As Masons we instruct our Entered Apprentices that “A Lodge is an assemblage of Masons duly congregated, having the Holy Bible, Square and Compasses and a Charter or Warrant of Constitution authorizing them to work.” Likewise any history of a Lodge must be about its members.
St. Johns has an interesting history having been formed before the turn of the century to serve Masonic interests in the coal mining community of Wellington.
It all began on the 7th of December 1890, when W. Bro. William Stewart, acting on behalf of several Freemasons in Wellington, persuaded Ashlar Lodge No. 3 to recommend to Grand Lodge of B. C. that a new lodge be formed in Wellington.
Some fifty very determined Freemasons, most of whom were members of Ashlar Lodge No. 3 in Nanaimo headed by W. Bro. Stewart, later D.D.G.M. of District 5, whose picture you now see hanging on the North wall of our Lodge room, petitioned the Grand Lodge of B. C. for a new Lodge to be located at Wellington, B.C. It was at first refused a dispensation by the Grand Master, M. Wor. Bro. Downie who felt it was too close to Nanaimo’s Ashlar, and Doric Lodges, a mere five mile walk. The records reveal that Masons in those days were as stubborn as they are today. With persistence and the support of Ashlar Lodge #3, they were finally successful, and moved into a commodious hall they had previously arranged for Masonic purposes.
A dispensation was issued and back dated to January 1893, St. Johns No. 21 was Constituted on the 7th of July 1894.
William Stewart, our first Master was a dominant figure in Freemasonry. Born in England of Scottish ancestors, his parents emigrated to Prince Edward Island, where he was raised a Master Mason in 1858 at St. Johns Lodge #561 E.R. now No. 1, G.R.P.E.I.
He lived in British Columbia as a sapper with the military, doing construction work on the Fraser River. He became a police constable in New Westminster and later, until his death, served as keeper of the Provincial Jail in Nanaimo. He was a faithful member of the Anglican Church and a strong temperance advocate.
His two sons followed him as Masters of their Lodges. This must have been a source of great pride for him. One cannot help but wonder what the thoughts of those founding members would be if they could be sitting here with us today.
W. Bro. Stewart’s world was much different than ours. His Church and Masonic Lodge were the only games in town. A Mason picked up his small black case and, if he told his wife anything it was just that he would be out. Men walked to Lodge, often several miles, if they had no horse. A woman’s place was in the home, she had no vote. Children were to be seen and not heard. Life expectancy hovered around the fifties. Henry Ford had just started making automobiles. The Klondike Gold Rush was yet to be staged. The Lodge room was lit with coal oil lamps, heated of course by coal stoves. Masons tipped their hat to ladies and seniors. There was no competition for a Mason’s time as we experience it today, from a proliferation of service clubs, twenty four hour television programs, rental videos, organized sports and many other attractions.
Lets take a look at this small miracle on Vancouver Island, this assemblage of Masons who have survived for a century.
Most of the Brethren were coal miners. Many could barely read or write. By the signatures I have examined in the Porch Books, signing their name must have been a near agony. Ball point pens had not been invented.
Today, a Century later, we celebrate the centennial of this Masonic Lodge. Between the receipt of its charter and today’s celebration, lies a history of obstacles overcome by its dedicated Brethren. They weathered the closing of the Wellington mines, which threatened the very survival of the Lodge itself, The Brethren, undaunted, just moved their Lodge to Ladysmith in July of 1901, taking their huge wood frame building with them on company railway cars.
Even today, this seems an almost unbelievable undertaking. I think this makes St. Johns unique.
In March of 1912 fire broke out in the Lodge building, quickly spreading to adjacent buildings. The Lodge building, furnishings and most of the Lodge records were destroyed. Perhaps the coal stoves or coal oil lamps were at fault. The canny Scots had insurance and the Brethren, with less than one hundred members, promptly rebuilt, this time a masonry structure. We are today celebrating in that same building which our farsighted forefathers constructed. At times our building has hosted: a school; the Odd Fellows; the Eastern Star; Chemainus Lodge and many others.
Our membership on the 22nd of June 1894 stood at 31 Master Masons, which included 11 Charter Members. A Century later, on the 22nd of June 1994, our Membership stands at 94 Master Masons, 3 Fellowcraft Masons, 3 Entered Apprentices and one candidate; a total of 101. Freemasonry is indeed alive and well on Vancouver Island.
Attendance at our regular convocations has remained relatively stable over the century. Our porch books reveal an average of about fifteen to twenty five signatures. Special occasions, such as today, attract greater numbers. For an installation we approach a hundred in attendance. A Grand Master’s or D.D.G.M.’s visit is a great drawing card. I think it interesting to note that for an ordinary practice we sometimes attract as many as 15 or more officers and “critics”.
Over the years Brethren have presented articles and furniture to the Lodge. Many are still in use. Look around and you will see them. I have been unable to determine if our rough and perfect Ashlars are the original ones presented by W. Bro. John Rodger and made by him from local stone in 1899. They could have survived the fire. Our silver officer’s jewels were purchased in 1922, the Deacon and Steward’s wands were obtained in 1934, the Officer’s chairs in 1944. The old style chart you see behind the S. W.’s chair was presented to his Lodge by brother John Bland. In 1946 Bro. A.P. Glen presented an unused 3p English stamp with masonic emblems, sanctioned by King George VI. This is displayed in the same frame with the old style chart.
Dr. Bickle gave the Lodge two “very fine” officers chairs. I assume these are the ones presently in use by the Master and Senior Warden. our “low twelve” gong was presented in 1957 by W. Bro. W.G. Hunter. We have preserved photographs of our Pastmasters over the years. These are hung on the walls of our anteroom. Photographs of past D.D.G.M.’s of St. Johns are on the wall beside the secretary’s station. Five framed old style gold Past Masters jewels which have been returned to the Lodge have a place of honor on the north wall just inside the entrance to the Lodge room. On the S.W.’s pedestal you will see a gold pocket watch suspended in a special display case. This was presented by the Lodge in 1893 to. R.W.Bro. John Frame, our first Senior Warden. W. Bro. Jack Radford revived the Master’s top hat, which is now optional with St. Johns’ Masters. Our Secretary’s desk was presented in 1961 by Bros. Wm. Wilson and Clive Davis. In 1987 W. Bro. Trace gave the Lodge a lapel pin, in the form of a silver square, to be worn by the W. Master and passed on to his successor.
In 1948 St. Johns Lodge No. 21 and West Seattle Lodge No. 287, (now West Seattle Service Lodge No. 287) began annual fraternal visits. These are highlights of our Lodge year. We are fortunate today to have so many of our American friends present. Thank you for making the effort to be with us on this Historic Occasion. I presume you drove up, something like a couple of hours, plus the ferry trip. How our forefathers would have envied you. It has not always been quite so easy.
On Thursday the 15th of October 1987, St. Johns Lodge quietly celebrated its 1000th regular communication, with some of the older members reminiscing about earlier days. At the usual ten regular meetings per year, St. Johns should have then been 100 years old, but not so, you see until 1936 it met right through the summer months without recess, and so had to wait to reach age one hundred.