In the midst of the late-'80s baseball card craze, my kids excitedly told me about a baseball card show downtown. I jumped at the chance to go, not because of the baseball cards, but because the show was in the Masonic Temple, the mysterious redoubt of the legendary Masons.
I didn't know much about the Masons other than the tantalizing fodder from novels and movies -- secret rituals, ancient alliances, sinister plots for world domination and the like. If buying a few baseball cards could get me closer to the Masons, I was up for it.
The card show was set up in a nondescript all-purpose room on the ground floor, affording no clues of Masonic activity (whatever that was). I then overheard someone saying that the actual meeting room was upstairs. Aha! The inner sanctum was at the top of the stairs, but it was closed to the public. What was up there? The mystique lived on.
Twenty-five years later, I climbed those stairs into the world of the Masons.
It turns out that 2012 is the 250th anniversary of the founding of Masonry (or Freemasonry, if you prefer) in the Bridgeport-Fairfield area. It also turns out that the members of the Fidelity-St. John's No. 3 Lodge are a regular bunch of guys, and very unlikely to be concealing mystical secrets that will bring about a New World Order.
The goals of Masonic fraternity are both public and commendable and include character development, good citizenship, personal responsibility and community involvement. The basic requirements of membership are being of legal age, typically 18; being male; and professing belief in a Supreme Being. The Masons use the all-inclusive term "Grand Architect of the Universe," which covers, in theory, all monotheistic faith traditions.
The Masons are the oldest fraternal organization in the world, and arguably the best-known. Is there anyone who would not recognize the Mason's logo, the square-and-compass? Their origins are a matter of controversy, but most authorities trace them back to medieval guilds of stone masons who constructed the great European cathedrals and castles. The close-knit guild members shared their knowledge of masonry, but also, with the rise of the Enlightenment, sought to foster moral and intellectual development. This aspect attracted more and more non-stonemasons to Freemasonry.
Masonic traditions and practices became formalized on June 24, 1717, when members of four London lodges met at the Goose and Gridiron Tavern to create the Grand Lodge of England. From this lodge sprang the current worldwide network of Grand Lodges representing over 6 million members. By 1730, Masonic lodges were in evidence in the colonies. American Masons include several Founders, presidents, and other notables. The Fairfield lodge traces its roots to 1762, in what is now Bridgeport. The current Masonic Temple at 131 Beach Road was built in 1950.
Want to be a Mason? If you're of legal age, male, and profess belief in a supreme being, you've met the basic requirements. There are then three degrees of study leading to Master Mason, and after additional study and unanimous acceptance by the lodge, you become a full-fledged Mason.
The degree work is considered secret, and members-only ceremonies are typically not discussed outside the fraternity. The most closely-held Masonic secrets are "modes of recognition," signs that will identify you as a member to other Masons.
So, did it take a daring break-in or a nifty disguise to get upstairs to the Masonic Temple's inner sanctum?
Regrettably, no. I gained entry with about 50 members of the public on the occasion of the Lodge's annual awards presentation. My 25-year mystery ended in a large room that was neither palatial nor mystical but still a definite departure from your average meeting place.
Three rows of theater seating faced each other along two walls, the other two walls taken up with main and secondary stages. This left a large, blue-carpeted central space, occupied only by an altar with a large King James Bible. Several paintings of Masonic significance hung on the walls, as did the original 1762 charter. A glass case in one corner held the wooden chair of the first lodge Worshipful Master. The current Worshipful Master sits on a throne-like chair on the main stage.
The meeting itself honored Masons with memberships as long as 50 years, a Boy Scout who attained Eagle status, and Masons who have had long associations with scouting (the Boy Scouts were founded in 1910 by three Masons). Even this public meeting was laced with Masonic titles, terminology, special attire, and ritual quirks that were as fascinating as they were unfamiliar.
The local lodge gets regularly involved with community issues, including support of the superb Masonicare long-term care facility in Wallingford, and CHIP, a state law-enforcement database to identify children in emergencies later in life.
There's a lot of inaccurate, if not poisonous, material out there about the Masons, but as far as I can tell, the Fairfield Lodge has produced good citizens and neighbors for 250 years, and it's there for all to see. Except for the secret handshake.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at: email@example.com.