French Freemasonry in North America, Yesterday and Today

We were able to see earlier how remarkable the interactions between American and French Freemasons have been since the beginning. This is because the repeated attempts and efforts of French Freemasons to establish themselves in the United States go back a long way. But this does not imply that these relations are, strictly speaking, the result of some strategy hatched by the general staff of French Scottish jurisdictions or obediences. In the lion’s share of these situations, the interactions were, in fact, the results of isolated and individual actions. They nevertheless led to a state that is worth considering, despite the fact that most of these attempts were unsuccessful.

In its conformance to the rules issued by London as well as those by the Commission on Information for Recognition by the grand lodges of America, the GLNF did not have the vocation, by definition, to create chapters on the other side of the Atlantic. When Masons of this obedience were active during their sojourns or missions abroad, they visited American lodges without any problem, preferring those that conducted their proceedings in French, like the Lodge La France in Washington, D.C. But this lodge was a dependency of a local obedience. This latitude did not exclude occasional discreet transgressions observed directly in the lodges of the GODF, which traditionally do not close their doors to visitors who are in good standing with their obedience.

Nor are the members of the GLNF given greater access than the brothers of the GODF to the solemn proceedings of the American lodges, but there are no lodges under the jurisdiction of this grand lodge in the United States. Perhaps this should be seen as one of the expressions of the American dream of the Grand Lodge of France, which, having never fully recovered from the Catholic/Masonic crises of 1964, still nurtures hopes for recognition. For the Masons of the GODF as for those of the female or coed obediences, the question simply does not arise, because the creation of chapters flowed, to a certain extent, directly from the source. If we go back to the beginning of American Freemasonry, we have already seen the decisive role played by Étienne Morin in exporting the Rite of Perfection, then of Auguste de Grasse-Tilly for the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. Veritable pioneers of the Order, their companions on the journey or successors along these exploratory paths were François-Timoléon Bègue Clavel, Jean-Baptiste de La Hogue, Joseph Cerneau, and Antoine Bideaud, all cited earlier.

Less illustrious pages from the history of the French symbolic lodges in the United States also deserve recognition. It was also through them that French Masonic activities in the New World became structured. The first French lodge whose existence has been verified was created in New York by a charter dated 1760. It carried the distinctive title of L’Union Parfaite (the Perfect Union) and was essentially composed of Huguenots. It appears to have only been active for a short time. The same brothers, who had been joined in the meantime by refugees from Santo Domingo, founded the French Lodge (1780–1785) shortly thereafter. This serves as an additional confirmation of a certain diligence toward Masonic conduct to which our “brother of the two worlds” was compelled to uphold. The American phenomenon of integration and assimilation can already be seen fully at work here: the lodge henceforward carried a distinctive American name and carried out its proceedings essentially in English.

During this same period, and for the same reasons, a certain number of French Masons founded several lodges in various orients of the United States. Among them:

In New Orleans, Louisiana: La Parfaite Union, L’Étoile Polaire, and La Charité;

In Charleston, South Carolina: Saint-Jean de la Candeur and La Réunion Française;

In Savannah, Georgia: L’Espérance;

In Portsmouth, Virginia: La Sagesse;

In Baltimore, Maryland: La Vérité;

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: L’Aménité, whose orator brother performed on January 1, 1800, the first Masonic funeral oration in homage to Brother George Washington, who had passed on to the Eternal Orient on December 14, 1799.

Jacques Brengues has devoted a short study, in the Annales de Bretagne et des pays de l’Ouest, to the subject of these French lodges and their involvement in the struggle for American independence by stressing the ideological heritage shared by French and American Masons during the eighteenth century and into the beginning of the nineteenth century.1 This Franco-American reality is duly confirmed and documented. While the majority of French lodges of this era vanished over the course of time, with the rapid integration of their French members into their adopted country, some of these lodges became part of the system of American grand lodges, obeying in this way the canons that were initially formalized in 1952 at their first conference. This is what happened with the lodge L’Étoile Polaire, which is still active in New Orleans and works in English exclusively. In New York, the lodge La Clémente Amitié Cosmopolite n° 410 was created in 1857 on the initiative of a brother then belonging to the GODF; the venerable brother Vatet always worked in French, under the aegis of the Grand Lodge of New York, which granted him the necessary dispensation. The lodge maintains a web page in French and is a member of the Committee of French Speaking Societies in New York.

It is, moreover, in New York where the genealogy of the French lodges incontestably shows, more than anywhere else in America, a practically permanent presence since 1760. Raoul Zetler was able to establish in his 1999 overview of the history of the lodge L’Atlantide, for the hundredth anniversary of this chapter of the GODF to the Orient of New York, that there were numerous initiatives that met with varied degrees of success, most often uncertain. In fact, in 1793, we had first of all the lodge La Tendre Amitié Franco-Américaine, then in 1795, L’Unité Américaine before L’Union Française, soon followed by several more lodges, one of which was an offspring of the GODF, La Clemence Amitié of Paris. Another would even be founded with the support and assistance of a French-speaking lodge of the Grand Orient of Belgium, Les Amis de Commerce et de la Persévérance in the Orient of Anvers, which would last no longer than a season.

The short existence of each of these lodges is most likely not simply explained by the fluctuating context of their era. The cultural and linguistic differences as well as the geographical distances at a time when journeys took a great deal of time are not foreign to their failure. The American integration of French and French-speaking Masons who had put down roots there sealed their fate. The difficulties induced by a gradual deterioration of relationships between obediences, the tempests generated by the quarrels around Cerneau and Bideaud, and the consecutive rupture between the GODF and the grand lodges of North America after 1859 did the rest.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, the Freemasons of the GODF seem to have finally, whether or not they liked it, accepted the need to lead a practically self-sufficient existence dictated by an American Masonic environment radically different from their own or, more exactly, that of their obedience. As we know, this obedience was profoundly influenced by social debates and by its commitment to the cause of the Republic and the great stakes in play at its founding, such as the 1905 law concerning the separation of church and state. Having experienced a close brush with disaster during the Morgan Affair, American Freemasons were deeply resistant to this and wanted no part of it. The vote of the 1877 Congress that introduced absolute freedom of conscience also made the obligation to make reference to the Grand Architect of the Universe ad libitum. This rupture with one of the fundamental precepts of the Order was regarded by American Masonry as a step that could only widen the gap separating them from their French brethren.

It was against this backdrop that the lodge of the GODF, L’Atlantide, in the Orient of New York, emerged in 1900. Its one-hundredth anniversary was celebrated with great pomp in 2000, in the presence of the grand master and an important delegation from the Council of the Order; its three younger sibling lodges in the United States also took part in the festivities. The key to this lodge’s success resides in the quality of its recruitment in a relatively stable pool of one of the largest concentrations of French people and French speakers in a major American metropolis. Nor is the sociocultural substratum foreign to this success, and it ensures that this flagship lodge continues to work at an excellent level. French-speaking diplomats from the United Nations and ambassadors or high officials of international organizations rub elbows with doctors and lawyers who are members of the New York Bar Association and that of Paris, as well as chefs, businessmen, tourism professionals, diamond merchants, and a kaleidoscope of people from other professions. The stability of the brothers, who are often Franco-American, contributes to the continuity of this lodge, which stands out from its peers for its large membership.

Aware of American realities, this lodge has also bravely ventured out on the path of regular informal contacts with the Masons of the Grand Lodge of New York. In the beginning of the year 2000, they and their American brothers created an informal platform of meeting and exchange called the Band of Brothers. This original cenacle forms a notable exception that attests to the desire of regular Freemasons, on both sides, to seek out subjects about which brothers belonging to Masonic authorities that do not recognize each other can agree. Without minimizing its merits and virtues, it is necessary to bear in mind its limitations. But like the dialogue established in the Edinburgh process in Europe or in California, it is a window of opportunity, and it would be a shame to not take into consideration its ability to help break down barriers, modest as this ability might be. Just because this has arisen from the initiative taken by rank-and-file Masons takes nothing away from the qualities of this original dialogue, about which it would be delusive, however, to expect more than very hypothetical institutional rapprochements over which the players present have no control.

This chapter of the GODF long remained the only one of its kind on American soil, and we must clearly accept that its existence, like the affirmation of the principles it represents, was not always to the liking of the American obediences. There are not only the liabilities of Cerneau, which have lingered in Masonic memory, but the varied and diverse choices made on the rue Cadet [headquarters of the GODF in Paris —Trans.] since 1877.

It would be necessary to wait eighty-six years before another lodge of the GODF would turn on its lights in the United States, this time on the West Coast in San Francisco. The lodge Pacifica has prospered there since September 2, 1986, in a young and enterprising context that benefits from the nearby presence of Silicon Valley. Computer engineers, researchers, and young start-up creators share their life among the columns of the temple with restaurateurs and hoteliers who chose immigration so that they could take part in the American Dream. The headquarters of the Grand Lodge of California, which provides human and spiritual resources disposed to the discovery of the difference among brothers, would later encourage original explorations that would lead to meetings, after long years of dialogue, in Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Then, several years later, it was Washington, D.C.’s turn. A brother, Pierre Maurice, upon his arrival to the city, made efforts to gather together several French Masons initiated by American obediences. After familiarizing them with the practices of the GODF, he won their allegiance to the creation of the lodge La Fayette 89. Its beginnings were difficult, but the first twenty years were gratifying nonetheless as the lodge was able to largely benefit over the course of time from its location in a federal capital that was home to numerous embassies and international organizations. By recruiting from these locations rather than in a disparate French-speaking milieu, it became, over the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, a productive meeting place and was often held up as an example. Like all voluntary associations, especially in areas far from home, it experienced sinusoidal evolutions at the whim of the movements of members and changes of the obedience that the brothers sometimes found difficult to manage by envisioning the developments over the long term. The professional mobility of its members—along with the preference for some to do the work quietly, protected from transient influences—would also have contributed to unfortunately reducing the standing of what was a lodge where all French-speaking Masons (who came from the Grand Lodge of France as well as the National French Grand Lodge) could rally when passing through Washington. Let’s wager and hope that the virtuous circle will soon remedy all this. The creation in 2014 of a triangle lodge, L’Hermione 1780, in the Orient of Baltimore, not far from the nation’s capital, seems already to be heralding a better and more promising future.

In a resolutely different context, the lodge Art et Lumière was created a year later in Los Angeles, a bustling California city and cultural center that is located two steps from Hollywood in a young population hub characterized by its openness to modernity and innovation. In addition to the usual reservoir of expatriates who have made a living in the cooking profession and settled here, we find in this lodge artists, creators, teachers, and researchers, as well as real estate agents and young CEOs who have not yielded to the challenges of a demanding expatriation. This lodge is distinctive for its youthful nature and forms a veritable Franco-American crucible. While its cohabitation with the regular American lodges remains informal, their relationship plays out more smoothly than is the case on the East Coast.

Such relationships notably authorize the shared use of temples and greatly facilitate the problems of stewardship by also encouraging individual fraternal relationships with American Masons. This is notably the case between Masons of the American lodges of Los Angeles and San Francisco and brothers belonging to the lodges Vallée de France n° 329, in the Orient of Los Angeles, and La Parfaite Union, in the Orient of San Francisco, which was founded in 1851; both of these lodges belong to the Grand Lodge of California. The obstacles to hurdle for these lodges of the Grand Orient should not be underestimated, however. The America Days of the North and the Pacific, which provided opportunities for members of both kinds of lodges to meet, have always held the purpose of helping brothers pull together to find practical solutions adapted to their environments, which often are so different from each other. To the French-speaking brothers, the American lodges were different from the remote “little France” of their lodges, and the realities on the ground at their lodges were abstract and far removed from the main priorities as seen from the Parisian epicenter, so much so that a grand master traveling through the United States could think of nothing better than to refer to these lodges with the expression “comfort lodges.” These times, fortunately, now seem far behind us.

The difficulty facing the development of the lodges of the Grand Orient in the United States is moreover also expressed by relatively recent failures. For example, the triangle Mozart in Las Vegas, whose purpose was to precede the creation of a new lodge for brothers living in the famous gambling capital as well for those living in New Mexico, only lasted a short time at the end of the 1990s before sinking into oblivion.

The Supreme Council, Grand College of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite also exerted its authority in this part of America, where it had accommodated the request of brothers who wanted to continue working beyond the grade of master. A sovereign chapter of L’Atlantide had definitely been created in the valley of New York following World War II. But in 1994, no lodge of perfection, aeropagus, or consistory dependent on the French Scottish jurisdiction existed in America. A network was gradually established starting in 1995, beginning with the lighting of the fire in the lodge of perfection La Clef des Deux Mondes (The Key of Two Worlds), in the Orient of New York, then that of the Lumière du Pacifique (Light of the Pacific), representing the combined Orients of San Francisco and Los Angeles, and, in Washington, D.C., the lodge bearing the distinctive title Espoir (Hope). This was followed by the creation of sovereign chapters of the Lumière du Pacifique, in the California valley, and La Triple Espérance du Potomac (Triple Hope of the Potomac), for the valley of Washington, D.C. The prospects for the creation of a North American consistory have become realistic, and it should not be long in coming.

The United States, Mexico, and Canada make up the 29th Administrative Sector of the Supreme Council, Grand College of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite–Grand Orient of France. It was created in 1988 and forms the framework within which were also organized the North American Days of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, the annual meetings of all the chapters of the jurisdiction in this center with the chapters of the jurisdictions of the American lodges that have subscribed to the principles of the Geneva Declaration of May 7, 2005.

Quebec, Canada, and Its Masonic Environment at Its Beginnings

Examining the challenges posed to and by the Masonic order in North America necessarily forces us to include Canada as it takes part in regional strategies as a member of the Conference of North American Grand Lodges. But the unique situation of Quebec compels me to give it its own place for the longstanding historical, linguistic, cultural, and Masonic ties that have endured there, as well as for the fact that its context has always been marked by a powerful Catholic influence.

Before tackling the specific case of Quebec, it will be necessary to take a short journey into the past to look at the particularly complex conditions of the establishment of Freemasonry in Canada, where there are lodges that have existed since the time of the English colony. But it is in the city of Quebec that the first lodge of Canada was formed earlier, in 1721, a lodge that carries the distinctive name of Francmaçons Régénerés (Freemasons Reborn). It was created as an offshoot of a French lodge, Amitié et Fraternité (Friendship and Brotherhood), in the Orient of Dunkirk. In 1767, it became Les Frères du Canada (the Brothers of Canada) by passing into the jurisdiction of one of the four British grand lodges. The Antiquity Lodge no. 1 and the lodge Albion no. 2 were created in Montreal and Quebec, respectively, in 1752. Together they were responsible for the birth of the obedience from which emerged the Grand Lodge of Quebec. This was later followed by the St. John’s Lodge no. 3 in Quebec, in 1788, then, in 1792, Dorchester Lodge no. 4 in Châteauguay and, in 1803, the Golden Rule Lodge no. 5 in Stanstead.

Masons were found early on among the ranks of the English army that set off to conquer Canada, where they met in military lodges. The first civil Masonic lodge was formed in June 1738, the Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia, which received its patents from the Lodge of the Modern Masons of Boston. Charters were next given to lodges in Saint Johns (1746 and 1766), in Halifax (1750 and 1751), and in Quebec (1764). When Quebec was divided in 1791 to form Upper and Lower Canada, only four lodges remained active in Upper Canada. They were located in the Orients of Cornwall and Brockville, with the other two in Niagara. In 1788, the lodge Les Frères du Canada was transferred from Quebec to Montreal, and in 1792 it placed itself under the jurisdiction of the provincial Grand Lodge of Lower Canada.

The honorable Claude Dénéchau, who signed the charter forming the regular lodge Les Frères du Canada, was the first Canadian to be named grand master of a grand lodge in Canada. This was followed by the creation of lodges in the new provinces: in British Columbia (1859), in Manitoba (1864 and 1870), in Alberta (1882), and in Saskatchewan (1883).

In 1855, thirty lodges of western Canada and Quebec combined to form the Grand Lodge of Canada, and the old Masonic lodges formed their own grand lodge two years later. In 1869, Quebec formed its own grand lodge. The Grand Lodge of Canada, located in Ontario, refused to recognize the autonomy of Quebec, a decision supported by the Grand Lodge of England. However, the Masons of Quebec received the support of the more important Grand Lodges of the United States, and it was the grand masters of the Grand Lodges of Vermont and Maine, who had already recognized the Grand Lodge of Quebec, who assisted at the installation of the grand master of this grand lodge. A short time later, at its congress of July 8–9, 1874, the Grand Lodge of Canada recognized the autonomy of the Grand Lodge of Quebec.

What we see in draft here is a Masonic North American landscape that also explains the inclusion of the Canadian grand lodges in the Conference of the Grand Masters of North America. It can be seen in passing that London had been compelled to follow an initiative taken by the American obediences, whereas the United Grand Lodge of England still refused to take into account certain geopolitical developments. In 1887, the Grand Lodge of Canada changed its name to reflect the provincial nature of Canadian Freemasonry: it would henceforth be known as the Grand Lodge of Ancient and Accepted Masons of Canada in the Province of Ontario.

The difficulties encountered by Freemasonry, which was prey to the hostility of the Catholic clergy, were not slow to make their presence felt in Canada, where, in 1771, the superior of the Sulpicians and the lord of Montreal, Étienne Montgolfier, attacked the Order. This was followed, in 1794, by the incrimination of the Order by the lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, who feared an insurrection fomented by the Freemasons of Montreal, whose close relationship with those of the neighboring state of Vermont were deemed suspicious.

The antagonism between Canadian Freemasons and the Catholic Church left a lasting imprint on the country’s strained relationship with the Order and its place in this country. This was not merely on the basis of Masonic liberal activism since 1896 and the creation that same year of the lodge L’Émancipation, a driving force for secularism and a crucible in which simmered the debate over church and state relations and mandatory education. This is what compelled Henri Bernard to claim that two perils threatened the intellectual life of Montreal at the beginning of the twentieth century: one Anglo-Protestant and the other Masonic.

There was a significant group of French-speaking Masons at this time in Montreal, several of whom had been initiated in France. It was in February 1909 that the turn of events became more complicated with the expressed ambition of the Catholic Association of French-Canadian Youth to purge Montreal public life of all Masonic influence. This was how several of its organizers became involved in fantastic events intended to destabilize the Freemasons of this extremely Catholic province. Leading members of this association rented a spot located above the studio where the lodge L’Émancipation met so they could eavesdrop. The Catholic mayor, an Irish native, M. Guérinn, who was a close associate of Monsignor Bruchési, requested that an investigation be launched of the lodge, which he accused of entertaining vague plans for disrupting the Eucharistic Congress of 1910. But the legal authorities refused to press charges. However, just as another trial had ended with the acquittal of all the incriminated Masons, the Catholic Association of French-Canadian Youth gained possession of a list of the lodge members and made it public, the immediate effects of which were the loss of their employment by many Masons, the banning of the organization, and the dissolution of the lodge.

These episodes vouch for the power the Catholic clergy had long wielded to discourage Quebecers from joining Freemasonry, whose initiates—according to the church—were hatching dark plots against religion and the state. During this time the Catholic clergy enjoyed considerable influence in Quebec, with its largely illiterate populace that had been weakened by its cultural and linguistic isolation. But the Freemasons refused to give in to resignation, and a new lodge with the name Force et Courage was founded on March 16, 1910, and remained active into the middle of the 1940s.

This context should not conceal another reality that concerns the confirmed or presumed membership in the Order of important Canadian figures. This group includes several former Canadian prime ministers or ministers and a number of other politicians and civic notables, at the forefront of which we find Joseph-François Perrault (1753–1844), considered the father of education in Canada; Laurent-Michel Vacher, a philosopher and writer from Quebec; J. Z. Léon Patenaude, founder of the League of Rights and Liberties; and Peter McGill and John Molson, two former presidents of the Bank of Montreal. William Badgley, a judge and the former attorney general of Quebec, was even a grand master.

Our North American French-speaking Masonic panorama would contain a significant gap if we neglected to examine Quebec’s Canadian lodges in greater detail by not recalling the first steps taken by the Order in this vast land. The problem is complex, and, to truly answer it, we would need to provide a more detailed study than can really be addressed in the context of this book, which seeks to furnish a general overview. Let us simply recall the particular context of la Belle Province: the weight of an old and well-established Catholic tradition that was hardly favorable to the establishment of Masonic lodges. In addition to this are a strong identity awareness that never forgets its ancient ties, which are not only linguistic but also stem from Breton emigration, the painful pages of history, and the famous visit of General Charles de Gaulle in 1967 and his vibrant cry of “Long live Free Quebec!” Direct, sincere, close, privileged—there is no lack of adjectives for describing the nature of the relationship between France and Quebec. It has left an equal imprint on the context in which Freemasonry evolves, which does not escape the phenomena of mimicry or those of the Montreal microcosm into which the expatriate French have integrated.

Three French-speaking lodges of the Grand Lodge of Quebec deserve mention here: the lodge Les Coeurs Réunis n° 45 (Hearts Reunited), founded in 1870; the lodge Dénécheau n° 80, founded in 1906; and La Renaissance n° 119, whose fire was lit in 1947. All three are located in Montreal.

Next to the United Grand Lodge of Quebec, whose influence and means are far from negligible, there are a fairly large number of chapters belonging to obediences of average or small numerical significance. Note the unusual degree of fragmentation within an already limited and complex recruiting pool, which likely does not facilitate the reading or harmonious development of liberal lodges and obediences; those that prevail on the recognition from the United Grand Lodge of England are predominant. In addition to the weight of history, those of liberal sensibility that are unrecognized by London are placed in a competitive situation. Of these we find a lodge that is a dependency of the Grand Lodge of France, which survives as best it can, and for about twenty years, a mixed obedience—Le Droit Humain of the Canada Federation—which fares somewhat better and has a presence on the Internet.

The National Grand Lodge of Canada has undertaken the task of gathering together these scattered pieces and has gradually integrated lodges like Champlain and Phoenix. The Universal Grand Lodge of Quebec consists of two lodges, Melchisédech and Pentagramme, both coed and working in the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. The North American obedience George Washington Union has also established a mixed lodge there, Raoul Zetler, which seems to have found its footing and forms a pole of stability protected from the turbulence that regularly rattles the Masonic microcosm of Montreal. Following a Grand Orient of Canada in 1992, a Grand Orient of Quebec appeared in 2012, which has one single lodge, Les Amis Réunis. A National Grand Orient of Canada emerged in turn in 2013 with the creation of a lodge named Émancipation, a successor to Montcalm Nouveau Monde, the result of an earlier split of the local lodge from the GODF, whose title had been Grand Orient de Canada. With its only Quebec lodge created in 1999 under the distinctive name of Force et Courage, the GODF encountered recurring difficulties that are partially similar to those that the Grand Lodge of France experienced with its lodge, with the brothers forced to overcome mainly financial obstacles to meet their responsibilities. The survival of the GODF lodge remains fragile. It was already the successor of the Maillon Laurentien, which was dissolved a short time earlier after two other chapters had suffered the same fate.

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