Right or wrong, the Freemasons are sometimes stereotyped as a closed group, characterized by secrecy and backroom power brokering. But when you come upon the massive Memorial Masonic Grand Lodge Temple in downtown Waco, it's hard to imagine the fraternal organization as a group of shrinking violets.
I lived in Waco for a year in the mid-2000s while working as a reporter for the Waco Tribune-Herald. The job required that I cover a lot of local ground, and although I routinely passed by the Columbia Avenue lodge, I never had reason to visit. I decided to correct that oversight earlier this month during a swing through Waco. I discovered a fascinating facility with a wealth of interesting exhibits and artifacts, especially relating to Texas historyÂ and the Masonsâ€™ place in it.
When I visited on Friday morning, Barbara Mechell, the librarian and curator for the Masonic Grand Lodge Library and Museum of Texas, took some time to show me around the lodge and its museum. The Grand Lodge of Texas is open 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. Free tours are offered 9 a.m.-10 a.m. and 1 p.m.-2 p.m. Call 254/753-7395 for more information or to arrange tours for large groups.
Iâ€™m no expert on the Masons and wouldnâ€™t pretend to explain what theyâ€™re about. The organization keeps secret its rituals, but also publicly contributes to charitable causes, such as the Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston and the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas. â€œFreemasonry has developed into a worldwide fraternity which is comprised of members who are men of good character, who believe in a Supreme Being, and a life after death,â€ reads a description in the Grand Lodgeâ€™s concourse. â€œIts purpose is to strengthen the character of each member by providing opportunities for fellowship, charity, education and leadership.â€
The first thing you notice about the Grand Lodge Temple in Waco is its imposing limestone edifice, whichÂ bears various Masonic symbols and two large pillars topped by concrete spheres. The Grand Lodge of Texas constructed the current temple in 1949 and it serves as headquarters for the 849 local lodges throughout Texas. The building measures 134,380 square feet in area and 88 feet in eight.
I spent about an hour-and-a-half looking around the Grand Lodge with Barbara, and I could have spentÂ another few hours studying the various exhibits. (The majority of the lodge is not air-conditioned, making non-summer months the preferable time to visit.) Throughout the building, youâ€™ll learn about the history of Freemasonry and its roots in Texas dating to 1835. The Grand Lodge, which started out as the Republic of Texas Grand Lodge, boasted influential members from its beginning, including each of the four presidents of the Republic of Texas and 31 of the stateâ€™s governors.
In the Memorial Room, a colorful stained-glass window about 50 feet long bears the symbols of the Freemasons, such as the â€œall-seeing eyeâ€ that represents God and lit candles symbolic of enlightenment. The window was originally installed in the Grand Lodge temple built in Waco in 1903, and moved when the current Grand Lodge opened. The room also houses a United States flag that was flying over Hickam Field, next to Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
In the concourse area, youâ€™ll find the pictures of past Texas Masonic grandmasters, one per year since 1837. Thereâ€™s also a bronze statue of Anson Jones, the first grandmaster of the Texas Grand Lodge and last president of the Republic of Texas. Jones was one of the six Masons who met in Brazoria in March 1835 to petition the Louisiana Grand Lodge to charter a Texas lodge. He received the charter, and carried it during the Battle of San Jacinto.
A statue of Anson Jones in the Grand Lodge concourse.
The Grand Lodgeâ€™s impressive horseshoe-shaped auditorium seats 3,800 and hosts the annual state lodge convention during the first weekend of December. In the Hall of Presidents, plaques honor the 14 United States presidents that were Masons, from George Washington to Gerald Ford.
In the Republic of Texas Exhibit, the Masons display artifacts from Texas history, such as Stephen F. Austinâ€™s 1815 dues receipt from his Masonic lodge in Missouri; a lock of Sam Houstonâ€™s hair donated by his great-grandson; small wooden crosses whittled by Houston; and a metal Masonic jewel inscribed with the date 1798 that was excavated from 12 feet below the grounds of the Alamo in 1982.
Another room in the Republic Exhibit displays portraits of the Republic of Texas presidents and Texas state governors who were Masons, the most recent being Mark White. Thereâ€™s also an original playbill for the June 11, 1838, performance of The Hunchback, reportedly the first play presented after Texas gained its independenceâ€”and with President Sam Houston in attendance, no less. The year before, in 1837, Houston had presided over the organizational meeting to establish the Grand Lodge of the Republic of Texas.
The Grand Lodgeâ€™s main museum is located in the buildingâ€™s basement and features a wide range of exhibits. Some of the more notable artifacts are a terra cotta cone thatâ€™s more than 4,000 years old and served an architectural purpose similar to a modern-day cornerstone in a structure in the Lower Euphrates; a plaster death mask of Napoleon made by his physician, one of only three made; and a piece of the original carpet from Alexandria Masonic Lodge No. 22 in Virginia, where George Washington was a member.
The buildingâ€™s basement is also home to displays on Masonic charitable activities and a hallway that shows photographs of the 849 local Masonic lodges throughout Texas. The prevalence of the fraternal organization in Â towns all over the state underscores the remarkable reach and influence of the organization, which today has more than 84,000 members in the state. Given that prevalence, itâ€™s worth a visit to the Grand Lodge to try to get an idea of what the Texas Masons are about.