Waco is home to oldest continuous fraternal organization in Texas

A meeting inside the Grand Lodge of the Republic of Texas. (Courtesy photo)
A meeting inside the Grand Lodge of the Republic of Texas. (Courtesy photo)(KWTX)
Published: Jun. 25, 2018 at 7:35 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

The state’s oldest continually operating organization moved its headquarters from Houston to Waco in 1903 where it thrived and today Texas Freemasons is the fifth largest group of Masons in the world.

The basis of Masonry is service and fraternity, supported by data that suggests combined, all branches of Freemasonry in the United States today provide various charities $1.5-million-a-day, or $547,500,000 annually, although a few years ago that figure was almost $2-million-a-day.

In 2017, all foundations across the country including independent, community, and operating foundations provided $66.9 billion to various charities, or 16 percent of all charitable donations.

On Monday Baylor University announced the Waco Scottish Rite Charitable Foundation would endow Baylor Camp Success with a $1.6 million gift that will ensure the Camp Success program at Baylor, which provides intense summer literacy and language programs for children through the university’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

“It (the money) comes from their (Masons’) pockets, and from the money they raise standing on street corners holding cans and asking everyone to help,” Texas Past Grand Master Brig. Gen. Reese L. Harrison, Jr., of San Antonio, said.

Harrison currently serves as chairman of board that owns and operates the Grand Lodge building in Waco.

As part of that role he serves as chairman of the board that oversees the library and museum, board member Claude Ervin, of Waco, said.

“They do the same thing firefighters do when they fill their boots,” Reese said, “it‘s hard work but they love to do it.

“Masons are people who have charitable dispositions and they act on that,” Harrison said.

That’s why treatment for any child at any Masonic hospital is free.

“There is no charge,” Harrison said, “ever.”

The Shriners’ Children’s Burn Hospital in Galveston, just last week received six children who were severely burned during the recent eruption of a volcano in Guatemala.

“They were flown here on a U.S. military airplane and were taken to the Galveston hospital, after they were severely burned by lava,” Harrison said.

There’s no place better in the world that could offer them better care.

Becoming a Mason requires a belief in God and in life after death, the organization says, and anyone of any faith is invited to become a candidate.

But Freemasonry is not a religion and rules strictly prohibit discussion of religion, or politics, when lodge meetings are in session.

The outwardly imposing, carved white granite building at 715 Columbus Avenue in downtown Waco is the home of the Grand Lodge of the Republic of Texas, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, the oldest continuously operating organization of any kind in the State of Texas.

Statesman, freedom fighter, army general, and later President of the Republic of Texas, then governor of the state, Sam Houston, presided over the first Grand Lodge meeting after the Texas lodge became independent in 1837, having been initially formed in 1835 under the Grand Lodge of Louisiana.

Service to the nation and the state is commonplace inside the walls of Masonic lodges as Harrison, now 80-years-old, is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who received a brevet promotion to Brigadier General on Sept. 1, 2004, as a member of the Texas Air National Guard (TANG).

He remains the most decorated Mason in Texas and likely in the country, his friends say.

As 20th Century modernization and lightning-fast economic expansion faced the state, Texas Grand Lodge leadership figured being in the middle of the state would put them in the middle of the action, so they chose Waco and moved management and leadership to the heart.

In February, 1903, the Grand Lodge sold their Houston property and continued making plans to build a new centralized Grand Lodge in Waco rather than some of the other cities that bid, including both Dallas and Houston.

Masonry in Waco, however, was established long before that when Lodge #92 first met on January 23, 1852.

On Dec. 6, 1904 the Grand Lodge found a place for meetings when they moved in alongside the local unit of the Texas National Guard in shared space, but the lodge was growing exponentially and very soon needed more room.

Masons formed a committee, crafted a building plan and purchased land, the same property where the Grand Lodge sits today, between North 6th and 7th streets on Columbus Avenue.

On Dec. 1, 1902, early Dallas architect James Edward Flanders responded by submitting a design for the Grand Lodge Temple, as did the Waco firm of Messer & Smith, architects.

The initial plans called for a building four stories tall, the two lower stories were for rental as retail space while the two upper stories set aside for lodge meetings and other activities.

The history also mentions the committee voted to "continue the contract heretofore made with J. E. Flanders, architect. . ."

A new building committee changed the building’s specifications to limit it to three stories and contracted with General Supply and Construction Company of Fort Worth who submitted a bid of $103,902.45, about half the amount of the previous low bidder.

Construction began Dec. 23, 1947 the day the Masons held their groundbreaking ceremony; the $2-million project was completed and the building ready for use in 1949 to host the 114th Annual Communication, the building’s inaugural event.

It’s long been both a local and tourist attraction and the building, today, stands as one of the hallmark architectural structures in the city.

Masonic tradition holds the finish and design were inspired by the biblical description of King Solomon’s Temple, a massive, ancient structure built to house the Arc of the Covenant.

Twin, cylindrical stone pillars flank the Temple’s main entrance, each topped with a globe, one terrestrial, the other celestial; their contemplation intended to inspire students to study geometry, astronomy, geography, and navigation to provide a deeper and more extensive understanding of the laws, and mysteries, of both nature and the universe.

Another prominent feature on the outside of the temple is the hand-carved, bas-relief that illustrates ancient stone masons quarrying, moving and laying huge stones during the construction of Solomon’s Temple.

Those reliefs were carved by American sculptor Raoul Josset, who was commissioned in 1948 to complete the work.

Josset (1899-1957), was born in France, trained at the Paris School of Fine Arts, the Lycee of Lyons and Paris and learned his craft from famed sculptor Antoine Bourdelle.

Josset began creating his “larger-than-life” memorials while still in France, where between 1920 and 1926 he completed 15 of them.

While still in his 20s he was awarded the Rome Prize in 1923 and the Prix Paris for the years 1924, 1925 and 1926.

He left Europe for the United States in 1933, his first commission here was carving two 45-foot-tall granite Indian monuments for the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge at Vincennes, Indiana, and then he began taking commissions around the country, including in Waco.

Inside, unseen by most, there are ornate meeting halls, one seats 600, the larger seats 3,800, the business offices of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Texas, a library that is dedicated to Masonic and Texas history, and a Museum.

The museum is filled with wondrous things important both to the history of Waco and that of the Grand Lodge and Texas, herself, and, on a schedule, its open to the public … free of charge.

A Grand Lodge publication says: “Exhibits in the Museum include the Republic of Texas Collection, the Military and Holocaust Collection, the Railroad Collection and the Masonry in Texas Collection with the addition of miscellaneous artifacts acquired and donated by Masons.”

Sam Houston’s gavel, a letter that traveled to the Moon and back with Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, himself a mason, a 4,000-year-old terracotta cone from Ur, the Masonic constitution, petitions, books, speeches, communication notes, and portraits along with several other items that describe Masonry, Texas history, military history and the Holocaust are mixed throughout the 11,000-square-foot area dedicated to the Museum.

The Library is open weekdays for research between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., and the museum on the same schedule, a Grand Lodge publication says, but no museum tours are provided between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

There is no charge for admission or for the tours.

The Grand Lodge, and Masons, themselves, always have centered their community efforts on providing education for children by establishing both Masonic-sponsored and public schools all around the state.

Much Masonic ritual and history is intentionally kept secret because “secrecy serves to heighten interest in Masonic teaching,” a Mason’s website says, and initially the secrecy had to do with preserving the security of the trade, itself.

Texas Freemasons provide virtually sole support for the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children, in Dallas, the burn hospital in Galveston, both internationally famous, and homes for orphaned children and the widows of Masons.

It amounts to hundreds-of-millions of dollars every year that comes from the masons, themselves, from annual fundraising efforts and from donations pledged as part of several national television campaigns.

Harrison, who sat on the board of the Galveston burn hospital, said when Masons started providing specialized care to children back at the turn of the last century, no one else was doing it.

“It started after the polio epidemic around 1900 and there was nowhere for those children who were sick to go, so we opened the hospitals,” Harrison said.

Polio, and other afflictions, have virtually been eradicated in the United States, “but there are countries where it still is a major problem,” Harrison said, so Masons open their doors to any child, internationally, who needs their help, witness the six Guatemalan children who arrived in Galveston last Thursday.

Just finding patients is an issue today, too, Harrison said, because there is competition.

“When we started there was no one else offering those services but now, today, a child can come to San Antonio and find three or four places to get that specialized care.”

But not for free.

The fraternal organization, although the exact date of its founding is uncertain, is believed by some researchers and historians to be the oldest surviving continuously operating fraternity in the world and has been traced to 16th Century Scotland, but the first Masonic governing body, or Grand Lodge, founded on record was established in 1717 in London.

The oldest document related to Masonry, entitled the Regius Poem, which dates to around 1390 A.D., “is intended to determine, in full details, the duties and obligations of stone cutters and mason’s layers to the Craft and Geometry,” the Masonic Lodge website says.

Also called the Halliwell Manuscript after the Englishman who first published it in 1840, over 794 verses, the poem outlines “Old Charges” or ancient regulations for the governance of masonry in Britain and is unique because its written in rhyming script rather than prose, as are all that came later.

It was shelved within the Royal Library of King George II, who in 1757 donated the manuscript to the British Museum and around which the beginnings of the British Library were built.

The symbols of Masonry are the square and compasses, basic builder’s tools, and they are used in Masonic ritual as emblems to teach symbolic lessons.

Centered over the super-imposed tools is the bold, blue letter “G”, which stands for God, the center of the fraternity and in this context reminds Masons that God is at the center of Freemasonry and is the Great Architect of the Universe, although doctrine holds the reference is non-denominational.

At about the same date the poem was written the unaligned groups of masons, that was their craft, began accepting members into their lodges who worked outside the building trades, which led eventually to lodges that entirely were made up of men who had never actually been stone masons, “men from other occupations who gathered and shared a ritual replete with allusions to carpentry, architecture, and stone masonry,” the Grand Lodge of Texas website says.

The fellowship is, and always has been, closed to women.

Four local lodges met together in 1717 in London and formed the first Grand Lodge, a Masonic governing body having jurisdiction over the local lodges within a certain geographical area.

England’s Grand Lodge granted provisional status to lodges in the Americas beginning with the Coxe Provincial Grand Lodge, in 1730, which was granted oversight of community lodges in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania

With the American Revolution, those “New World” lodges’ status changed to independent grand lodges and as each new territory came into being, those areas formed their own grand lodges.

In the United States today each state, along with the District of Colombia, has its own Grand Lodge.

The first independent grand lodge was the Grand Lodge of Virginia, chartered in 1778.

Allowing for 424 local lodges in the Prince Hall faction, there are 1280 independent, local lodges in Texas, all ultimately governed by the Grand Lodge of Texas.

The list of influential Masons includes American patriots like Paul Revere, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, Theodore Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston.

Advancement in the Masonic order comes through completion of a series of degrees, or lessons, the first being Entered Apprentice, then Fellow Craft, and Master Mason, in that order.

Each degree has a biblical basis, the primary biblical image used in Masonic ritual is that of the building of King Solomon’s Temple, which is described in extreme detail in the Old Testament books of I Kings and II Chronicles.

In the Scottish Rite, an organizations that exists within Freemasonry that Master Masons may join if they choose, degrees progress from 4th to 32nd, but in spite of their numbers, each Scottish Rite degree ranks no higher than a Master Mason.

“A ‘32nd Degree’ is someone who is a full member of the Scottish Rite, (and) he is equal to all other Masons in the world, but is no higher in stature.”

“Masonry is a place where members make life-long friends, where the people around you really care about you, and you care about them,” Harrison said.

Harrison, the son of a 60-year Mason and whose father-in-law also was a Mason, graduated from Baylor University with a BBA in 1959, added an MS in Economics in 1965, then a JD from Southern Methodist University’s Law School.

He still practices law in San Antonio.

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy appointed Harrison as Assistant United States Attorney for the United States Department of Justice in the Western District of Texas in 1964, a post he held until 1972, then served another year as Special Assistant United States Attorney.

Harrison also served as State Judge Advocate General for TANG, was assigned to the Judge Advocate General’s Department as a reserve officer with the United States Air Force and served as a military judge for TANG.

He retired from TANG and the USAF in 1998 with just short of 32 years’ service.

Another name of note with a life-long connection to Texas Freemasonry was Baylor University President Abner V. McCall, who grew up at the Masonic Orphan’s Home, then in Fort Worth, and became a Mason, himself.

Initially named the Masonic Widows and Orphans Home, the facility opened its doors in southeast Fort Worth in 1899 after two orphaned brothers, Emanuel and Lee Ravey, sought help from mason Dr. Frank Rainey, the institution’s first superintendent and “a man of immense compassion,” the home’s website says.

Not having the heart to turn the boys away, Rainey invited them to live with he and his wife in a tent on the grounds until the new building was completed.

Early on the campus was entirely self-sufficient with its own artesian wells for water and where residents planted and harvested row crops, managed beef cattle and a dairy farm, all powered by self-generated electricity and with steam heat.

The students received a classroom education and a practical one since youngsters operated the farms and cared for the property.

Abner Vernon McCall (June 8, 1915 – June 11, 1995) was born in Perrin, but after his father’s death and his mother faced ill health, he was sent to the Masonic School and Home in Fort Worth, where he distinguished himself academically and ultimately won acceptance to Baylor.

He graduated Baylor’s law school in 1938, earned an LL.M from the University of Michigan in 1943 and signed on with the FBI.

In 1946, he was back at Baylor teaching law, was named Dean of the Law School in 1948, then Executive Vice-President of the university in 1959.

In June 1956 then-Texas Governor Allan Shivers appointed McCall a Texas Supreme Court Justice and McCall served a term as President of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

He was inaugurated President of Baylor University on October 14, 1961 and served for 20 years.

Harrison said one should consider masonry if he’s “someone who wants to make real friends.”

Harrison fell ill this week and needed to visit his doctor, he said, but didn’t have a way to get there.

When another mason heard Harrison needed help, he put aside what he’d planned to do Thursday and took Harrison to his doctor’s appointment, then to the drug store, and then to lunch.

“That’s the kind of friend you want. He dropped everything to make sure I was taken care of, and I’d do the same for him,” or any other mason.

There are 2 million Masons in North America today and 5 million worldwide, about 123,000 of them in Texas


The Grand Lodge of Texas website says Texas Freemasons have a long and proud history, but that 181-year heritage of service to the state means “Texas Freemasons now look to the future with hope.”