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Freemasonry and Northport: A long history of ritual and relationships

People by: Joanne Kountourakis, January 17, 2022

Alcyone Lodge No. 695, a local chapter of Freemasons in Northport Village.

Peter Walters must have passed the Masonic lodge in Northport Village hundreds of times growing up. Not once did he think it would play such a big role in his life. “I used to drive up and down Main Street. I didn’t know the Masons were still here,” he said. “I thought they were done.”

Though his father and grandfather were Masons, Peter had no real interest in becoming one himself, he said. Then, after his grandmother died, he received a box of her keepsakes from his father. Inside he found his great grandfather’s Masonic information. Peter now proudly calls himself a fifth-generation Mason, and was this year elected into the top leadership role at Northport’s Alcyone Lodge No. 695, a charter group of the Freemasons, the oldest fraternal organization in the world.

“I have a son, and I said ‘Maybe I should go look into this, just so if my son wants to become a Mason I can keep the line going,’” he said. Despite his indifference, Peter said he entered the Masonic lodge in Northport – the same lodge he thought was nonoperational decades ago – open-minded. “I wasn’t really excited,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure I kept the continuity of the family line going. And then I got hooked.”

Five years into his Masonic journey, Peter said he continues with the brotherhood for the ritual, the socialization, and the education. His path of learning began quickly after joining the lodge, and continues to this day. “All of a sudden I learned I could memorize things, I could understand things, it was one of the better things that happened to me,” he said. “That’s one of the things I got out of being a Mason. I learned how to learn.”

What is a Mason?
While most people agree that Freemasonry began during the Middle Ages in Europe as a guild of skilled builders, some Masonic documents trace the sciences of geometry and masonry to the time of ancient Egypt and the building of King Solomon's Temple. According to the national organization’s website, the modern-day experience of becoming a member of a Masonic lodge is divided into three ceremonial stages known as “degrees.” These three degrees – Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason – are loosely based upon the journeyman system, which was used to educate medieval craftsmen. At each educational stage, a craftsman was required to achieve proficiency before moving to the next stage. Symbolically, the degrees represent the three stages of human development: youth, manhood, and age.

With the decline of cathedral building, the focus of the society shifted. Today, Alcyone Lodge invites “all men of excellent reputation” and “high moral character” to join its fraternity, reads the Lodge’s Facebook page. “Do you ask yourself what's the purpose of life? Do you want to enlarge your circle of friends, meet men of different opinions and ideas? Are you looking to give back to your community? Find out what generations of men before have learned through Freemasonry,” reads another post. The Freemasons, they say, make good men better.

Freemasonry, including the Northport chapter, welcomes men of every religion, race, and opinion, said Peter. Though Freemasonry is not considered a religion – or a substitute for a religion – any potential Freemason must believe in a Supreme Being; agnostics and atheists are not allowed to join. (It should be noted that the Catholic Church has condemned Freemasonry since 1738; the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reiterated the ban on Catholics joining the Masons in 1983.)

Serving a higher calling – for Peter, that’s God, though applicants may be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. – predicates that members are accountable for their actions and lends to self-improvement, a primary goal of the sworn brotherhood, said Peter. Other requirements to becoming a Mason include being 18 years of age or older, being motivated to join for reasons unrelated to personal gain or profit, and being “desirous of earning knowledge and willing to conform to the ancient usages and customs of the fraternity.” While some lodges have chapters for women and programs for youth, Alcyone does not.

Petitioners are thoroughly vetted, first by members of the lodge itself and then by the Grand Lodge (the overarching Masonic governing body in each state). If the lodge votes to accept an applicant, the Grand Lodge completes a comprehensive background check, and then an initiation ritual is performed, accepting the petitioner into the brotherhood as an apprentice, said Peter. Once they are in, they’re family, he said.

When asked about the biggest misconceptions about Freemasonry, Peter is quick to answer: “We’re not secret. You don’t have to give up your religion to come here. We’re not a cult.”

While the lodge’s location is publicly known and open to the public, Peter does not shy away from admitting that there are secret ways of functioning as a Mason. The ritual aspects of the brotherhood and its ceremonies are not shared with non-Masons, and there seems to be a few secret signs, words, and ways to recognize a fellow Mason (and determine if he’s in good standing). Though the Masons promise a brotherhood of inclusivity, its exclusive practices and secret rituals have at times been steeped in controversy, conspiracy and scandal.

Northport Alcyone Lodge No. 695: Then
According to “A Hundred Years of Light,” a booklet published by Alcyone Lodge No. 695 in 1969 and currently available for viewing at the Northport Historical Society, Alcyone received its charter in 1869 and has occupied its current home at 162 Main Street since 1916.

Benjamin T. Robbins, the architect behind the Second-Empire style building, originally built the structure to house his newspaper, the Suffolk County Journal, which later became the Northport Journal. Shortly after Robbins’ death, the Masonic lodge purchased the building. (Second Empire style, also called the French Second Empire style or Mansard style, was an immensely popular style throughout the United States in the 1860s and 1870s. It was used extensively in the northeastern and midwestern parts of the country.)

In 1867, there were approximately 20 Master Masons residing in the villages of Northport and Commack, most of whom hailed from Jephtha Lodge No. 494 of Huntington (chartered in Huntington in 1860, the Jeptha Masons built their own temple in 1905 on New York Avenue in Huntington Village, where it still stands). “Desirous of forming a lodge in the village of Northport,” the booklet reads, “they organized a Masonic club and began the preliminary work of organizing a Masonic lodge. By-laws were written, an initiation fee of $25 and annual dues of $3 were agreed upon, officers for the proposed lodge were selected, and numerous meetings were held to rehearse the ritual to assure proficiency in the standard of work.”

William H. Sammis, who had served as both Junior and Senior Warden in Jephtha Lodge, persuaded the Huntington lodge to grant its consent of the Northport Village lodge on September 28, 1868. A committee was formed the following year to officially name the lodge.

Against the odds, it's Alcyone
According to "A Hundred Years of Light," the odds were stacked against the Alcyone name. In reply to the petition to establish the lodge, “the Grand Master stated that he would not grant dispensation under a place name” and that the name of the lodge should have some Masonic significance. He provided a list of several names, from which the brothers could select one for the proposed new lodge. William Sammis and Ebenezer Parotte, both in the brotherhood, were appointed as a committee for the purpose of selecting the name for the new lodge.

The choice was narrowed to two names; Alcyone was the one favored by Sammis, while Aquila was favored by Parotte. It was decided that Parotte would write each name on four sheets of paper and that Sammis would draw one slip from a hat, “thus leaving the name of the new lodge to be settled by fate,” reads the booklet. “It was not until years afterward that it was learned from a letter written by Bro. Parotte, who had relocated in the far West, that seven of the eight slips of paper in the hat had contained the name Aquila, whereas the one drawn by Bro. Sammis was the only one bearing the name Alcyone.”

On March 5, 1869 the first communication of Alcyone Lodge was held in a building on the north side of Main Street, later occupied by the Long Island Express Company. William Sammis was appointed Master, John Dickerson was appointed Senior Warden, Archibald M. Brewster was appointed Junior Warden, and Ebenezer G. Bennet was appointed Secretary. At this meeting, five petitions for membership were received from Charles T. Sammis, Henry E. Sammis, Jesse E. Ketcham, David E. Scudder, and Joseph A. Scudder.

It is believed that membership in the lodge by April of 1869 was 27.

A display of past Master Masons just outside the lodge’s meeting room.

Northport Alcyone Lodge No. 695: Now
In the Northport lodge, a bible sits atop an altar in the center of the lodge; it’s an old copy of the John Brown Self-Interpreting Bible, which George Washington, a Master Mason himself, subscribed to when he was president and living in New York. Seats line the room’s perimeter and symbolism abounds. The “All-Seeing Eye” is used in the room to represent the omniscience of God, while a builder’s square and compass, the most well-known Freemason symbol, rest on the Bible. When a meeting is in session, a Tyler (or Tiler) guards the door. The Tyler is a Master Mason armed with a symbolic sword to protect everyone from eavesdropping, and imposters, shared Peter. What happens during a meeting is largely private and as far as tradition and ritual goes, not much has changed. There are still temples, a moral code, worship services, and a hierarchy of leadership.

Today, Freemasons make the same pledge to every member: that he will be offered assistance if he, or his family, ever requests it. “We look out for each other,” said Peter. “If you see a brother in trouble… the rules are basic, if you can help a brother, you’re supposed to help your brother. Just like I look out for my family. Except my family is bigger now.”

Peter sees in what he is learning now pieces of his childhood, a foundation his late father, also named Peter, instilled in him. “I was raised a Mason all my life, I just didn’t know it,” he said.

2019 marked the 150th year of uninterrupted occupancy by the lodge in Northport. The anniversary was well-attended, Peter said, and one of the last big celebrations to occur before Covid-19. The last couple of years have been challenging for the lodge with the pandemic limiting in-person meetings and gatherings. Pair that with the loss of “the youth” to television, social media and the Internet, as well as an overall decline in voluntary associations, clubs and fraternities, said Peter, and it’s easy to understand why many lodges are facing membership issues.

The lodge is still a place for men of honor and integrity, charity and obligation, said Peter, and is open to anyone looking for a “family, friends, brothers, a community.” Today the lodge, he said, “is looking for a few good men.”

In the same building that houses the lodge, in a separate room open to the public, Masons and non-Masons are able to socialize, share stories, and discuss current issues. Outside of the lodge people all have different beliefs, he said. “And they’re all welcome.”

So how does this fraternal group – a collection of men from what Peter describes as different backgrounds and beliefs – manage to stay “brotherly” during a time of such intense polarization and division?

“We don’t discuss religion in the lodge, and we don’t talk politics in there. You want to go slug it out outside (of the meeting room) later, that’s up to you,” Peter said, adding that dialogue is more civil in the building because it’s a face-to-face exchange, unlike those happening on social media – exchanges that are too quick and reactionary.

“That’s what’s wrong with society in my mind,” he said. If everyone would just stop and listen – listening to understand instead of listening to react – conversations would be more civil, he added. “If we have a disagreement, it’s ok. We may not move on, we may harp on it for an hour. But we’re going to have a discussion about it,” Peter said. “And we’re going to leave as brothers.”

The Masons meet on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month at the lodge, on the third floor of 162 Main Street in Northport Village, with the official meeting starting at 8pm. Visitors are welcome to stop by before the meeting (beginning around 7pm) or afterward.

Masonic Hall, circa 1910. Built in 1876 by Benjamin Robbins, the building was later purchased by the Masons, and has been home to Alcyone Lodge No. 695 since 1916. Photo courtesy of the Northport Historical Society.

William H. Sammis, Alcyone Lodge's first appointed Master Mason.

Peter Walters is a fifth-generation Mason and currently holds the top leadership role at Northport's Masonic Lodge.

A copy of the John Brown Self-Interpreting Bible sits atop the altar in the lodge, where all meetings, rituals and rites take place.