fergus lodge over 50 years ago.

“There’s a lot less secrets now than when I joined,” Carter said.

At that time, he explained, Freemasons did not even want photographs taken of their members or the lodge, and women were strictly forbidden from entering Masonic Lodges.

Freemason events and ceremonies now often appear in local newspapers. And women are regularly welcomed in the buildings today, particularly as part of the affiliated group Order of the Eastern Star (although Freemasons have retained the men-only membership requirements).

The Mercer Lodge in Fergus today boasts around 80 members. In Ontario, there are approximately 64,000 Masons belonging to some 630 lodges in 46 districts, governed by a Grand Lodge in Hamilton.

According to the Grand Lodge’s website, Masonry is “the world’s oldest and largest fraternal organization.” Worldwide, there are more than four million Masons, about half of whom call North America home.

The website states the “singular purpose” of Freemasonry  is “to make good men better” and to teach members “each person has an obligation to make a difference for good.”

One of the main strengths of Freemasonry is helping others. Masonic Lodges in Ontario  donate in excess of $3-million annually.

The exact origin of Freemasonry is unclear, though the earliest Masonic text has been dated to the year 1390 and the first Grand Lodge was established in England in 1717.

The Mercer Lodge officially opened in April 1876, with the help of members at the Irvine Lodge in Elora, which was founded in 1868.

Named after William Mercer, a renowned past Grand Master, the Fergus lodge originally met in the Odd Fellows hall in town. In 1879, the Fergus group began renting the upstairs of the former town office, and in 1900 it moved to the third floor of the Argo Block at the corner of St. Andrews and St. David Streets. It remained there until 1961, when the current building on St. Andrew Street East was opened.

A lodge is the basic organizational unit of Freemasonry. Each lodge must hold monthly  meetings and elect, initiate and promote members and officers.

“Every member is encouraged to attend the meetings,” said Carter.

Like any organization, Masonic Lodges have formal business, including annual general meetings and committees, charity funds and other reports, including those dealing with financial and membership details.

“I found out a few things I didn’t know about the activities,” Beattie said of his early days as a Freemason.

Many are unaware that the number and type of activities is individual to each lodge, and each can develop and observe its own traditions.

Carter said the Mercer Lodge in Fergus has been particularly active with local charities. It is a regular contributor to various fundraisers for the Groves Memorial Hospital, including the most recent CT scanner campaign, and the lodge has also sponsored blood donor clinics in town, he explained.

This year, the lodge is raising funds specifically for prostate cancer research, Carter said, adding it will also continue its annual support of The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, as well as the Child Identification Program (CHIP).

The latter is a charitable initiative by North American Masonic Lodges to aid in the identification and recovery of missing children. The program is supported monetarily at the Grand Lodge level, and staffed by volunteers from subordinate lodges, as well as law enforcement and dental professionals.

The CHIP program allows parents to create a free kit of identifying materials for their children, including a physical description, fingerprints, video, dental imprint and DNA sample.

The purpose of the program, which has been lauded by various groups and organizations, is to provide critical information to the public and to law enforcement officials in the event the child goes missing.

In recent years the CHIP program has become somewhat synonymous with Freemasons, but it is certainly not the only charitable endeavour of the organization.

In fact, Carter said, many men join nowadays specifically as another way to become more active in their own community. In that respect, not a lot has changed for the Freemasons, he added - they have always prided themselves on helping others.

Another aspect that has remained relatively unchanged is becoming a Freemason is a little more difficult than joining other organizations.

Contrary to common misconception, becoming a member is not by invitation only. A man must express his interest in joining and then must be sponsored by two current members.

Then, a small committee of Freemasons conducts an investigation of sorts to ensure the prospective member is of good character. He must also meet other criteria, which can change depending on the jurisdiction but generally includes:

- joining of his own free will;

- the belief in “a Supreme Being” (the form of which is left to interpretation by the candidate), though officials are quick to point out Freemasonry is neither a religion nor a substitute for one;

- being at least the minimum age (usually from 18 to 25 years old) although in some places the son of a Mason may join earlier than others;

- be of good morals and of good reputation;

- be of sound mind and body; and

- be able to provide character references.

Once selected for initiation, prospective members then face a secret ballot election, using white and black marbles. Depending on the jurisdiction, the number of adverse votes needed to “black ball” someone can range from one to three.

There are three general degrees Freemasons can obtain:

 - Entered Apprentice, which members receive upon initiation;

- Fellow Craft, an intermediate degree, involved with learning; and

- Master Mason, also known as the “third degree” and a necessity for participation in most aspects of Masonry.

The degrees represent stages of personal development and are decided by a number of factors and requirements that can differ for each individual.

There are further degrees - for example, in either the Scottish or York Rites -  names with higher numbers that are considered supplements to the Master Mason degree.

Carter himself obtained a standing of 32 degrees (out of 33) in the Scottish Rite.

“Outstanding” members can also be elected or appointed to the Grand Lodge of Ontario, he explained.

Beattie, who turns 97 on Christmas Eve, still vividly recalls when he joined the Mercer Lodge.

“It was April 7, 1944,” he said with a smile.

At the time, he farmed land in old Nichol Township just south of Ennotville and also served as clerk at various farm auction sales.

“It was kind of interesting work,” said Beattie, who  was friends with several Freemasons.

“I knew quite a few people that belonged,” he said, noting he joined mostly for the fellowship.

He held several positions at the club, including almost two decades as treasurer, and he also served as district secretary for the Freemasons. He was also Master of the Mercer Lodge in 1955, when Carter became a member.

Carter, born in the Toronto area in 1922, was also a farmer for many years in former West Garafraxa Township. He served seven years on council there, including one as reeve, and later served two terms on Fergus council, prior to amalgamation in 1999.

Carter, who also worked as a property assessor for 23 years, was interested in Freemasonry at a young age, after his father expressed interest in joining.

“He encouraged me,” said Carter, who also had several friends at the lodge.

“I thought it was an interesting organization. I had heard a little about it.”

Looking back on over 120 years of combined membership as Freemasons, both men cite the opening of the new Mercer Lodge on St. Andrew Street in Fergus as a major accomplishment.

“You could hardly get in the lodge,” Carter said of the 1961 official opening.

Almost 270 attended that ceremony, which included the dedication of the hall by past Grand Master Harry Martin.

Carter, who was Master of the Mercer Lodge the year of the opening, said rising rent and three flights of stairs at the lodge’s previous home (above a hardware store at the corner of St. Andrew and St. David Streets) necessitated the purchase of a new home.

Much of the work on the new building was completed by local Freemasons, including one contractor who helped in excavation and laying the foundation. Thanks to the help of members, the total cost for the lodge was a modest $22,000, said Carter.

He and Beattie shared several laughs as they recalled the good times they’ve had through Freemasonry over the years.

The pair, who first met  on a softball field as youths, have a remarkable amount in common. Both were one of two children (with one sister), both grew up close to Fergus, and both were farmers and never married.

And, not surprisingly, both highly recommend joining Freemasonry to any local men with an interest in doing so.

“I was never sorry [I joined],” said Beattie.

Carter agreed. “That was a common phrase - ‘you’ll never be sorry’.”

For more information on Freemasonry in Ontario visit http://grandlodge.on.ca.

 

December 9, 2011

 
 

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