Why was a Catholic priest talking to the Freemasons in a Protestant church hall? (Bear with us)
To many, they might have little in common, but a recent event to raise cash to buy teddies for sick children proved how all sides can come together – and learn about each other, too.
Published 30/06/2014 | 02:30
Not long ago it would have been unthinkable – a Catholic priest accepting an invitation from the Freemasons to be the guest speaker in a Protestant church hall.
But tickets for the charity event, in which Enniskillen priest Fr Brian D'Arcy shared snippets from his fascinating life story, sold in such high numbers that a change of venue had to be arranged to accommodate the crowds.
Indeed, senior Orangemen were among those scrambling for a seat alongside senior Freemasons and their friends and family for the unique fundraiser which was organised by Moira businessman Trevor Waddell. It was in aid of a new charity campaign by the Masons to fund free teddy bears for all children admitted to A&E units across Ireland.
Trevor is delighted that as well as boosting the charity fund by thousands, the event also went a long way towards helping demonstrate just how open and inclusive the modern Masonic Lodge has become.
Shrouded in secrecy and controversy for centuries, the Masons have been largely seen as an elitist Protestant boys' club with ridiculous rituals and silly handshakes. Yet Trevor, who is secretary of the Iveagh 184 lodge in Magheralin, is weary of how the public continues to perceive the organisation and he wants that to change.
He insists there is nothing more to the Masons than charity work, friendships and looking after the widows of its deceased members.
"Yes, the big bad Masons are buying small cuddly teddy bears for every A&E unit in Ireland," he says.
"And, yes, the ridiculous rituals are still part of the tradition but there is no secret handshake. I've never used a secret handshake in the 20 years I have been a Mason.
"There are no secrets, you just have to go on to the internet and you can find out anything you want to know about the Masons.
"We do great things and we don't tell anybody, and in that respect we are our own worst enemy.
"For instance, in the last three years we made the biggest single donation of £250,000 to the Children's Hospice in Belfast and no one knows that. We don't blow our own trumpet enough and I think that should change."
Trevor couldn't have picked a better way to bring the work of the Masons into the open than through his recent fundraiser – which broke down all sorts of barriers.
His personal admiration for Fr D'Arcy, which came about after reading the popular priest's bestselling autobiography, is what gave him the idea.
Father D'Arcy, who is based in Enniskillen, has courted controversy himself over the years with his outspoken opinions about his own church.
A noted author, newspaper columnist and broadcaster, he preaches at St Gabriel's Retreat, the Graan.
Initially, he was to appear in Trevor's local Masonic Hall, which holds just 80 people, but tickets proved so popular that more than 350 were sold and the venue was changed to the Jethro Centre, a church hall belonging to Shankill Church of Ireland Parish in nearby Lurgan.
Trevor says: "The event was a first on many levels. To get a Catholic priest into a Protestant church hall in a town as divided as Lurgan is not something that happens every day.
"But Fr D'Arcy is such an incredible guy. We brought him to our Masonic hall for tea which was a first for him and he sat in the Worshipful Master's chair and had his photo taken.
"I think it changed a few people's views of the Masons, including Fr D'Arcy who was surprised to hear that we had many Catholic members.
"Everyone said how incredible a night it was."
The event raised £3,000 for the Masons Teddies For Loving Care Appeal, which was launched last September. To date 24,000 teddies have been given to hospitals across Ireland by the Masons who estimate that another 35,000 will be needed in the year ahead.
The cost to maintain the service annually is a colossal £56,000 which members will do as part of their annual charity work.
The Masons is a much stronger institution in Northern Ireland than in the Republic, with 15,000 of its 23,000 Irish members based here.
Trevor says: "Past professional experience has shown that young children admitted to A&E units are frightened by the strange surroundings and often painful procedures they have to undergo. A teddy bear is something to hold onto – a distraction and something that staff can use to demonstrate bandages, plasters and even injections.
"Most children have to leave their toys outside A&E and with our appeal they get to keep the Teddy and bring it home with them."
Trevor has been a Mason for 20 years, following in the footsteps of his father and his grandfather, who was a founder member of his lodge in Magheralin. For him it's all about camaraderie and charity work.
He mentions some of the charity work, including £37,000 raised by the Co Down Masons in six months last year for ovarian cancer which was given to Mr John Price, a consultant at the City Hospital in February.
He dislikes what he describes as the myths which still surround Freemasons and tries to dispel some of them.
"We are not a secret organisation but we have some secrets like any other organisation. We look after our widows and also the education of the children of deceased members," he says.
"We used to have boys' and girls' boarding schools in Dublin but we sold them and put the money into a fund which now pays for children's education right up until university level.
"It's a big thing to know that if something happens to you, your kids will get a good education and your wife will be taken care of."
The rituals, which are performed at the meetings, continue as traditions handed down from generation to generation.
There has been much speculation about what goes on behind closed doors and, as Trevor points out, googling the organisation makes for interesting reading.
He says: "The rituals are still there and some might seem silly but we accept them as part of our tradition.
"They're more important to some members than others.
"But we are about much more than that. We enjoy the craic but our main function is fundraising for charity."
The controversy which has surrounded the organisation has impacted on its image and today it struggles to attract new blood. With an ageing membership, there is a drive now to attract younger men.
Trevor says: "Most members are aged 40 and older and many lodges have lots of members who are 70-plus and set in their ways.
"We're trying hard to get younger members. Personally I think anyone under 30 might find it a wee bit boring with all the rituals but we do have craic afterwards."
Although he has no exact figures for the religious make-up of the Masons, Trevor says it's open to all religions and that there is a large Catholic membership.
"We have a Bible which we take various vows on and if there is a Muslim member he will take vows on the Koran while a Jewish man will do so on the Hebrew Bible.
"To join the Masons you just have to believe in a higher being and be someone of good moral standing.
"One lodge has seven Fillipino members and I've no idea what religion they are and that's the way it should be.
"We have nothing to do with the Orange or Black Institutions nor would we do anything that is not upstanding."
Every member has a vote and the Masons still use the old bean system for secret ballots, with a white bean representing a vote in favour and a black bean against.
Masonic halls are dotted all around the countryside and as part of the new openness some are now used by community groups.
Social class is traditionally seen as a barrier to joining the Masons which has long been viewed as an elitist fraternity club. Again, Trevor begs to differ: "What trade you are in is irrelevant. All you need to be is a sensible bloke."
Trevor, who runs Longstone Property Sales in Moira, adds: "I wouldn't want to be in anything that I couldn't talk about or felt I had to keep secret.
"I'm quite proud to be a Mason, we do good things and I want people to know that.
"It is not something to be ashamed of. It's all about being a person of good character."
... and what did Fr D’Arcy make of his hosts?
Fr Brian D’Arcy has never shied away from controversy but even he was taken aback when the invitation came through to support a charity function for the Freemasons.
Yet the Enniskillen priest had a superb night despite his gut reaction when the invite came through: “It was a bit scary,” he confesses.
Fr D’Arcy says: “I’m not all that into secretive organisations, be they Protestant or Catholic, and I really don’t have time for organisations which don’t allow women into them, but you have to take small steps, so I didn’t think about all that, I just thought about the children who would benefit.
“It is an all-Ireland and allcommunity charity campaign and who would not help children if they can?”
The priest was pleasantly surprised by his popularity which meant a larger venue had to be found, but admits to feeling some discomfort at being a Catholic priest speaking in a Protestant church hall to a largely Protestant audience.
“It wasn’t an easy invite to accept and as a Catholic cleric I’m sure there were people who didn’t agree with me being there at all, but I hope they changed their minds by the end of the night.
“I thought it was great so many people were interested in coming along and everyone had a bit of a laugh.
“When you are doing something like that and it is new ground you don’t know what to expect but it was great, a really pleasant night and I would do it again.”
Fr D’Arcy said he had no insight into the Masonic Lodge or its workings, and while he could find 100 good reasons not to go — all of which he said were prejudicial — he couldn’t justify not helping such a good cause.
Prior to his talk in the Jethro Centre in Lurgan he was invited for tea at the Masonic Hall where he was further surprised by an invitation to sit in the sacred chair of the Lodge’s worshipful master.
He says: “It was certainly new for me and I think there would be an awful lot of Protestants, too, who haven’t been inside a Masonic hall.
“I was a bit hesitant to sit in the chair as I wasn’t sure if it would be misrepresented but the worshipful master himself told me it was okay, and that it would not be disrespectful.”
With the Masons working hard to shed its image of secrecy and adopt a new modern image of openness, Fr D’Arcy enjoyed the insight.
He adds: “I found them decent human beings. They might do all sorts of weird things but then they probably view some of the things I would do in one of my services as being weird.
“It’s just a matter of perception. They have their secret rituals which mean something to them and that’s fine, I don’t need to know about them.
“The Bible is at the centre of their work and it is the same God after all. You get to a destination by many different paths and it’s the destination that counts.”