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Twenty years ago, Douglas E. Connell was helping restore a classic car for former Glocester Police Chief Jamie Hainsworth when he happened to notice Hainsworth wearing a ring with a curious symbol: a square and compass joined together with each leg of the compass pointing in opposite directions and the letter G in the center.
"It was a very distinctive ring that had this interesting emblem. It really caught my attention," says Connell, 63, of Woonsocket.
Oddly enough, it was during another car restoration job a short time later that Connell would see that same emblem again. "This other gentleman was wearing a similar ring so I started talking to him to about what it all meant."
What he soon learned was that the square and compass is the single most universally identifiable symbol of Freemasonry and recalls the fraternity's early symbolic roots in stone-masonry.
Intrigued, Connell did some research and learned that Feemasonry was a world-wide fraternity that emphasized many of the same principals and ideals that were important to him. He also learned that Woonsocket had its own Masonic lodge, Morning Star No. 13 on Clinton Street, so he petitioned the lodge to become a Mason.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Connell is the newley-elected Most Worshipful Grand Master of Masons for the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, or more simply, the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island â€” the 141-year-old governing body for all Freemasons in Rhode Island.
Connell, a past Deputy Grand Master, Junior Grand Master, Senior Grand Warden and District Deputy for the Grand Lodge, as well as a past Master for his mother-lodge, Morning Star No. 13, was elected to the top state lodge position in November and will be formally installed in a ceremony to be held May 21.
Freemasonry, sometimes just called Masonry, is the world's oldest and largest fraternal organization and arose from obscure origins in the late 16th to early 17th century. Freemasonry now exists in various forms all over the world, with a membership estimated at around six million, including approximately 150,000 under the jurisdictions of the Grand Lodge of Scotland and Grand Lodge of Ireland; over a quarter of a million under the jurisdiction of the United Grand Lodge of England; and just under two million in the United States.
Over the years, historians have never been able to conclusively determine exactly when, where, how, and why Freemasonry was formed.
The order is thought to have arisen from the English and Scottish guilds of practicing stonemasons and cathedral builders in the Middle Ages. Certain Masonic documents actually trace the sciences of geometry and masonry to the time of ancient Egypt, and some historians say that Masonry has its real roots in antiquity.
The formation of the first Grand Lodge in London in 1717 marks the beginning of the modern or "speculative" era of Freemasonry, when members were no longer limited to actual working stonemasons. These "Accepted" Masons adopted more enlightened philosophies, and turned what was a tradesmen's organization into a fraternity for moral edification, intellectual recitation, benevolent service, and gentlemanly socialization.
Over the centuries, Freemasonry has developed into a world-wide fraternity emphasizing personal study, self-improvement, and social betterment via individual involvement and philanthropy. During the late 1700s, it was one of the organizations most responsible for spreading the ideals of the Enlightenment: the dignity of man and the liberty of the individual; the right of all persons to worship as they choose; the formation of democratic governments; and the importance of public education.
Freemasonry became very popular in Colonial America. George Washington was a Mason, and Benjamin Franklin served as the head of the fraternity in Pennsylvania, as did Paul Revere and Joseph Warren in Massachusetts. Other well known Masons involved with the founding of America included John Hancock, John Sullivan, Lafayette, Baron Fredrick von Stuben, Nathanael Greene, and John Paul Jones. Another Mason, Chief Justice John Marshall, shaped the Supreme Court into its present form.
To become a Mason you must be a male 18 years of age or older; believe in a Supreme Being; and have a good reputation in the community. Freemasons are fond of saying that "to be one, you must ask one."
$2 Million a Day
Masonic principles teach the value of relief (charity), and Freemasons give more than $2 million a day to charitable causes, along with countless man hours. More than 70 percent of these donations support the general public. Among their works are the Shriners Hospitals for Children, with 22 sites throughout North America that include world renowned burn centers and orthopedic facilities; almost 225 Learning Centers that help children with dyslexia, speech and hearing disorders; the Masonic Youth Child Identification Program (MYCHIP), and the Masonic Angel Foundation, providing assistance to children and adults in local communities who do not fit the criteria for usual social services.
Throughout America and the world, there are numerous other worthy causes and groups that local lodges contribute to and help in their communities â€” things like helping a widow pay her electric bill or buying coats and shoes for disadvantaged children.
The basic organizational unit of the fraternity is the lodge. Each lodge is headed by an officer called the "Worshipful Master." The term comes from the judicial system of England and carries no religious implication. Each officer of a lodge has a title that originated during the Middle Ages. These titles may vary somewhat from state to state, but in general the officers and their contemporary equivalents are worshipful master, senior warden, junior warden, treasurer and secretary.
Until 1717, each lodge of Masons was autonomous. On June 24, 1717, four of the lodges operating in London met together to form the first Grand Lodge of England. It became the first administrative or policymaking body of Freemasonry.
Masonic lodges still retain autonomy over their finances, activities, officer election, fundraising, and joining ceremonies. But administratively, each state or province has a Grand Lodge which coordinates activities, serves as a central source of record keeping, and performs other administrative and policy functions for the fraternity. The state president is called the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge. He has broad powers in overseeing the progress of the fraternity and while there is no national spokesperson for the fraternity, within his own state jurisdiction he is the chief spokesman.
"The Grand Master is kind of like the president of the corporation, the CEO, if you will, of the Grand Lodge, which represents all the fraternal lodges throughout the state" explains Connell, whose tenure as Rhode Island's Grand Master of the Grand Lodge will run one-year.
Over the last three centuries, Freemasons have been accused of everything from conspiring with extraterrestrials to practicing sexual deviancy to engaging in occult rituals to running the world â€” or trying to end it. Detractors include global conspiracy theorists and religious organizations, including the Catholic Church.
"There have been all sorts of myths, misconceptions and conspiracy theories about Freemasonry for years," says Wyman P. Halstrom Jr. of Pawtucket, a past Grand Master for the Grand Lodge who now serves as Grand Secretary. "Rumors like these probably arose because of some of the secretive aspects of the society, but in reality, most Masons are respected members of the community who donate a lot of time and money to charitable causes."
Contrary to some beliefs, Freemasonry is not a secret society, says Halstrom, adding that purported Masonic "secrets" were made public several centuries ago in London newspapers, and today can be found in the Library of Congress, on the Internet, and in the many books on the subject.
While Freemasonry has often been called a "secret society," Freemasons themselves argue that it is more correct to say that it is an esoteric society, in that certain aspects are private. The most common phrasing is that Freemasonry has, in the 21st century, become less a secret society and more of a "society with secrets." The private aspects of modern Freemasonry, says Halstrom, are the modes of recognition amongst members and particular elements within the ritual.
"If you're coming to Freemasonry looking for 'national treasures' or 'book of secrets,' you're not going to find it here," quips Halstrom, 67, a Freemason since 1983.
Perhaps the biggest misconception, he says, is that Masonry is a religion. "It is not a religion. We're an organization made up of men who are religious."
And because it is open to all men who believe in a Supreme Being, Halstrom says, it is one of the few platforms where men of all faiths â€” Christians (including Catholics), Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus â€” can come together.
"When you're the biggest and the best, people talk about it," adds Connell. "Neither are we a religion nor are we a secret society. What we do, actually, is encourage a man to become all he can be and to be a better person in his community."
Rhode Island Freemasonry
There are 24 Masonic lodges in Rhode Island with an estimated 3,400 members. The lodges are broken up into five geographical districts, including the Metro, East Bay, Northern, Central and Southern Districts.
The Northern District includes Morning Star No. 13 in Woonsocket; Mount Moriah No. 8 in Lincoln; Lafayette Lodge No. 47 in Cumberland; Friendship No. 7 in Glocester; and Roger Williams No. 13 in East Providence.
The Metro District includes Jenks No. 24 in Pawtucket; Redwood Lodge No. 35 in East Providence; and Rising Son No. 30 in East Providence.
Last year, the Rhode Island Masonic community doled out approximately $245,000 in scholarships to students throughout the state, as well as financial contributions to local charitable causes such as The Call's Milk Fund and Times' Merry Christmas Fund Appeals.
The state's Freemasons have also been involved for many years in the Masonic Child Identification Program known as CHIP, a charitable initiative by North American Masonic lodges to aid in the identification and recovery of missing children.
The CHIP program, which has been held annually at Woonsocket's Autumnfest celebration, among other places, allows parents the opportunity to create a kit of identifying materials for their child, free of charge.
CHIP programs are supported monetarily at the Grand Lodge level, and are staffed by volunteers from subordinate lodges as well as law enforcement and dental professionals. The program has been lauded by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"This is one of our best-known charitable initiatives, but we do so much more," says Halstrom.
In addition to scholarships and the CHIP program, he says, the Grand Lodge maintains a facility in Warwick stocked with medical equipment ranging from wheelchairs to walkers. The equipment is donated to people who wouldn't be able to afford it otherwise.
"If someone is in need all they have to do is let us know and we'll deliver it," says Wyman.
There are several youth organizations sponsored or supported by the various Masonic organizations. The two largest and best known are The Order of DeMolay, an organization for young men aged 12 to 21, and The International Order of Rainbow for Girls, for young women aged 11 to 20.
Last year, Morning Star No. 13 in Woonsocket celebrated its 200th anniversary, and Jenks No. 24 in Pawtucket observed its Bicentennial in 2010.
With 160 members, the Woonsocket lodge has been located in its current building on Clinton Street for the past 83 years. The money used to build the lodge was raised by the Masons themselves, and more than 10,000 Masons would later parade down Clinton Street to celebrate the building's completion in 1929.
Woonsocket residents are well-versed in the fact that 151 years ago, then-presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln made a train journey from Providence to Woonsocket where he delivered one of his most significant speeches to a crowd of 1,500.
"What some people might not realize is that right after Lincoln gave his historic Cooper Union speech at Harris Hall, he attended a luncheon with the Masons," says Connell.
For years, Jenks No. 24 in Pawtucket, founded in 1866, was one of three Masonic lodges in Pawtucket, which also included the Freeman Lodge and the city's first lodge, Union Lodge (circa 1810). All three merged in 2001 under the name Jenks No. 24, named after Alvin Jenks, a prominent Central Falls businessman.
The Pawtucket Lodge awards scholarships and takes part in the CHIP program throughout the Blackstone Valley, as well as raises funds through the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life and various holiday drives.
Today, Jenks No. 24 boasts 300 members, says Tom M. Holton of Cumberland, who grew up in Pawtucket and joined the Masons in 2005 at the age of 24. He is also in his fourth year as a Shriner's clown.
Holton, elected Master of Jenks No. 24 in January, is the youngest person in the lodge's history to be elected master.
Holton's grandfather was a lifelong Freemason and Master of the Freeman Lodge in 1955. "I used to go to lodge meetings with him when I was a boy so my association with the Masons goes back a few years," he says.
When Holton became a Mason in 2005, he was the only candidate that year for membership. Last year, the lodge saw an increase of 18 new members.
Both Holton and Connell say books like "The DaVinci Code" and movies like "National Treasure" have brought up both new interest and renewed speculation about the nature of the Fraternity. Though these books and movies are a product more of a vivid imagination than fact, they say the best thing someone interested in Freemasonry can do is talk to another Freemason.
"Come to the lodge and meet some of the guys. It's the best way to learn about us," says Holton, a chemical engineer by trade.
"Young men today are very educated about Freemasonry," says Connell. "Certainly a lot more than I was when I first saw that symbol on a ring 20 years ago. When these young guys approach us at our open houses they already have a broad knowledge of what Freemasons are all about so in that respect the Internet and the books and movies â€” to a degree â€” have helped."
"But I really encourage any young man who is inquisitive about Freemasonry to go to their local lodge and ask about it," he says. "If you're looking for a fraternal society that espouses the core values of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice, and supports people in the community, then there is no greater group of men than the Masons."