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NJ Masons chip away at secrecy to build ranks

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Courier Post - Southern New Jersey

Masons chip away at secrecy to build ranks

September 22, 2008

Courier-Post Staff

BURLINGTON TWP. It used to be that Freemasons would act as stealthy public servants, shunning the spotlight and sealing their lodges and secrets from those outside their brotherhood.

But statewide, the fraternity is suffering from decreased enrollment and has been forced to open up a bit.

Since 2000, the number of Freemasons in New Jersey has decreased by nearly 8,000 to 27,800.

In its heyday, after World War II, the fraternity had 110,000 members statewide because of postwar morale, said Douglas Policastro, administrator at the Masonic Home of New Jersey on Jacksonville Road here, which now provides health care to the general public.

Freemasonry, which grew from the stone gills of the Middle Ages, has a long history in this state.

New Jersey claims to have the first known Freemason in America, John Skene of Scotland, who settled in Burlington County in October 1682, according to Freemason historian Richard Mekenian, who joined the fraternity 27 years ago. Other foreign-born Freemasons, such as Andrew Robeson, followed Skene and settled in Greenwich, the 73-year-old Spring Lake resident said.

Daniel Coxe from Burlington County was the first provincial Grand Master Mason in America in 1730, governing Masons in the state under the auspices of the Grand Lodge in England where modern Freemasonry was founded in 1717, he added.

New Jersey's first local lodge, St. John's No. 1, opened in Newark in 1761, Mekenian said.

Freemasons of the state's 145 local lodges are men, 21 and older, of diverse careers and religions, living clean lives of service, said Mekenian.

Numbers have declined because some men have turned to different types of organizations while some have more than one job or take care of their children, Policastro said.

Freemasons are not allowed to solicit potential members. Instead, those interested must ask a Master Mason to join.

"However, now we're more open and say "Have you considered it? Here's a pamphlet,' " Policastro said. "We try to take good men and make them better."

To boost enrollment in 2004, the Freemasons started one-day classes at six locations statewide where men, 21 and older, could earn their three degrees to become Master Masons. Under normal scheduling, each degree takes one month.

"It didn't sacrifice the sacredness," Policastro said, and that year, 1,500 Freemasons were enrolled in a one-day class at a military base.

The availability of one-day classes is up to the Grand Master Mason or state Freemason governor. This year, they have not been available, Policastro said, in order to keep local lodges active and practicing rituals. There are 24 lodges in the tri-county area, which he said have remained steady throughout the decline.

Matthew Daubert, 25, of Lumberton hopes to join one of those lodges by earning his third degree at the end of October. The recent Rutgers-New Brunswick graduate hopes the Mount Holly lodge will give him a means for doing good things.

Daubert, who did his own research on Freemasonry after being intrigued by lunch discussions among Freemason co-workers at the Masonic Home, said earning his degrees has been challenging.

"There's a lot of learning and personal enlightenment. The traditions date back hundreds of years, and I can have a chance to give back exactly like Benjamin Franklin did as a Freemason in Pennsylvania," he said.

To attract members like Daubert, Policastro, Grand Master Mason in 2006, said the Freemasons decided 10 years ago to alter their approach and have a strong community outreach with publicized events.

"It used to be Masons would do good deeds and take no credit, like a secret society. Years ago, meetings and lodges were closed," he said. "Now, the public (is) invited to meetings when there are speakers or meetings to include public opinion. We do not want to be just a building on the corner."

To increase community presence, Policastro said, the Freemasons have publicized events like blood and food drives and increased their presence in child development, by becoming involved in the Boy Scouts of America and helping teachers at their established free children's dyslexia learning centers statewide in Burlington Township, Northfield, Scotch Plains and Newark.

Mekenian, governor at the dyslexia learning center in Burlington Township, said Freemasons offer college scholarships, donate hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to charities and sponsor the arts in Burlington Township and other towns.

To attract adolescents and encourage family membership, the Freemasons have auxiliary community service groups, the Rainbow Girls, for females ages 13 to 21, Eastern Star, for women 21 and older, and DeMolay, for boys 13 to 21.

Policastro said he hopes DeMolay, which has 800 members statewide, will continue to be a feeder into the Freemasons.

As for their secrets, Mekenian said the hype has been rather high. They have been romanticized in print or films like "National Treasure," he said, or divulged, like in the movie "The Man Who Would be King" that showed characters with an ancient Freemason symbol and tool, a stone compass and square.

Mekenian and Policastro cited passwords, handshakes and symbols as ways Freemason brothers worldwide connect and help or comfort each other if they are lost or afraid.

"We are not a secret society, but our private parts are modes of recognition and the way we confer our three degrees," Mekenian said. "The main reasons for secrets are to assure we have people of good moral character."

Reach Jeremy Rosen at (856) 486-2456 or [email protected]

Further Reading:

Travelling Men - Fraternal Associations