Masonry Past


Masonic Spring Workshop 1990  Part  One  I


Bro. Jack Collett


In Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, there is a well known speech by Jacques wherein he tries to explain to his distressed father the Duke, the ways of the world.  He says:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances:

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His Acts being seven ages.


Jacques goes on to outline those seven stages starting with the infant and ending with  old age:

Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion;

Sans teeth sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.


Human life does not progress through these various stages as smoothly as Shakespeare would have us think.  People get stuck at a certain stage and never progress.  There are individuals that never get out of their adolescence no matter how old they are.  Some don’t even get out of the whining schoolboy age.

Organizations are very much like the human being.  They start with a newness and an excess of energy and, normally should progress to maturity and wise old age.  So often organizations get stuck at one point of development and go no further.

The Masonic Order does not differ from human beings or from other organizations in this regard.  There is always the possibility of getting stranded at one stage of development and remaining there while the rest of society forges ahead to new concepts and exciting challenges.

Masonry came into Alberta when on January 13, 1882, the Grand Lodge of Manitoba granted a dispensation for Saskatchewan Lodge No. 17, G.R.M. to be established. This Lodge was instituted on February 13 of the same year and consecrated on April 21, 1882, with 13 members. Despite the Shakespearean model of development, Saskatchewan Lodge did not develop beyond infancy and the charter was surrendered on February 13, 1889.  Another start was made two years later when the Grand Lodge of Manitoba issued a dispensa tion to erect Bow River Lodge No. 28, G.R.M. on January 1, 1884.

In its infancy in Alberta, the Masonic Order grew very well.  There were no great problems.  With the influx of settlers more Lodges were organized. Many of them met monthly at the time of the full moon so that the members could have some light for their treks to the meetings and for their way home if their meetings did not last until the first light of the dawn.  It was a time when the Lodges met quietly and when fellowship was most essential to these pioneering folk who had little enough contact with othe r people.

Time moved on and the district of Alberta attracted more and more settlers.  The North West Mounted Police brought law and order to the western lands.  The Canadian Pacific Railway bound the country together with its bands of steel.  By the summer of 1905 there were eighteen Masonic Lodges operating in the district of Alberta.  The result was that the Grand Lodge of Alberta was established on October 12, 1905, just about one month after the Province of Alberta had come into existence.

Masonry in Alberta, following the Shakespearean model, moved into its adolescent period. It was one of great growth and of deep interest in the development of the Grand Lodge Constitution and the consecration of various Lodges. Even the First World War, 1914 - 1918, did not stop the expansion of the Masonic Order in Alberta.  Settlers poured in to northern areas and into many other parts of the Province.  At the conclusion of the Great War, the Grand Lodge of Alberta had 110 Lodges under its jurisdiction.

Masonry in Alberta continued to flourish in spite of the great depression of the thirties and World War Two which ended in Europe on May 7, 1945, and in the Far East on August 29, 1945.  Optimism was in the Alberta air because of economic prosperity, especially when the oil boom hit Alberta.  Despite the fact that there was a spirit of optimism in the province there were indications that instead of following Shakespeare and going immediately from adolescence into maturity, the Masonic order was in for a period non-development.  One Grand Master asserted that the Masonic Lodge “should be a factor in the life of the community.” Another Grand Master asserted that it was time for Freemasonry to set its house in order and he said this could not be done by “the weary occupation of how we can beat up a new enthusiasm,” but that it could be done by clarifying the goals for which the order stood.  Another Grand Master felt that Masonry should move out of it s tendency to shield itself from community life and proposed t hat the Grand Lodge organize a Boys’ Farm to reclaim delinquent adolescents.  Loss in membership caused some concern.  The Grand Lodge communication in 1966 heard of a decrease of 170 and the next year it was 180.  At the same time there were cries that the quality of applicants was decreasing.

When I was a newly ordained minister I was sent in 1938 to the small town of St. Paul in north eastern Alberta.  It was a largely Roman Catholic, French speaking area.  Most of the Protestants in town were transient, Bank employees, C.N.R. employees, R.C.M.P. and so forth.  A number of them were Masons.  Although most of them were faithful church members, to this day I do not know where the Masonic Hall was located.  I visited St. Alban’s Lodge 145 when I was Grand Master and no one could understand why I h ad not applied for membership while I was there. St. Alban’s did not survive.  It was constituted on July 29, 1926, and on July 7, 1973, it amalgamated with St. George’s Lodge No. 169 of Elk Point.

My next appointment was at Taber.  The Church Board there was made up almost completely of Masons.  The Secretary was an Anglican.  Each summer, he would come over to our house with flowers and vegetables for my wife.  At the same time he would enter into a very pleasant conversation with me.  Never once did the subject of Masonry come up.  When I visited there when I was Grand Master, they told me they could never understand why I did not apply for membership.  Doric Lodge constituted on July 10, 1908, but on May 4, 1979, Doric Lodge No. 31 amalgamated with Lucerne Lodge No. 159 and the Lodge meetings were moved from Taber to Vauxhall.

Then I moved to Claresholm.  Tuesday nights in Claresholm were Lodge night and no other meetings were ever scheduled for Tuesdays.  One day I became exasperated with this inflexible situation and I said to the Clerk of Session, “What in the world is so important about these Lodges that we all have to plan around what they claim is their special night.” He calmly asked me if I really wanted to know and I said, “You bet I do.” You see where that rather rash and hasty statement landed me.

In Claresholm, the barber was Bill McKenzie.  He was my coach.  As most of you know, I never boast about my ability as a ritualist. In fact there was one time when I was raising a candidate in the Third Degree I wandered off the track, but being accustomed to ad libbing, I continued on until the candidate was finally raised.  After the Lodge was closed a brother, very skilled, came over to me and said, “I want to compliment you on your work tonight.  It was done very well. Would you mind telling me what rite you were working in?” Bill was an excellent coach. I would go down to the barbershop and he could immediately, in the middle of the morning, pull down all the blinds and lock the door.  Then we would go at it with no book visible at all.  The members of the Lodge would go by the barbershop and say, “Well Bill’s at it with Collett again I wonder if he’ll ever make it.” We did make it, but it is a source of constant regret that Cairo Lodge today struggles f or its very existence.

One day, when I was Grand Master, I was in the Grand Lodge Office and the Grand Secretary, the late Ned Rivers, asked me if I would like to make a surprise visit to Picture Butte that night and I said yes.  So Ned got on the phone. We rounded up two carloads from Calgary. He telephoned Del McQueen, a Past Grand Master who lived in Vulcan, who arranged for another two carloads and the District Deputy of Lethbridge who arranged for several cars.  We arrived in Picture Butte after nightfall and had supper in a small cafe.  To my surprise, Ned was not sure where the Lodge Room was located.  We asked the waitress and she had never heard of the Masons, she knew about the Lions, the Knights of Columbus but not the Masons.  An R.C.M.P. constable was having a cup of coffee.  He couldn’t help.  We went outside and then saw a dim light a block away and decided that was the Lodge Room.  I have a distinct recollection of the Junior Warden on the telephone trying to persuade e his wife to make more sandwiches.  He said, “They’re coming by the carload from all directions.  We’ve got to do something.” The Master of the lodge survived the shock and received the party well.  The Lodge Room had never seen such a crowd and what a great evening it was.  The sorry part was that the Masonic Lodge was making no impact on the community as far as being a public presence was concerned.

The Masonic Spring Workshop started in my term as Grand Master when we decided to have a study session the Tuesday evening before the Grand Lodge sessions commenced. Those were the days when the brethren came into the city the night before Grand Lodge opened and were at loose ends for something to do in the evening.  The idea was prompted first of all by the conviction of many that we needed to talk informally about Masonry and also by a popular book that had been written by M.W.Bro. Dwight L. Smith, then Grand secretary of the Grand Lodge of Indiana, titled Whither Are We Traveling and an article, Why All the Confusion in the Temple. These works were attempts to study the wide-spread malaise that was beginning to affect Freemasonry.  Alberta was reporting a decline in membership, an alarming decrease in attendance and increasing talk about amalgamation or surrendering Charters.

That first evening at Mount Royal College was overwhelmingly successful.  We had such a large attendance that we were pressed to find rooms for the small groups to meet in for discussions.  This led to the proposal that Masons throughout Alberta should be given an opportunity to get together to discuss Masonry in an informal and unstructured way, not hampered by the formalities of Lodge meetings. We were fortunate to have Mel Dunford in the Grand Lodge Office as Assistant to the Grand Secretary. He had a background of experience with the United Church Men’s Conference that was held in Banff annually. After some discussion it was decided that we would attempt a Masonic Spring Workshop organized along the lines of the United Church effort.  It would be a tragedy if we did not pause here to pay a tribute to Mel Dunford who bore the brunt of the organization of the Workshop and acted as its secretary some fifteen years.

I can well remember the First Workshop.  The Banff School of Fine Arts was not organized to handle the large number of Masons who wanted to attend.  There were no large residence buildings.  When the Committee arrived two days early to set up the Workshop Mel was handed all the keys and told to assign rooms.  Somehow he had everything ready when the influx came. I suspect he went without sleep for at least one night.  Not only did we have a profitable time in discussions but we had a memorable social time a s well.  Jim Woods proved to be an efficient Parade Marshall, visiting rooms with the aid of a Piper to unheard of morning hours.  Of course, there were difficulties in the early years, but they were not sufficiently serious to mar the real purpose of the gathering.

The problem that Masonry was facing, if we follow our Shakespearean model was that Masonry had stalled in its growth and remained in its late adolescent years.  The craft was so bent on secrecy and self-examination that it was failing to make a meaningful impact on the community. It was not visible amongst the multitude of organizations in the community. The general public did not know what Masonry was and what it did. There were many amazing stories around about Masonic practices.  Even the members of the Masonic Order were not at all certain of their purpose.  Indeed it was a typical mixed up adolescent age. The basic problem is one common to all organizations which have a long history.

The organization has a purpose and a philosophy with which it starts.  It also exists within a society. The organization takes on some of the characteristics of the society in which it lives.  Thus you have a combination of the basic principles of the organization combined with the peculiarities of the society, which makes up the way in which the organization operates.  The difficulty comes when the human society changes and in the last eighty years our society has changed very rapidly.  When an organization refuses to move with the changes in society, then that organization ceases to be effective.  Freemasonry started with a number of basic principles.  It lived in a pre-modern society and took unto itself many characteristics of the society.  It became static and wanted to carry with it not only the basis principles but also a multitude of outworn customs.  Because of this it has found itself in the backwaters of modern life.  So the Masonic order is in difficulty with the church, the younger generation and society in general.  Masonry must look at itself, decide what basic principles are fundamental and must cast aside those prejudices and practices that are not essential.  It was fine fifty years ago for a Lodge to meet quietly for the sake of fellowship and not to talk about its purposes and objectives.  Society accepted that for the age of communication had not arrived.  When the new age did come, Masonry was not prepared and was passed by.

The time has come now for the Masonic Order to examine itself and ask two questions:

1. What are those things that are basic to the order?

2. What are those elements that are not essential and can be put aside as accretions in order that the order will fit into the world of the twenty-first century?

Tonight we are looking at the past. In the next couple of days other speakers will analyze Masonry as it is today and as it must be tomorrow.

Let us look at the past. What elements do we bring from the past that must be maintained today and tomorrow?

1. When we take away all the trappings with which Masonry has surrounded itself during its long history we find that the fraternity exists for one purpose and that is to preserve, to transmit to posterity the worthwhile parts of civilization that our forefathers passed on to us.

2. Masonry is an organization of human effort to preserve and promote civilization but it does not do this in terms of caste or creed or within political, territorial or religious limits.  In other words it is universal. Because of this the Masonic Order will run into trouble with some organizations, secular and religious, that would like to confine themselves to one section of society or one religious outlook.  This Masonry must constantly refuse to do.  It is universal in its outlook.


3. If Masonry is to pass on the best of our modern civilization if it is to embrace all religions, races and cultures then it has to rid itself of some of its static and unproductive ideas and get into the stream of present day life.  The ideal of the eighteenth century was knowledge; the ideal of the nineteenth century was the projection of morality into the new knowledge; the ideal of the twentieth century is the development of communication so that knowledge, ideals, morality can be a part of a universal culture.  Wherever in this world there is a Lodge of Masons, that Lodge should be in the forefront of communicating by modern means the ideals of knowledge, morality and universality.

When the Entered Apprentice stands before the Master of the Lodge some working tools are placed in his hands. He is told what they are to be used for.  He must use them and then return them to the Master.  They never become his own.  The Grand Master of this Universe has entrusted to the Masonic Order working tools by which the life of this suffering world may be molded. We do not own those working tools; they are just for us to use and then to return them to the Eternal.  When we return those tools, we pray that they may have been used in the Craft of humanity so that the great Lodge of this world will have pleasure and profit.

For after all:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts....