For nearly three centuries, unless you knew a Mason, you probably never set foot inside a lodge, where members are inducted in ancient initiation rituals and vow to keep secret the metaphors of the world’s oldest fraternity.
But Saturday, following a much more modern tradition, Masonic lodges around the state will throw open their doors to anyone who wants to learn more about the organization.
“I think there’s the more subjective kind of opening up, in that the fraternity kind of has a reputation as being closed and secretive,” said Robert Huke, director of communications and development for the Grand Lodge of Masons of Massachusetts.
The group, whose numbers are dwindling, is hoping to make the organization more accessible in an era when people move around so often that they may not know the Masons in their community. The Masons in Massachusetts began holding open houses eight years ago.
“In part, it was certainly a response to the change in times and culture,” Huke said. “In the not-too-distant past, when we tended to be less of a mobile society, and everyone tended to know who the Masons were in their community, and where to find them, we didn’t have to go into the public as much.”
In Massachusetts, the Masons peaked in size in the early 1960s, with 120,000 members. But as those members have aged and died, the group’s rolls have shrunk. Now, the fraternity has about 35,000 members, Huke said. The number of new men joining has increased slightly in the last eight years, since the Masons began holding open houses and advertising on cable television.
“The decision to have the open houses was not met with too much skepticism,” Huke said. “What took some getting used to was the advertising. Many members had never experienced that before.”
The Masons are a prestigious brotherhood, whose members have included 14 presidents, Benjamin Franklin and other leaders of the American Revolution, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and General Douglas MacArthur. Masons have been formally organized in Massachusetts for 280 years. The group admits only men, although women can join affiliated organizations, including the Order of the Eastern Star.
Masons were formally organized in London in 1717, but they are believed to have grown from the guild of stonemasons who built the cathedrals and castles in Europe in the Middle Ages. Although Masons avoid describing their fraternity, the largest in the world, as a secret society, they sometimes call themselves “a society with secrets.”
Men who wish to join a lodge must first ask to join and then spend several months attending meetings and learning about the group. They must pay for a background check. The formal induction ritual, when new members take an oath, has barely changed in 200 years.
Now Masons spend much of their time in community service. Their North American fraternities donate $3 million a day, they say.
One of the lodges open to the public Saturday is the Corinthian Lodge in Concord. The building was dedicated in 1820 as a schoolhouse where Henry David Thoreau was said to have taught. But Masons had already been established in Concord — in 1797, under Grand Master Paul Revere.
Doug Ellis, the deputy grand master for the Masonic district that includes Concord, became a Mason in 2008. He was attracted, he said, by “all the people through history, the great people who have been Masons.
“The friendships that you build are just priceless,” he said. “There are just no end to the great relationships you build.”
In Lincoln, the Joseph Warren-Soley Lodge, another former schoolhouse, will also open its doors Saturday. John Toto, senior deacon, came to the Masons through one of the open houses in 2009. He had been thinking about joining for several years.
“I think a lot of people nowadays are looking for something,” he said. “They may have belonged to a fraternity in college. They may have gone to an all-male prep school.”Kathleen Burge can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenBurge.