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The Charity of an Order Challenged by Change

The Para-Masonic Organizations

Particular mention should be made of the para-Masonic movement of the Shriners. A charitable organization that was created in 1872 by thirteen Masons, the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, soon followed, in 1889, by the Gotto, then in 1902 by the Tall Cedars of Lebanon, had as its purpose, at least originally, the practice of “camaraderie and amusement.” But like the National Sojourners, created in 1919 and to which membership was reserved to military personnel who had attained the grade of master, the para-Masonic orders have an essentially charitable vocation. Of these organizations, the Shriners are the best known. They traditionally recruit their members from the ranks of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite who have been promoted to the 32nd degree or from among those of the Knights Templar. Today they essentially contribute to the support of social works that benefit the public at large, not necessarily individuals with Masonic connections, in an American fiscal context that is highly favorable for gifts and bequests to foundations that are recognized as serving the public good. But they were initially established as a mutual aid system for the benefit of Freemason families in a country that did not have the social safety net that had long existed in Europe.

At the head of a substantial financial and real estate empire (between 1998 and 1999, the number of centers they financed still showed strong growth, expanding from 127 to 136), the Shriners are especially known by the public at large for their exotic appearance. Most people know them from their participation in public parades, where processions of men wearing costumes and fezzes of Egyptian inspiration often ride in silly-looking miniature cars. These actions form part of a game that undeniably compels interest as well as curiosity and seems to seek a notoriety that stands in stark contrast with the discreet nature of the work of the lodge.

Let me say again that these groups’ primary mission remains to make up for the absence of a public health system through their charitable works. They run a good number of retirement homes equipped with medical staffs, orphanages, medical establishments that specialize in the treatment of handicapped children, burn centers, and so forth. They will also step in when necessary to deal with situations outside the country, as I can verify through my diplomatic duties in the Organization of American States and the Pan-American Health Organization, for example, during natural disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean region. They also benefit from private donations as well as bequests but also, and this is characteristic of a very American sociability, from a large number of volunteers, as retired brothers often make themselves available to offer assistance. In just the year 1995, American para-Masonic organizations contributed upward of 750 million dollars to the philanthropic activities of the Shriners, 70 percent of which was directed to the public at large. In 1999, the Shriners organization showed an annual budget of some 300 million dollars.

The Imperial Divan is the governing body for the Shriners International. This governing body takes the place of an administration council and consists of thirteen officers. Each member of this council begins at the lowest level of the Divan and goes up one level each year, with the exception of the imperial treasurer and the imperial director.

The highest executive position in the Shriners International is that of the imperial potentate.

· The imperial potentate is both president and primary director of the Shriners International. He is elected for a one-year term.

· During the length of his tenure, the imperial potentate will visit numerous Shrine temples (assemblies), attend regional Shriner reunions, and visit the Shriners Children Hospital.

· He will perform the duties of administration council president of the Shriners Children Hospitals and of the brotherhood.

This same organizational structure can be found replicated identically in 194 temples (assemblies) in the United States, Canada, Germany, Mexico, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and the Republic of Panama.

The Shriners organization prompted great excitement in both the grand lodges and in the Scottish jurisdictions, with whom they have long shared philosophical and structural ties, when, on the initiative of the imperial potentate, on February 22, 2000, at the Conference of the Grand Masters of North America, it was proposed that henceforth the requirement of the 32nd degree would be changed and master Masons would then be accepted into its ranks. This proposition was essentially dictated by the effects of a precipitous drop in membership of the American Masonic body and the subsequent necessity to seek elsewhere for members, for lack of another solution. The lack of members and therefore resources was threatening to make their absence cruelly felt in the short term. This initiative had the effect of a bomb. On March 27, 2000, the two grand commanders of the South and North, Fred Kleinknecht and Robert Ralston, while accepting and deploring the decline of membership numbers in American Masonic bodies, singularly those of brothers holding the 32nd degree, the traditional adherents of the Shriners, took pains, in a common declaration, to vigorously contest this approach, which they deemed unacceptable. They solemnly called for a national, unified Masonic jumpstart to reconstruct the Shriner order while warning of the discredit that opening the ranks to the master Masons would cause.

Ultimately, while the institutional ties were clearly maintained and while the posts of responsibility and management were still held by Shriners who had been initiated in Masonic lodges, membership rolls were made open to the “profane” who were more or less well off financially. The result was a certain degree of rejuvenation for this venerable organization.

The imperial potentate (as of 2015) was Michael G. Severe, a native of Erie, Colorado, who attained the rank of master Mason at the age of twenty-one, then next made his way up the ladder within the Scottish and York Rites to become a Shriner at the age of twenty-two. Today a retired company president, he had a long experience with the Shriners behind him as he began his tenth term as a member of the administration council of Shriners International and the Shriners Children Hospitals. He was elected to his top post during the annual international Shriners Convention—called the Imperial Council Session—that took place from July 4–8, 2010, in Toronto.

If, for the moment, the social safety net system patiently woven by the American Freemasons still resists the effects caused by the erosion of lodge membership numbers and therefore a reduction of results, questions need to be raised on the sustainability of their network of specialized hospitals, retirement homes, orphanages, and various social institutions. When questioned on these matters, the leaders emphasize that no correlation exists between them so long as gifts and other donations continue to flood in, in accordance with solidly established American custom. It is true that the recent opening of the Shriners is not foreign to this and that, moreover, American tax law still encourages donors to be generous for reasons that are not always cultural. Therefore, nothing indicates that there are reasons to fear the weakening of this still substantial network of Masonic charity, one of the essential elements for the respectability and notoriety of the Order and its members in the United States.

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Plate 1. First American edition of the Constitutions by Benjamin Franklin. © Supreme Council 33°, Southern Jurisdiction of the United States; Lee Ewing, photographer.

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Plate 2. Prince Hall and his wife. © The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

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Plate 3. George Washington, Freemason and first president of the United States. © Supreme Council 33°, Southern Jurisdiction of the United States; Lee Ewing, photographer.

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Plate 4. The fourteen Freemason American presidents. © Supreme Council 33°, Southern Jurisdiction of the United States; Lee Ewing, photographer.

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Plate 5. Albert Pike, Grand Commander of the Supreme Council (Southern Jurisdiction). Portrait by Brady & Co., Washington © Supreme Council 33°, Southern Jurisdiction of the United States; Lee Ewing, photographer.

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Plate 6. Grand Charter of the Supreme Council of the Southern Jurisdiction, May 24, 1801 © Supreme Council 33°, Southern Jurisdiction of the United States; Lee Ewing, photographer.

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Plate 7. House of the Temple, seat of the Supreme Council of Washington, D.C. © Maxwell Mackenzie, Washington, D.C.

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Plate 8. Washington, D.C., Grand Temple of the Supreme Council of the Southern Jurisdiction. © Maxwell Mackenzie, Washington, D.C.

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Plate 9. Philadelphia, The Grand Temple, headquarters of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. © Chancellor Robert R. Livingston Masonic Library of Grand Lodge, New York.

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Plate 10. The Temple of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite in Indianapolis, Indiana. © Chancellor Robert R. Livingston Masonic Library of Grand Lodge, New York.

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Plate 11. Gothic temple at the headquarters of the Grand Lodge of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, New York. © Chancellor Robert R. Livingston Masonic Library of Grand Lodge, New York.

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Plate 12. Temple of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite in Kansas City. © Chancellor Robert R. Livingston Masonic Library of Grand Lodge, New York.

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Plate 13. Baltimore, Temple of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. © Chancellor Robert R. Livingston Masonic Library of Grand Lodge, New York.

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Plate 14. The Statue of Liberty, New York.

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Plate 15. New York, May 2003, Seventeenth International Meeting of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. © private collection of Alain de Keghel.

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Plate 16. Alain de Keghel speaking at the Masonic Hall of Columbus, July 1999. © private collection of Alain de Keghel.

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