On the first and third Monday of every month — except in summer months when only one Monday will do — in an old building on a downtown street wanting for bustle, the Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of Wellsburg Lodge No. 2 meet. Members only, and only men.
Theirs is not to be confused with other fraternal organizations on other quiet streets. The Loyal Order of Moose Lodge No. 1564, say, whose ham loaf and D.J. nights and fish fry and karaoke nights might be of concern to the local rescue squad. No, the fun-loving Moose should never be confused with the secret-loving Masons.
For more than 20 years, among the most faithful Masons here in Wellsburg was Frank J. Haas: administrative law judge, active Presbyterian, Mensa member, single. He would come down the hill from his house, walk through the lodge’s doors and instantly become Past Master of Lodge No. 2, Past Grand Master of Masons of the State of West Virginia, Brother Haas.
But at a Monday night meeting several months ago, Brother Haas was summoned to the center of the room in this, his mother lodge. In front of men he has known all his life, including his father, he was expelled; given the “Masonic Death Sentence.”
Mr. Haas has not returned — members only. But all those suddenly free Monday nights gave him time to ponder his growing reputation as a Masonic martyr. Now he has sued the least transparent and Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of West Virginia, seeking damages and, more important, reinstatement.
“Expelled Mason,” the large man says in soft voice. “Harsh sounding.”
Masonry’s adherence to closed-door ritual may intrigue conspiracy theorists. Its diminishing ranks and relevance may cause smiling feminists to say, Knock yourselves out, boys. And its taste for pompous honorifics and ornate regalia may conjure images of solemn men with arms interlocked: Laurel and Hardy meet Babbitt.
But Mr. Haas, 50, sees Masonry as a fraternity dedicated to “making good men better,” one in which the courtroom janitor has as much say as the judge. His great-grandfather was a Mason, his father is a Mason, and many relatives are Masons. It was his destiny.
Demonstrating a deep knowledge of Masonic history and a facility for reciting the archaic text used in allegorical plays and other secret ceremonies, Mr. Hass rose to become head — or Worshipful Master — of his local lodge and then, in October 2005, Grand Master of the state lodge.
During his one-year term, Grand Master Haas visited dozens of lodges in the state, where he says some of the 24,000 members often complained about West Virginia’s failure to shed practices that other state lodges had long since done away with, practices that fell between the dumb and the downright discriminatory.
For example, the laws of West Virginia Masonry still maintain that “one who has lost a foot, a right hand or a right thumb back of the first joint is ineligible for Masonry.” No matter if you lost said body part in Guadalcanal or Falluja; secret handshakes and embraces must be just so.
Another example: West Virginia lodges cannot support outside charities. The Moose might help raise money for the local volunteer fire department, but the Masons cannot support such “profanes,” that is, those who are not Masons.
“It’s hard to explain” to other members of the community, Mr. Haas acknowledges.
Then there was the matter of race. The Ancient, Free and Accepted lodges in West Virginia not only have no black members, they maintain no contact with the state’s separate and predominantly black Masonic fraternities, called Prince Hall lodges. “It’s not just nonrecognition,” Mr. Haas says with frustration. “It’s hostility.”
In October 2006, at the annual statewide meeting of the Grand Lodge in Wheeling, when his tenure was about to end, Mr. Haas presented a bloc of amendments designed to modify rules that no longer made sense (if they ever did). For instance, since lodges in other states had black members, he proposed the radical idea that “qualified visiting brethren may not be excluded from attendance if race is a factor.”
The changes, called the Wheeling reforms, overcame significant resistance and were passed by a close vote. Mr. Haas then handed his gavel to a successor, who promptly set aside the reforms on procedural grounds
Gradually, though always with what he says was respect for Masonry, Mr. Haas spoke out for the need for change. Racism, he says, still lingers in the requirement that local Masonic leaders must “maintain peace and harmony” in their lodges. Code, he says.
The inner struggles occupied many a West Virginia Mason and led to the creation of a Web site called Masonic Crusade, in which “brethren” anonymously but candidly vented their feelings. So candidly, in fact, that Mr. Haas’s successor as Grand Master sent a warning to the site promising expulsion to participants.
Then, in November, the current Grand Master, Charlie Montgomery, visited the Wellsburg lodge for an oyster party in which the Grand Master of Ohio was also in attendance. Having two Grand Masters at one event is a big deal, Masonically speaking.
After the mass consumption of mollusks, a Mason from Sistersville pointedly asked Mr. Montgomery during the formal meeting why, among other things, the Wheeling reforms had never resurfaced for discussion and a vote. Mr. Haas says Mr. Montgomery, who did not return calls seeking comment, told the man to sit down.
Then Mr. Haas was invited to speak, in deference to his status as a Past Grand Master. He praised his outspoken colleague and then said something about the dream living on.
Two weeks later, Mr. Haas says, Grand Master Montgomery called to say he would be in Wellsburg for Monday’s meeting and asked if Mr. Haas would be there. But of course, Mr. Haas answered, thinking the Grand Master wanted to thank the lodge for its oyster feast. Not quite.
Mr. Montgomery, who arrived with a posse of Masonic brass, did thank the lodge for the oysters. But soon he summoned Mr. Haas and his outspoken colleague to what is known as the altar. The colleague was expelled first and promptly left the room.
Now it was Mr. Haas’s turn. There he stood, wearing a business suit and the apron with the purple border and gold fringe that signified his status as a Past Grand Master. There, in the lodge he had belonged to for more than 20 years, in front of his father, in front of his brothers.
There, silent and mortified, while another grown man read an edict asserting that he had supported an illegal Web site; had sought to subvert the principles of the lodge by seeking the repeal of “our laws”; had been insubordinate toward the Grand Lodge and its Grand Master; and this: had “demonstrated conduct unbecoming a Mason.”
Another man might have said enough with this grand high exalted mystic boobery, but not Brother Haas. He has sued the Grand Lodge because he says he was denied due process. Because he wants to bring about change. Because he wants to belong again.
byline: Dan Barry
New York Times
Published June 16, 2008