Masons open doors for the curious

The Daily Tribune, Michigan/June 22, 2006
By Catherine Kavanaugh

Madison Heights -- In best-selling books and Hollywood movies, the Freemasons are depicted as a religious sect tied to knights protecting the Holy Grail, or a secret society hiding a national treasure since the days of the American Revolution.

Wrong on both accounts, says Don Novak, senior warden of the Northwood-Ancient Craft Lodge No. 551 in Madison Heights.

Novak, a Royal Oak resident, and other Freemasons are in the midst of their own publicity blitz to educate the community about the oldest and largest fraternity in the world.

This week members of the local lodge, 850 Horace Brown Drive, invited Madison Heights firefighters over for a barbecue to thank them for their public service and on Saturday will host an open house for curious residents of south Oakland County.

"This is all part of a statewide campaign by the Grand Lodge of Michigan to dispel the rumors and innuendo in movies like "The DaVinci Code" and "National Treasure," Novak said. "Come on over. We'll pull back the curtains. We'll show you the closets and we'll tell you what Freemasonry is all about."

Robert Stevens, grand secretary of the Grand Lodge of Michigan in Alma, is at a loss to explain all the misconceptions about the organization dating back to 1771 and boasting a U.S. membership roster with the likes of 14 U.S. presidents from George Washington to Gerald Ford, astronauts, scientists, business leaders and entertainers.

Maybe it's because members don't advertise their affiliation, seek credit for their charitable work or publicly challenge references about their initiation process and rituals.

"There is even a misperception among our members that they shouldn't speak about the organization and that's not true," Stevens said. "I guess we have resolved ourselves to explain who we are when asked but not to debate people."

Stevens, however, wants to spread the word about the good deeds of Michigan's 45,000 Freemasons. They belong to 338 lodges with several groups meeting at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, which is the largest one in the world.

In the last 12 months, Michigan's Freemasons have created identification kits on 8,000 children, collecting dental imprints, DNA samples and even video footage for parents to keep.

"That way if the child is lost or something, the parents can present the kit to police to aid in the recovery process," Stevens said.

The Madison Heights lodge also collected school supplies last year for an orphanage in Afghanistan, where one of the members served a tour of duty.

Another little known fact about Freemasons in the United States is that they now contribute $3 million a day to charity, according to Stevens.

"It takes more than $2 million a day to run our 22 Shriners hospitals and burn centers, where children are treated at no charge," he said.

Getting out this information is part of the statewide education campaign where each lodge was asked to schedule two events for the public this summer.

When he is asked to explain Freemasonry, Stevens said he describes it as an organization that takes good men and makes them better.

"There's no room for individuals who have been in trouble with the law or don't take charitable work seriously," he added.

Novak puts it this way: "It's not a religion or secret group. It's a fraternal organization based on some pretty high moral principles. Members profess belief in a deity but we don't espouse any religion. We don't even discuss politics or religion. Do any subjects cause more arguments?"

Even though local Freemasons feel the need to do a little damage control, Michigan membership is growing with all the attention from authors and movie makers.

In "National Treasure," Nicholas Cage plays Ben Gate, a descendant of a family of treasure hunters looking for valuables supposedly hidden from the British by patriotic and righteous founding fathers who were Freemasons.

"I can't put a number on it, but we've had many new members since the release of "National Treasure," Stevens said. "That movie made a fair representation of who we are but the treasure part is pure Hollywood."

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