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Freemasons herald openness in rare public discussion in Ellwood City

| Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Don Boehm, a member of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Pittsburgh portrays Abraham Lincoln, reciting the Gettysburg Address during a The “Abraham Lincoln Degree,” which was formerly the 26th degree of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry at the Ellwood Masonic Lodge No. 599 in Ellwood City, on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Don Boehm, a member of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Pittsburgh portrays Abraham Lincoln, reciting the Gettysburg Address during a The “Abraham Lincoln Degree,” which was formerly the 26th degree of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry at the Ellwood Masonic Lodge No. 599 in Ellwood City, on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

Abraham Lincoln sat his young assistant down and asked him to explain his interest in joining the Freemasons.

“At first I had no interest,” the young man said. “I thought it was a secret society with strange signs.”

He proceeds to explain that he was wrong, that fellow soldiers in Civil War battlefields taught him that Freemasons are a fraternity of decent, like-minded men who look out for one another, no matter the circumstances.

The message of Masonic unity was delivered on Tuesday night during a rare public performance by local Freemasons in Ellwood City. The event served two purposes, officials said.

First, with the 150-year anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg approaching next month, the showing of the “Abraham Lincoln Degree” is timely.

Second, such events educate the public about Freemasons, attract new members and improve the secretive fraternity's often shady image, said Ross Conrad, master of the Ellwood City Lodge.

“This is not an organization of the cloak and dagger, conspiracies, plans to take over the world,” Conrad said. “But when people don't know about something, they're scared of it. That's not how we'd like to be seen.”

Freemasons are a global group that permits only men. They hold meetings behind closed doors, preferring a level of secrecy that can lead to innuendo and unflattering speculation by outsiders, Conrad said.

Conrad and others said Freemasons, though, are charitable men who seek only to improve themselves and their communities.

“We encourage community service and integrity. We encourage good virtues,” said Wayne Frankenstein, district deputy grand master for the 26th Masonic District of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.

Yet membership is declining, Frankenstein said, “just like every other organization.”

“Young people don't even know who the Masons are now; we've lost our identity,” Frankenstein said. “We're trying to get out and show people who we are.”

There are 108,000 Freemasons in Pennsylvania, he said.

The “Lincoln Degree,” presented as a three-act, 35-minute play, teaches members that they are united in all walks of life, not only while attending secret meetings, officials said.

“It teaches that even in times of conflict, Freemasons are still a united body,” said James Knight, an Evans City Freemason.

Members of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Pittsburgh performed the play in front of about 80 people.

The Ellwood City Lodge had to seek clearance for the public performance, Conrad said. It was granted by the governing body of the Northern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite, the Supreme Council in Lexington, Mass.

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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