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Tall Orders

Two new exhibitions shine “three great lights” on the history, symbology, and lore of Freemasonry

Published: February 29, 2024
Last Updated: February 29, 2024

Tall Orders

The Historic New Orleans Collection

Knights Templar Parade, Canal Street, 1922.

An original THNOC exhibition, A Mystic Brotherhood: Fraternal Orders of New Orleans, opened earlier this December. It was joined in February by Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art, a traveling show from the American Folk Art Museum. The former focuses on local engagement in the tradition, while the latter provides a general history of fraternal organizations and delves into the rich world of Masonic emblems and aesthetics.

Freemasonry refers broadly to a network of fraternal organizations devoted to self-improvement and mutual aid. Related groups, such as the Odd Fellows, Elks, and Knights of Columbus, serve a similar purpose of bringing together men (and sometimes women) to better themselves and their communities. Masonic groups are organized by lodges—the word refers to both the chapter itself and the physical space for the chapter. Members progress through a series of orders and optional side orders, both replete with named roles and insignia.

“Fraternal comes from the Latin word for brotherhood, and that’s what they’re about,” said THNOC Family Historian Jari C. Honora, who co-curated A Mystic Brotherhood with Chief Curator Jason Wiese. “The Freemasons, as they say, ‘make good men better,’ by offering a series of progressive degrees that each come with some sort of moral lesson. The degree work inculcates a stronger sense of brotherhood.”

Freemasonry stretches back to the sixteenth-century British Isles, when skilled craftsmen like stonemasons formed working guilds and built lodges to offer shelter and fellowship to members traveling from job to job. “That’s why a lot of the regalia involves an apron, as well as the square and compass,” Honora says. “All of those are working tools of a stonemason.”

Freemasonry reached New Orleans in 1752, with the formation of the Loge Parfaite Harmonie (Perfect Harmony Lodge). A Mystic Brotherhood features a proposal, dated 1756, for another Masonic outfit, the Loge d’Elus Parfaits (Lodge of the Perfectly Elect), which offered continuing work beyond the three degrees (tiers) of typical Masonry. The Odd Fellows—so named because they comprised workers of “odd” jobs that didn’t already have a guild—arrived in New Orleans in 1831.

Regalia and symbology run deep in the world of Freemasonry and Odd Fellowship. “These objects may seem mystifying to the uninitiated—but that is often the intent,” reads a text panel introducing visitors to Mystery and Benevolence. “Designed to instill a sense of wonder, the works on display embody a deep faith in fellowship, as well as in the potential for mystery and ritual to create lasting bonds.”

Masons’ use of iconography has its roots in European medieval artwork and sixteenth-century bestiaries and emblem books. Many of the symbols found in emblem books—scythes, skulls, beehives, hourglasses—appear in Masonic and Odd Fellows art. The prototypical design of Masonic halls is based on principles of sacred geometry, and Masonic rituals involve the precise arrangement of symbolic items. These rituals typically happen in the hall’s sanctum, which bears a black-and-white checkerboard floor, symbolizing good and evil.

Regalia on display in A Mystic Brotherhood include an Odd Fellows medallion from 1890 and a Masonic apron presented to an initiate of Louisiana Lodge No. 102 in 1924. In Mystery and Benevolence, visitors can see a painting hidden on the underside of a chest lid that depicts the Masonic square and compass, symbolizing reason and faith, flanked by two pillars and, above, the all-seeing eye of judgment, or Eye of Providence.

Stacked with history, symbology, and a dash of mystery, fraternal organizations became a primary social outlet for men through the mid-twentieth century. By 1900 approximately 30 percent of all men in the United States belonged to at least one group. “Unfortunately, even though they espouse brotherhood, most of the groups in this country were segregated by race,” Honora said, explaining how parallel groups emerged along the racial divide. The first Black Masonic group in the Deep South, Richmond Lodge No. 4, was organized in New Orleans by free men of color in 1849. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows was predominantly white, so Black men formed a separate group, the Grand Independent Order of Odd Fellows, in 1819.

As the popularity of fraternal orders grew, so did the number of orders and side orders (branches with their own degrees and regalia—the Shriners, a Masonic side order, are a well-known example). “All the way up through the first decade of the twentieth century, you have a proliferation of fraternal organizations,” Honora said. “You have the Elks. You have the Moose. You have the Knights of Pythias. You have the Knights of Columbus, which is for Catholic men. You have the Knights of Peter Claver, which is for Black Catholic men.”

After the end of World War II, participation in fraternal organizations began to drop as increased American wealth gave rise to leisure activities, offering new opportunities for entertainment and edification. Though their numbers have decreased, the groups persist, both in New Orleans and beyond. According to Honora, the Elks have approximately 45,000 members nationwide, and the Knights of Peter Claver have about 16,000. “The good thing is, their purpose has remained unchanged,” he said. “It’s still to make their members better men—and women, because some of them are coed. It’s to do good in the community and support their members.”

Honora likens fraternal organizations to social science’s concept of “third spaces”—places that are neither work nor home, where people can gather in person for fellowship. In an increasingly online world, those kinds of gathering spaces are becoming rare. “Our moms, dads, grandparents, they had a lot of third spaces—church, gardening clubs, bowling clubs, civic associations,” Honora said. “Now, the number-one space is the coffee shops. But how many people do you see striking up conversations in the coffee shop? Not many.”

A Mystic Brotherhood: Fraternal Orders of New Orleans and Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art are on exhibit at 520 Royal Street through May 10. Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art is organized by the American Folk Art Museum, New York, from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection and toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC.