Behind its imposing limestone facade, the Masonic Memorial Temple at Sherbrooke and St-Marc Sts. seems as quiet as the tomb. What goes on behind the heavy bronze doors, flanked by twin columns surmounted by glass globes, representing the Earth and heavens? For the uninitiated, the Masons, with their secret handshakes and ceremonial aprons, are a mystery. Fiction writers and foes of freemasonry alike have spread lurid conspiracy theories about the fraternal order.
But there’s really nothing creepy about the brotherly do-gooders, past Quebec Grand Master John Leide assures a visitor. “We’re not a secret society, but a society with secrets,” says Leide, 69, a retired professor of librarianship at McGill University. The Masons will reveal some of their inner workings Saturday, when the downtown temple, also known as the Grand Lodge of Quebec, throws its doors open to the public for one day. Whether you’re a history buff, a lover of fine architecture or just plain curious, here’s your chance to discover some of the legends and lore lurking in this local landmark. “The Masons at the very bottom are a self-improvement association,” says Leide, a Wisconsin native who moved to Montreal in 1980 and became a Mason in 1988, following in his father’s footsteps.
Women are still barred from most Masonic lodges, but the movement was ahead of its time in welcoming members from “all Nations, Tongues, Kindreds and Languages,” according to a Masonic guidebook published in 1723. The movement has a long history of promoting free thinking, education and the separation of church and state. “It is a place where men of goodwill can come together,” Leide says.
“We don’t discuss politics and we don’t discuss religion in our lodges,” he adds. Masons must be at least 21 years old, have sound judgment and strong morals and believe in a supreme being. “It’s not religious but it’s spiritual,” Leide says. Benevolence is a major focus. The Masons’ best-known contribution to Montreal is the Shriners Hospital for Children on Cedar Ave., built in 1925. In September, the Masons will lay the cornerstone for a new, $127-million Shriners Hospital on the McGill University Hospital Centre site.
Shriners, officially called the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, are known for their red fezzes, colourful parades and the Shriners circus. But they are just one branch of freemasonry. “All Shriners are Masons. Not all Masons are Shriners,” Leide says. Other Masonic groups have also played an important role in the city’s history. Back in 1821, local Masons laid the cornerstone of the original Montreal General Hospital. The hospital’s first president was John Richardson, a prominent Mason, merchant and founder of the Bank of Montreal. One of the murals adorning the temple’s memorial hall depicts Masons laying the cornerstone of the hospital’s Richardson wing in 1831, the year Richardson died.
Today, Masons raise funds for many worthy causes, including women’s shelters, meals on wheels and street youth. They provide grants for research on cancer, dyslexia, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and brittle bone disease. Many of Montreal’s early movers and shakers were Masons, including brewer John Molson, Loyalist leader Sir John Johnson, fur-trader Simon MacGillivray, merchant Peter McGill and McGill University’s first dean of law, William Badgley. Six prime ministers, including Sir John A. Macdonald and John Diefenbaker, were Freemasons. Mayor Michael Applebaum is a member. Other famous Canadian Masons include Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard; Six Nations Chief Joseph Brant; department-store magnate John Craig Eaton; engineer Sir Sanford Fleming, who invented standard time; poet Robert Service; and hockey legend Tim Horton.
Generals Wolfe and Montcalm, who died on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, were both Masons, as were Mozart, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. “You’re perfectly free to tell people you’re a Mason, but you never out anyone else,” Leide says. That’s because revealing someone’s Masonic status could put that person in danger in societies where the movement is banned. Freemasonry traces its roots to the Middle Ages, when stonemasons formed guilds that jealously guarded the secrets of their craft. But the movement as we know it really emerged in London in 1717, with the founding of the society of Free and Accepted Masons. In the 19th century, the Catholic Church in Quebec waged an unremitting war against freemasonry, which it labelled the “synagogue of Satan.” Catholics and Southern Baptists are among religious groups that still condemn freemasonry.
Classified as both a national and provincial historic site, the Montreal Memorial Temple is the last major metropolitan Masonic temple in Canada still operating in its historic building, said Natalie Smith, the temple’s restoration architect.
Built in 1929 according to plans by architect John Smith Archibald, the 50,000-square-foot classical Greek temple is reminiscent of a mausoleum, with its almost windowless facade. Archibald also designed the original Montreal Forum, St. Mary’s Hospital and Baron Byng High School. The temple commemorates Masons who died in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. “To build a building of this complexity today would be unthinkable,” says Smith, who got involved in restoring the temple 10 years ago, after moving back to her native Montreal from Victoria, B.C. She has worked on obtaining heritage status for the building, replacing its leaky roof, repairing masonry and restoring the magnificent front doors.
It has served as a movie set in films like the Sum of all Fears and Get Smart, and part of the building is occupied by a catering business and a daycare centre. “What we would like is to rent out the space year-round,” says Smith, who is now working on plans to install air conditioning, since the building’s original climate-control system conked out decades ago. Provincial membership in the Masons is 4,000, down from a high of 18,000 after the Second World War, Leide said. The Quebec Grand Lodge includes 74 lodges in nine districts, from the Gaspé to Shawville in western Quebec. “There’s a renewed interest” in freemasonry, Leide says, noting that a new lodge opened last year in Sherbrooke.
But attracting younger Masons is an ongoing challenge, with the average age in Quebec lodges in the late 50s or early 60s, he said. “There are many more demands on people’s time than in the past,” he says. While the temple’s dining rooms and hallways have natural light, the meeting halls are windowless, ensuring that no peering eyes or ears can discover the secrets that unfold within. The doors have knockers on both sides, used for secret signals. “Our lodge rooms generally do not have windows because it’s a refuge and retreat from the world. It’s a time to get your batteries recharged and get ready to go out and do good works in the community,” Leide says.
Like the sanctum sanctorum (holy of holies) in King Solomon’s temple — a central symbol in freemasonry — the lodge is a safe haven from the bustle of daily life, he said. “It’s a sacred space set apart from the world.”
(source: By Marian Scott, The Montreal Gazette, http://www.montrealgazette.com/Masons+reveal+some+their+inner+workings/8402749/story.html#ixzz2TccnbHB9