“People still call it the Masonic Temple, but there’s nothing Masonic about it today except for its history. The Masons don’t meet there anymore,” said Chris Sova, a Past Master and current Secretary of Joppa Lodge #315.
Sova is a Bay City native and 32 Degree Scottish Rite Mason.
“Actually, our new lodge is down the street on 6th and Van Buren.”
The Masonic Temple was built in 1893 as the home of Bay City’s local Joppa Lodge #315, which was chartered in Bay City in 1874. In 1925, the Scottish Rite Cathedral, known as the Consistory was built next door.
Several founders of Bay City were Freemasons including Nathan Bradley, Bay City’s first mayor, and William McCormick, one of the first settlers of Bay City.
Freemasons! Super-secretive society?
Yes, but no.
“Freemasons are not a secret society. It's a society with secrets. You just have to be a member to know them,” said Scova.
There are 27,000 Masons currently living in Michigan, 900 of whom are members of the Valley of Bay City and 800 of whom are members of the Scottish Rite.
“At one time it had 8,000 members. We serve a geographic area from the Mackinaw Bridge to Genesee County and out to the Thumb. That's the Valley of Bay City. There are 5 in Michigan. Valley of Grand Rapids, Valley of Detroit, Valley of Traverse City, and Valley of Marquette,” said Sova.
What is the difference between being a Freemason and the Scottish Rite?
“The Scottish Rite is just another branch of the whole Masonic family. You have to join the Blue [or local Masonic] Lodge first before you can join the Scottish Rite. Everybody is a Mason first,” said Sova.“We don’t know why we call it the Blue Lodge. There is a theory it is because people were wearing blue regalia then.”
The Scottish Rite is one of largest and most visible branches of Freemasonry.
Other well-known branches of Freemasonry include The York Rite (which include the Knights Templar) and Shriners International, a group most recognized by the men wearing red fezzes and riding little cars in parades to raise money for their 23 children’s hospitals in the US.
“It starts with Masonry, that’s the first through third degree. It just builds up off of that using numbers for ease of use. The Scottish Rite has the fourth through the thirty-second degrees,” said Bay City native Bill Meyer, a 33° Mason.
“He is actually a 33° Scottish Rite member. The 33° is bestowed to less than 2% of all Scottish Rite Masons, it is an honorary degree for outstanding service to the Brotherhood.”
In Masonic lodges there are three degrees of membership, the third is Master Mason. Legend has it when receiving the third degree the candidate is subjected to, “the third degree”, a phrase now in common use.
“It's a way for us to convey to the new members different morals and different teaching,” said Sova.
The degrees, or steps of the Scottish Rite, are short performances with full costume, scenery and effects, much like any other stage production. They teach what great thinkers and civilizations have believed in the past, and they demonstrate situations in which members can gain insight.
Welcome to 614 Center Avenue
For almost 20 years, the Bay City Scottish Rite Masons have been providing a classroom and funding for a learning center for Bay City Children’s Dyslexia Center on the fifth floor of the Consistory. There is an auditorium and a large reception area used for wedding rentals, quinceaneras, and prom. The backdrops are hand-painted, and are original from the early 1920s.
People come to see the organ in the auditorium on the yearly organ tour, and the Consistory’s sister cathedral in Hamilton, Ontario was used in filming, “The Handmaid's Tale”.
“And we have the chair General Cornwallis sat in when he surrendered at York Town.” added Sova.
And if you believe such things, the building is haunted.
So, how do you become a Mason?
First and foremost, masons don’t personally recruit. Candidates over the age of 18 must petition their local Blue Lodge.
“People are joining the organization that their grandfather belonged to but their dad didn’t know,” said Meyer. He became a member in 1993 following in the steps of his father and grandfather.
Today membership is on the rise.
“The turn of the 20th century was the golden age of fraternalism. It started with WWI and really took off after WWII,” said Sova. “Men came back from service and joined everything from Oddfellows to Elks. Our numbers inflated at that time...then, the Baby Boomer generation didn’t join because they didn’t want to join what their parents did, we think. There is a noticeable gap.”’
The local chapter, Joppa Lodge Free and Accepted Masons of Michigan, meets on the first Tuesday of the month. Dinner begins at 6:30 followed by their meeting.
“I invite anyone that is interested or have questions to join us for dinner before our [monthly] meeting. It takes time to become a Mason. We believe in making quality people vs quantity.”