New Brunswick·Feature

Saint John 'secret society' opens doors for rare glimpse

Pentagrams. Swords. Secret codes. What's inside the Grand Lodge of New Brunswick?

The Grand Lodge of New Brunswick marked its 150th anniversary this year

For a secret society, the Masons aren't much of a secret. The organization has been implicated in conspiracy theories, featured in Dan Brown's best-selling The Da Vinci Code and parodied on The Simpsons. (Who could forget the catchy Stonecutter's anthem, We Do?) 

For more than a century, the Masons have also included in their membership a who's who of politicians, celebrities, and powerful men ranging from Sir John A. Macdonald and John Diefenbaker to Tim Horton, Mozart, and John Wayne, as well as numerous notable New Brunswickers. 

This year, the Masonic Grand Lodge of New Brunswick marked 150 years in Saint John. 

The sprawling temple on Germain Street, completed in 1881, houses grand meeting rooms, antique furnishings, and a wealth of symbolism incorporated into its design. It's one of the oldest Masonic lodges in Atlantic Canada — but since the rules of freemasonry prohibit soliciting new members, and public events are rare, what's inside has remained a mystery to non-members. 

Mason Doug Mayes remembers walking through the temple doors the first time.

"I was a little worried when I first showed up," Mayes said. "But when I saw a member of the clergy going in with a collar around his neck, I thought, it can't be that bad. 

"We're just regular people. We eat, we socialize, we drink wine."

In honour of the Grand Lodge of New Brunswick's 150th anniversary, CBC reporter Julia Wright went inside the little-seen interior of Saint John's Masonic Temple and took these photos. 

The grand Germain Street entrance to the Masonic Temple in Saint John, where the members range in age from their early twenties to their nineties, according to Mason Doug Mayes. Membership has decreased dramatically in recent decades, from 4,507 in 2002 to just 2,659 in 2016. 'We had more members back then, there’s no question about that,' said Mayes. 'Long before the social welfare net, we looked after widows and orphans. A lot of people would join so that their wife and children would be taken care of. With the social network we have today, that’s no longer a priority.' This four-storey brick building was built after Saint John's Great Fire of 1877 destroyed the original temple. The lodge hosts meetings for six smaller lodges. 'If you look up the definition of a fraternity, it’s not like a fraternity at university,' said Mayes. Similar fraternal orders like the Elks and Oddfellows, once numerous in New Brunswick Saint John, have dwindled so severely that they 'are very, very hard to even find out anything about. We’re the largest and the oldest.' (Julia Wright / CBC)
Masonic symbols, like the square and compass pictured, are incorporated into the architecture of the Grand Lodge of New Brunswick. The square and compass are intended to symbolize how men should behave. 'The square, to square our actions; the compasses, to circumscribe and keep us within bounds with all mankind,' according to the Masonic handbook. Many of the doors at the Saint John temple are equipped with knockers and other means to ensure the goings-on inside remain undisturbed. 'Do we have any secrets here? We do,' said Mayes. 'Not that people can’t go out and tell people what they are as soon as they get them — but they don’t. Because they gave their word.' (Julia Wright / CBC)
A mural on the wall of the Luxor Shrine, a Shriners meeting room named after the Luxor Temple in Ancient Egypt. The Shriners — a charitable society founded in the U.S. in 1872 — are a spinoff from Freemasonry with a self-declared focus on fun and philanthropy. When a Mason completes his third and final degree and becomes a master Mason, he also becomes eligible to become a Shriner. (Julia Wright / CBC)
The Blue Room of the Grand Lodge of New Brunswick includes a pipe organ, ornate carved chairs, and portraits of former Master and Grand Master Masons. "It's one of the nicest lodge rooms in eastern Canada and I’ve been in ones in Montreal, Boston, Philadelphia and the like," said Mayes. "I couldn’t believe it. I was like 'wow, I’ve been walking up and down Germain Street my whole entire life and I never knew it was there.'" In the Blue Lodge, Masons can receive three "degrees" which represent the three stages of life: youth, manhood, and age. After achieving these, they can take further degrees, including the Scottish Rite or York Rite, by memorizing information and participating in question-and-answer rituals. (Julia Wright / CBC)
An illustration of the Masonic Temple in 1878. On Jan. 26, 1929, fire all but destroyed the building, including the copper mansard roof, pictured, on the Trinity Church side, which added a storey to the building. The Evening Times-Globe of Jan. 26 wrote that 'nothing [was] left but the brick skeleton and inside it a smouldering inferno.' The masons, appropriately, rebuilt the structure and resumed meetings there in 1930. (Julia Wright / CBC)
A gold-tasselled, embroidered bookmark tucked in a Bible bearing a Masonic square and compass. The Bible is regularly used in masonic ceremonies, according to Mayes. 'We’re not in competition with church,' he said. 'As a matter of fact, there are a lot of clergy who are Masons. You just have to believe in a supreme being.' In other Masonic traditions, including the Grand Orient de France, a belief in God is not required to become a member. (Julia Wright / CBC)
A photograph depicting a 'Lodge of Sorrow' at the Grand Lodge of New Brunswick in 1910. According to the book Freemasonry and its Etiquette, a Lodge of Sorrow takes place after the passing of a brother mason. The room is draped in black, candles are lit, and the deceased mason's regalia is displayed. (Julia Wright / CBC)
A pile of Masonic aprons lies outside the meeting room in the Grand Lodge. 'The stonemasons kept their trade a secret so that not everyone could copy it,' said Mayes. 'Back in those days, when they were doing stonework, they used their aprons to lift the bricks or stone in them and carry them to the job site.' Today, masons aprons differ in colour, depending on the mason's rank, and are worn when the lodge is in session. The equilateral triangle made by the upper flap is intended to symbolize past, present and future. (Julia Wright / CBC)
Once a man becomes a Mason, he remain a Mason for life, according to Mayes. 'We don’t use the word quit.' In some cases, that bond has continued even after death. Here, a roster posted in the Masonic Temple shows members who have been interred in the Masonic plot in Fernhill Cemetery. Many other members not buried in the Masonic plot have their gravestones adorned with the square and compass and other Masonic symbols. (Julia Wright / CBC)
Antique cameras sit with a pile of top hats and projection equipment outside a meeting room. At the Grand Lodge of New Brunswick, Mayes said, the top hat is a mark of the rank of master Mason. 'Each lodge has a master: there are about 37 masters," he said. Upon arriving for the meeting, they're invited to don one of the communal top hats before proceeding — although some master Masons bring their own. (Julia Wright / CBC)
The Red Room, draped in heavy red velvet with pink walls, is used for Scottish Rite Masonry and other additional degrees that can be achieved by master Masons in good standing. After a Mason achieves the first three degrees in the Blue Lodge, he can proceed to so-called 'red degrees.' (Julia Wright / CBC)
The two stone blocks — one rough-hewn, the other polished — that adorn each of the three meeting rooms in the Masonic Temple. Stone masons would take the uncut rock and 'with their working tools they would trim the stone up and make it a perfect fit," Mayes explained. 'In a symbolic sense, we are making good men better. It’s symbolic that when a man comes in he’s the rough stone [to the left], and when he becomes a Mason and follows our morality code, he should become a better man.' (Julia Wright / CBC)
Hidden throughout the building are many small signs and symbols of Masonic craft, including the square-and-compass motif that adorns these plaster archways. (Julia Wright / CBC)
Swords, like the one mounted at the door of the Blue Room, play an important symbolic role. Before meetings, a person known as a Tiler (or Tyler) stands at the front door of the lodge with a sword in hand, symbolizing the need for members to be 'ever watchful and guarded in our words and actions, particularly when before the enemies of Masonry, ever bearing in remembrance those truly Masonic virtues, silence and circumspection,' according to The Freemason's Manual. (Julia Wright / CBC)
A portrait, electric candle and ionic columns in the Temple testify to its lengthy 150-year history, but the Masons in New Brunswick go back even further than that. The province's first lodge, called Hiram Lodge, was formed by a group of Loyalist masons in Saint John in 1784. The Grand Lodge of New Brunswick followed in 1867, the same year Sir John A. Macdonald, a noted Mason, became the country's first prime minister. (Julia Wright / CBC)
A green corridor in the Masonic Temple: some of these rooms see less traffic as years pass. According to Mayes, the organization's prohibition against soliciting new members can make it difficult to spread the word about the philanthropic and community work they do. "When I joined I didn’t know anything about it. I joined because I was curious," said Mayes. "Then I was impressed by the people that were here, the people that they are. You can pick and choose which meetings you go to, but don’t be a member and never go, because then you lose that attachment to it." (Julia Wright / CBC)
A Star of David with a downward-pointing arrow, fashioned out of metal, adorns the door of the Red Room. A small, latched porthole allows members to observe who is on the other side of the door before admitting them to the meeting room. (Julia Wright / CBC)
A gavel sits on a pedestal in the Blue Room. "We don’t want to be a secret in terms of who we are and what we try to do," said Mayes. "You can see all sorts of information on freemasonry on the internet but you can’t be sure which is right or wrong. You have to come and see for yourself." (Julia Wright / CBC)
An inlaid wooden box with the motto 'Let there be light' and the Masonic motif of the square and compass presented to the Grand Lodge by member J.W. Duncan. The term 'craft' or 'the craft' refers to the journey of Freemasons. Every member starts in the 'craft' by being initiated, passed and raised into the three degrees of craft Masonry, which is also known as Blue Lodge Masonry. (Julia Wright / CBC)
With a dwindling membership worldwide, some Masonic temples are increasingly opening their doors to the public. "We have companies come in for Christmas parties, we hire a caterer and people can use the space and we can make money," said Mayes, adding that the heating bill for the nineteenth century building is "quite high." While other hobbies and interests have outpaced Freemasonry and a pastime in 2017, anyone interested in becoming a Mason is welcome, Mayes said, to come to the lodge and check it out. "I don’t think freemasonry will ever die," said Mayes. "It may get smaller. But the teachings are relevant no matter what happens." (Julia Wright / CBC)