Visiting a Texas Lodge

Brethren,

Over in the wilds of North Mayo is a young Texan who has been living there since 2001.  A couple of years ago he joined Tyrawley Lodge No 217 and became a Master Mason.  He recently returned to Texas on holiday and we are pleased to present his thoughts and comments on the similarities and differences between Texas Freemasonry and Freemasonry under the Irish Consitution. 

We hope you will enjoy his thoughts as much as we did.

'VISITING A TEXAS LODGE'
 
By Brother Love, Tyrawley Lodge No 217 (Ireland)

Introduction

                I grew up in Austin, Texas before marrying an Irish woman and later moving to Ireland in 2001.  A few years ago, I finally joined the Masons—something I’ve been wanting to do for a number of years, but always felt I was too busy to do when I lived in the US.  So, being a Texan member of an Irish Lodge, I am always asked what Texas lodges are like.  I always had to sadly answer that I had no idea as I’d never been in one.  But, this March, I finally got the chance to visit two lodges in and near Austin, Texas:  Onion Creek Lodge No 220 and Buda Lodge No 800.

                Having been a Master Mason for about a year and a half in the Irish Constitution, I have had the opportunity to visit a number of Irish lodges in North Connacht, a Lodge in Wexford and one in Northern Ireland.  This article lays out some of the main differences between the Texas Lodges and Irish ones.  Given my limited experience with both, I have relied on the expertise of long standing senior Masons in both Constitutions to check my facts and assist me in making some genera l observations about the similarities and differences of these two traditions.  This work is not meant to be definitive, but to give Brethren a general sense of what is different between Texas and Irish lodges.

First Impressions

                Having only been in Irish Lodges, I was immediately taken with how casually dressed the Texas brethren are.  The standard dress in most Texas Lodges ranges from blue jeans and t-shirts to dressy trousers and sports shirts.  Only a few people in each Lodge wore suits.  According to everyone I spoke with, Texas Lodges are almost universally casual with only a handful of Lodges wearing suits or tuxedos.  This is in stark contrast to Irish Lodges where dark suits and ties are required for entry.

                Many Texas Lodges also have a tradition for the WM (and only the WM) wearing a cowboy hat while conducting meetings.  This appears to have been a long-standing tradition which began in earlier times when a large number of Masons were cowboys.  Onion Creek Lodge No 220 is sited on the historic Chisholm Trail (in use from 1867-1884) and their Tyler used to hang a lantern on their porch which alerted passing cowboy Masons that a meeting was in progress and served as an invitation for them to visit. 

In addition, Texas officers wear the standard insignia of their office hanging from blue cord around their necks.  They also wear all-white aprons which vary slightly in design between the three degrees (but have no rosettes of any colour).  This contrasts with the Irish blue aprons with their rosettes and the officers’ collars.  Unlike in Irish Lodges, the Texas Masons don’t wear jewels, so there is no official indication of who the PMs are, longevity of service, founders, etc.  One uniform innovation of the Onion Creek Lodge which was very helpful for visitors was the wearing of embroidered white shirts which bore the compass and square on one breast and the officer’s name on the other.  This allows visitors to quickly spot the officers and assists them in keeping up with who’s who.

The thing that most struck this Irish visitor about the Texas Lodges was the difference in tone during the meeting.  At Irish lodges, when the WM is interacting with officers, the tone to me could best be described as formal and polite.  Even though the WM is running the meeting, there is a collegial feel to the whole affair as though one equal is talking to another, even though one of them happens to be running the meeting.  In the Texas lodges, by contrast, I felt as though the WM was very much in charge.  The ritual varies slightly and the wording is a bit more forceful when the WM is calling for the lodge to be Tyled or making a similar call to action; it feels much more like he’s giving a command rather than making a request of his Brethren.

Another key difference is the lack of “wand work” on the part of the JD and SD.  They have wands, but in both Lodges I was told they only use them on special occasions and when there are dignitaries present.

The Lodges themselves are broadly the same in Ireland and Texas.  The two Texas Lodges I visited used very little blue and were both mostly white and brown inside and were fairly Spartan—as most Irish lodges I’ve seen are.  Interestingly, both Texas lodges had two sets of doors.  The “normal” door is used by all Brethren to come and go for meetings and, at Onion Creek, has a closable peephole for the use of the Tyler when outside.  However, a second, candidates’ door is used for degrees and has two pillars just inside the Lodge, meaning the candidate will pass between them upon entering.  This door is used only during degrees and I didn’t have the opportunity to see this door used.  In my limited experience, I’ve seen no Irish Lodge with more than one entrance door and the location of pillars (if present) varies from lodge to lodge.

Meetings

                Apart from minor variations in ritual, the Texas Lodge meetings I attended were broadly the same as those held by their Irish counterparts.  However, there were several key differences.   While most Irish Lodges have light snacks following their meetings which include alcoholic toasts, Texas Lodges mostly have full meals before their meetings and all Texas Lodges are alcohol free zones.  The meal at Onion Creek Lodge included some of the best barbeque I’ve ever had, cooked on the back patio of the Lodge by that month’s food committee.  Buda was a more casual affair, serving fried chicken prepared offsite.  I was told that Texas Lodges are alcohol free out of respect of the large number of Masons who abstain from drinking for religious reasons (Texas has a large Baptist population).  To accommodate the meals, Texas Lodge meetings start as early as 7pm with dinner starting at 6pm and end around 10pm.  Irish Lodges typically start around 8pm and end as late as 11pm, with snacks being eaten as late as midnight.

 In Irish lodges, meetings are held in the EA degree, unless there is a specific reason for the lodge to be called up to a higher degree (ex. conferring degrees or swearing in of new officers).  In Texas lodges, the lodge operates in the degree of the lowest person present.  So, if the most junior person in the room is a FC, then the lodge is opened in the FC degree (all Masons, including EAs are allowed to visit other lodges in Texas unlike Ireland which allows only MMs to visit).  Interestingly, the Texas Lodges can operate in four different modes—the three degrees plus a Lodge of Sorrows.  The Lodge of Sorrows is opened by an incoming WM and is closed at the last meeting he presides over as WM.  I had the opportunity to see Texas Lodges operating in two different degrees and I can say that these two rituals are fairly different from each other.

                Texas Lodges have two types of meetings:  stated and called.  Stated meetings are the monthly, business oriented meetings and while they can confer degrees at these meetings, degrees are generally reserved for called meetings.  Called meetings are held at other times and are spent entirely on conferring degrees or on instruction and conduct no business apart from ritual.  Both meetings I attended were stated meetings.  According to WB Fisher, called meetings are completely different from the stated meetings I attended in that they are very formal affairs where the whole meeting is centred on the ritual itself, which must be mastered by all present to a high degree of proficiency.

The opening of a Lodge in Texas is a very quick affair and felt to me like a number of steps were skipped.  However, one of their first agenda items is to welcome all visitors and invite them (or their host, if they were invited by a member) to say a few words and tell where they’re from.  As a visitor, I thought this was a very welcoming gesture and made me feel more involved in the meeting from early on.  In Irish Lodges, visitors typically say little other than a formal greeting as part of the closing of the meeting.

                I actually missed the more intricate ritual and formality of my Irish Lodge.  But, both Texas Lodge meetings were very fun to attend.  There is a lot more casual banter between members and more free flowing debate on issues affecting the Lodge.  I also found that both WMs spent time engaging with most of the membership from the chair,  commenting on recent events, news and the like.  In Buda, the WM invited the Brethren to share jokes to make the most of a delay in proceedings .

                At both Texas Lodge meetings, there were a lot of communiqués from Grand Lodge which included optional projects the Lodge could get involved in.  These communiqués led to spirited discussions on how best to participate in community and school projects.  At Onion Creek Lodge, degrees are given at special meetings held between the general meetings.  So, at the meeting I attended, the conferring of degrees on two brethren was noted and two new candidates were voted upon.  By contrast, Irish Lodges typically confer degrees at normal meetings and, in my brief experience, there isn’t generally much business arising from communiqués from Grand or Provincial Grand Lodge.  However, unlike in Irish Lodges, no time was spent on correspondence and the reading of minutes was quite brief (although, correspondence is dealt with, if it has been received). 

                Both Texas lodges also had a talk given by a member.  At Onion Creek, the “Masonic Moment” was strictly limited to two minutes and focused on the historic relationship between the Lodge and an area elementary school (they used to be located in the same building which was originally built by the Masons).  The Buda Lodge had a talk on recent tax changes which was of interest to all of the Brethren.  It’s my understanding that talks on areas of Masonic interest are routine in English lodges, but I have yet to see such a talk in an Irish lodge (although, I understand they do happen).

Officers

                There is a fairly different officer structure at work in Texas Lodges from Irish ones.  The table below is a brief comparison of the two:

Irish Lodges

Texas Lodges

WM, SW, JW, SD, JD, Sec, T, Chaplain

Same.

DC

None.

IPM

No role for IPM.

Almoner
Steward of Charities

Committees look after the visiting of the sick.
Widows are looked after on an ad hoc basis.

Inner Guard

No Inner Guard.

Tyler (Optional)

Always have Tylers.

Organist (Optional)

Musician (Optional)

Steward

Some lodges have rotating food committees, overseen by Junior and Senior Stewards who are responsible for both food and the Lodge building and grounds

 

                I noticed a few key differences in how the officers participated in Texas Lodge meetings.  For starters, it appears to be the duty of the SD to announce all guests present at the meeting.  Interestingly, the SD sits in the North instead of with the SW.  As noted above, the SD and JD have little to do on the floor and, when they do act, don’t use their wands.  I found the use of a Tyler instead of an IG to be somewhat awkward as it meant the Tyler was physically outside the room for at least part of the meeting.  Except during rituals and balloting, the Tyler is allowed to sit in the doorway, with the door open so he can participate in the meeting.  At Onion Creek, when outside the door, he was able to view proceedings through a closable hole in the door.  I haven’t had the opportunity to see a Tyler at work in Ireland, but I would assume it would operate in much the same way.

                The Texas Lodges seemed to rely on a combination of officers to assist the WM, sharing the role of the DC between them.  This worked quite well, but did place additional work onto already busy Secretaries, Treasurers and others.  Unlike in Irish lodges, there appears to be no real role for IPMs.  At a previous meeting in Buda, when the WM was absent, the SW actually took the chair in his place.

                In Ireland, there is generally a progression through the officer ranks for all members once they attain their MM degree.  The Texas system of “going through the chairs” is essentially the same.  There are also certification requirements to be a WM, SW and JW (see below).  In addition, officers are required to attend courses mandated by Grand Lodge during their term in office.  No such formal requirements exist in Ireland.

Bureaucracy

                Given the more casual nature of the Texas lodges, you would expect this to extend to all areas of Masonry.  However, my impression is quite the opposite—Texas lodges are much more bureaucratic and rule-based than Irish lodges.  The most obvious example of this is the Texans’ use of Dues Cards.  Each year after paying their annual dues, Texas Masons are issued a Dues Card which has their name, home lodge information and a note indicating that they are current in their dues.  These cards must be shown (along with a legal form of ID) when visiting other lodges.  This ensures that only paid-up members are able to visit other lodges.

                Since I was visiting without a Dues Card, I was to be either tested or had to produce my MM certificate (which I had with me, at the suggestion of my own Lodge Secretary).  However, since I couldn’t prove that I was paid-up, the first lodge I visited had me make a special oath swearing that I was a current, paid-up member of my Lodge.  At the second lodge I visited, I was allowed in without this procedure when a member who had been present at my first visit vouched for me.  I suspect that Irish lodges are more casual about verifying visitors because a Mason is quickly known within their province.  A couple of casual questions about other members of your Lodge will quickly show whether or not you’re legitimate.  Also, given the small number of Irish lodges, it is probably very rare that a non-Mason or a non-paid-up Mason would present themselves as a visitor.

                Due to my very brief visit, I wasn’t able to learn all of the particulars about the Texas system of giving degrees.  However, there are a lot of rules governing progression.  When a new member wishes to join, the background research on them is much more detailed in Texas than in Ireland.  In addition to the basic information you would expect would be gathered on a prospective member, the Texans also collect information about where a person was born (including the hospital), their parents’ names, names of children and ex-wives, schools attended, etc.

                Once initiated, each degree has a minimum and maximum amount of time at which a member can remain at this degree.  To progress, a member must demonstrate their knowledge of the degree by passing an oral test.  Before the Onion Creek meeting, I saw several Brethren discussing their degree application forms with more senior Masons who apparently had to sign-off on their progress before they could take their test.  At Onion Creek Lodge, Brethren attaining their MM degree had their Masonic career commemorated with a special, oversized coin with all of the dates of their degrees as well as being given a very ornate, massive Masonic bible.  By contrast, Irish Brethren are passed to the next degree after a minimum time period has elapsed and I’ve never seen any paperwork other than the conferring of the MM certificate. 

                Once a Texas Mason achieves their MM, they can begin working towards certificates.  Essentially, there are three certificate levels (A, B and C).  Masons must memorize a body of ritual and pass an exam to receive a given certificate.  To attain a level C certificate, a Mason must memorize all of the rituals related to running a lodge meeting (this certificate is required of any member wishing to hold the offices of WM, SW or JW).  The B certificate includes all of the ritual of the C certificate, but adds degree ritual.  The A certificate adds additional rituals to those included in the B certificate.  All certificates last for only a few years and must be renewed until a Mason has held a certificate perpetually for more than 25 years (at this point, they become lifetime certifications).  Certificates are not required of members to participate in degree ceremonies and even EAs are allowed to play minor roles in assisting in giving degrees.

                By contrast, there is no similar system in Ireland.  Members are expected to master the meeting rituals by advancing through the officer ranks and must demonstrate their mastery of all or part of degree ceremonies before they’re allowed to participate in degree ceremonies.  However, it appears to be possible in both Ireland and Texas to choose not to learn degree ritual and, in effect, not participate in this element of Masonry.

Activities

                Unfortunately, the single biggest difference between Irish and Texas Masonry is in the level of secrecy.  In Ireland, most Masons would prefer to keep their membership in the Craft a secret from their neighbours, co-workers and even extended family members.  In Texas, Masons openly wear rings, shirts or adorn their cars with Masonic décor.  When I lived in Texas, I always knew someone who was a Mason and could quickly find a lodge—all you had to do was look for the massive sign outside.  By contrast, Irish lodges have very subtle signage and are very easy to miss.  Some are marked only with a modest square and compass and several require complicated directions to even find!

                The knock-on effect of this is that Texas lodges are much more visible in the community.  The Onion Creek Lodge maintains a strong historic link with a local primary school.  They have an annual event for the students there that they attend in their lodge shirts.  They were also recently invited to lay the cornerstone of a new public building as part of a public, civic event.  Onion Creek Lodge also volunteers at the South Austin Medical Center where they provided more than 200 hours of volunteer service in March alone.  They can and do wear Masonic symbols while performing these various public and volunteer functions.

Similarly, the Buda Lodge sponsors university scholarships each year to the local high schools.  Both Lodges have public fundraisers and are visible at community events.  Ironically, both are constantly seeking ways to raise their profiles among members of their local communities to make it easier to attract new members.

                By contrast, Irish lodges are almost invisible in their communities.  Most people in Irish towns are probably unaware that there is a local Masonic lodge at all.  This is not to say that Irish lodges don’t help their communities—most fundraise for local or national charities such as the Samaritans.  But, unlike their Texas Brethren, they tend not to participate in local festivals and parades.

Final Thoughts

                Masonry in Texas has slightly unusual roots.  They trace their work back to English Freemasonry (via Pennsylvania) as well as from France (via Louisiana).  One of the founding fathers of both Texas and Freemasonry in Texas was Stephen F. Austin.  He first petitioned the York Grand Lodge of Mexico for a charter in 1828.  This application was rejected.  He then successfully petitioned the Grand Lodge of Louisiana for a Charter in 1836 which was granted in 1838.  The influences of both traditions were blended in Texas and have created a Masonic culture which is slightly different from that found in the rest of the United States.

                You can’t help but soak up the history of the Texas lodges.  With famous Texas Masons including Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Stephen F. Austin, Charles Goodnight (of the Goodnight-Loving cattle trail), Gene Autry and “Buzz” Aldrin, it’s hard not to get sucked into the cowboy spirit at play in the lodges.  The photos of PMs, almost all donning their cowboy hats merely adds to the western feel of the two lodges I visited.

                I greatly enjoyed visiting the two Texas lodges and will try to keep up with several of the members I met on the nights.  Coming from Ireland, I found the informality of proceedings to be fun, but it also felt incomplete with the shorter rituals and less formal dress and regalia.  I have to say I also missed the wand work by the SD, JD and DC.  I would like to see Irish lodges incorporate the regular talks into each meeting and I think it might be worth considering having degree ceremonies at separate meetings, particularly if the Lodge has a lot of degree ceremonies across the year.  While I enjoy them, they tend to make the members a bit tired for the remainder of the Agenda and might lead to less spirited discussion of other business as the time gets later.  I also think the two approaches to duties have merit:  the Irish system offers more opportunities for members to serve as officers while the use of committees in Texas would seem to divide the workload more fairly.

 

Special thanks to Worshipful Brother Max Fisher, of Onion Creek Lodge No 220 (Texas) for checking my facts and helping to clarify my understanding of what I saw.

 

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