While the George Washington Masonic Lodge in Chambersburg, Pa., wasn’t the first lodge of the Free and Accepted Masons in Franklin County, it is the oldest and April 23, 2016, marks two centuries of service in the county.
Lodge No. 79
The first Masonic Lodge in the county was formed in 1800. General James Chambers, son of Chambersburg’s founder Benjamin Chambers, served as the Warrant Master. Over the next five years, the lodge met 54 times and then closed its doors, not having gotten a strong membership base.
This didn’t end Freemasonry in the county, though. Men continued to travel great distances to meet and fellowship at other lodges. However, the rigors of long travel for a relatively short meeting grows old quickly, and a group of men began petitioning for a new lodge to be formed in Chambersburg.
George Washington Lodge No. 143
In 1815, the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania acted favorably on the petition and issued a warrant on January 15, 1816, to George Washington Lodge No. 143. The lodge was constituted on April 23, 1816, and the Masons began meeting at various locations around the town.
“The meetings were first held in the Franklin County Courthouse, but that was considered an inconvenience,” Mike Marote, a member of the George Washington Lodge. Another location where the Masons met was Capt. George Coffey’s Inn, but no one is sure where that inn was located in town.
The Masons purchased land for their temple in April 1823 and Silas Harry, a bridge builder, set the work to build the temple for $2,500. The final structure was a two-story brick building that was 32 feet wide by 67 feet long. The foundation stone was laid on June 24, 1823, and the building was occupied on September 16 of the following year.
The 1830s saw a period where Masons were persecuted in the country and the George Washington Lodge decided on December 3, 1830, “to go dark” as Lodge Worshipful Master Kevin Hicks said. The charter was returned to the Grand Lodge in 1831, essentially disbanding the lodge, but the Masons still met quietly and out of the public eye.
During this time, the Masons didn’t own the temple and it was used as a church printing office. The lodge reconstituted itself in 1845, but it wasn’t until 1860 that the George Washington Lodge was able to repurchase the temple for $2,000.
The Burning of Chambersburg
When Confederate General Jubal Early demanded a ransom from Chambersburg in 1864, the people weren’t able to pay it. Early ordered the town burned and $1.7 million in property was lost in the resulting flames.
One area of the town was left untouched, though. The Masonic temple and the buildings in the half block area surrounding it were unscathed.
“Confederate soldiers were posted out front prevented other Confederate soldiers from burning the lodge,” Marote said.
The reason for this is that as the orders were being given to burn Chambersburg, an unnamed Confederate officer saw the lodge and took steps to save it. The surrounding buildings were also preserved because they were so close to the temple that if they had burned, they might have caught the temple on fire.
“Because the temple wasn’t being burned, women and children were able to take shelter inside,” Hicks added.
Since the officer was never identified, the story is considered a well-authenticated legend. Many of the other details have been verified and the half block around the temple was left untouched while the town burned around it.
While there is much fellowshipping among the Masons, there is also instruction. Masons learn various speeches, passwords, and signs to move through 33 different degrees. Hicks noted that a man becomes a Master Mason at the third degree, though.
“We are learning what I call moral lessons with allegories,” Hick said.
Though generally believed to be a Christian group, Masons include many faiths. The one requirement is that Masons must believe in a higher being. Each lodge has a book of faith on its central altar. The George Washington Lodge uses a Bible that is more than 100 years old, but other lodges can include a book of faith for the predominant religion of the lodge.
“Freemasonry is not a church,” Hicks said. “I look at it as a steady moral compass. You treat people like you want to be treated.”
Masons are involved in many civic activities and participates in parades and building dedications. They can be identified in full regalia that includes tuxedos, top hats, and aprons.
“We have a belief in working for the greater good and for the good of the community,” Hicks said.
Although the teachings are private matters for Masons, the public has occasionally been invited in to witness these meetings. The last time was in December 2014. It was so well received in the community that not only were all the seats in the meeting room filled, but 37 additional chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the crowd, according to Hicks.
Hicks would also like to open the temple up, on occasion, for artists to come in and use their time in the temple for inspiration for their art. He would then set up the social room as an art gallery where the artists could sell their works one evening.
Franklin County currently has three other Masonic Lodges: Acacia Lodge No. 586 in Waynesboro, Mount Pisgah Lodge No. 443 in Greencastle, and Orrstown Lodge No. 262 in Orrstown. A fourth lodge, Gen. James Chambers Lodge No. 801, has recently merged with the George Washington Lodge to make both lodges stronger.
The George Washington Lodge boasts a membership of around 800 Masons.
To celebrate its bicentennial year, the George Washington Lodge will have a luncheon and rededication of the cornerstone of the original lodge on August 23, 2016. Oddly enough, as of August 2015, the lodge was still unsure as to where the original cornerstone was located. They are hoping to find buried beneath the earth before the ceremony. There will also be an evening banquet at Green Grove Gardens in Greencastle. The Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania will be the featured speaker.
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