Lifting the veil of secrecy
By JOSH BERNSTEIN
Freemasonry has been a puzzle to many for centuries.
On the one hand, its temples often are among a city's most beautiful structures. The organization's philanthropy is obvious through its Shriners hospitals, Masonic retirement homes and student scholarships.
But what goes on inside the temple walls has remained closed to the general public. Secret handshakes, strange sy-mbols and unusual rituals have given Masonry an aura of mystery.
In New Jersey, the Masons are lifting the veil of secrecy, if just a little.
The Burlington Township-based Grand Lodge of New Jersey has launched a public-relations campaign to entice men into becoming Free and Accepted Masons and let others know the organization does more than operate retirement homes and hospitals.
Masons donate equipment to firefighters and food baskets to military personnel. They raise money for needy and disabled children through walkathons and golf tournaments. The Medford lodge, for example, last year raised money for The ARC of Burlington County, an association that serves people with developmental disabilities, and helped organize the town's Halloween parade.
On March 19, the New Jersey Masons will hold one-day classes at five lodges statewide, including at the Burlington Township headquarters off Oxmead Road.
The Masons have promoted the classes with newspaper advertisements and trailers in movie theaters.
"What we're doing is educating the public about Free-masonry. We've always had the tradition of being a secret society," said state Grand Master Daniel Wilson, who lives in Hamilton Square, Mercer County. "It really isn't. Our name and symbols are on buildings all over the world."
The one-day class will reveal the meaning of some of the symbols such as the square and compass, the apron-like vestment worn by members and the letter "G" surrounded by the rays of the sun.
It seems that many of Masonry's secrets are becoming, well, less secret these days.
Both the popular book "The Da Vinci Code" and the movie "National Treasure" use Masonry's lore to advance their plots. Both use the organization's storied link with the Knights Templar, the Christian crusaders who, according to legend, possessed the Holy Grail and vast wealth.
Masons themselves don't know who formed their group, but most scholars believe it rose from the guilds of stonemasons who built the European cathedrals and castles during the Middle Ages.
In "National Treasure," Mas-onic symbols such as the unfinished pyramid and all-seeing eye on the dollar bill were clues left behind by famous Masons like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin that led to the discovery of a vast treasure.
Wilson did not see the film, but said many aspects of Masonry remain private, like handshakes and recognition codes.
Peter DeStefano of Lumberton, former leader of the Medford lodge, saw "National Treasure" and said he believed it portrayed Masonry and its principles in a positive light.
"When you join the fraternal organization, there will be a lot of history you'll learn," he said.
Currently, there are about 32,000 Masons in New Jersey, down from a peak of 105,000 in the years after World War II. Burlington County has nine lodges: Beverly-Riverside, Bordentown City, Burlington Township, Maple Shade, Medford, Mount Holly, Pemberton Borough, Palmyra and Southampton.
Wilson said there has been a slow, steady decline since the 1940s, with members dying off at a faster pace than they could be replaced.
Besides the advanced age of its members, Masonry has suffered from its silence, Wilson said. Until now, the group did not discuss publicly its teachings or actively recruit members.
Rather, men had to ask to join, which could be difficult if a family member or friend was not a Mason.
Time has also played a factor in the decreased membership. Traditionally, it can take three to nine months to become a full member, or third-degree master mason.
"In the fast-paced society we live in, where in many cases both the husband and wife work, people don't have time for all the memorization and catechism that we are used to," Wilson said.
Memorization is not required in the one-day class. A mentor helps the candidate along.
"It (usually) takes some months to join," DeStefano said. "The Grand Lodge is taking one day. You can go in at 8 o'clock and (at day's end) become a third-degree mason."
Candidates cannot simply show up at a lodge March 19 and expect admission. They must submit an application by Jan. 31 and pay a $250 initiation fee. Then a three-member Masonic committee interviews the candidate and his wife at home.
"We encourage her to sit with her husband to answer any questions, so she's completely aware of what her husband is doing," said Douglas Policastro, a Toms River resident who is the Grand Lodge senior grand warden and a Masonic Home administrator.
Masons accept only men. Women can join two sister groups, Order of the Eastern Star and The Golden Chain.
Masons can be of any religion. The belief in a "supreme being" is the only requirement.
"We take great men of great moral character and make them better," said DeStefano, a Mason for seven years. "That's what our motto is."
Candidates also can join two related fraternities, the Scottish Rite, which runs clinics for childhood language disorders, and the Shriners, who are known for their children's hospitals.
Wilson said he hopes to increase membership statewide by 5 percent, or 1,600 men. He said Pennsylvania and Ohio had similar percentage increases during one-day classes.
Once in the Masons, a man is called a "brother" and is welcome at any lodge worldwide. He or a family member can retire to the Masonic Home in Burlington Township or be treated at a Shriners Hospital.
"Whenever I go anywhere, my apron goes with me," said Ray Bellini of Milford, Hunterdon County, the Grand Lodge secretary. "No matter where you go, you've got a friend or brother of like mind. It's great."
Source: Burlington County Times
January 9, 2005 6:31 AM
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