Elmhurst Freemasons Find Their Way Back Home
Now firmly planted in the St. Luke's Lutheran Church building, Elmhurst Freemasons say they're glad to be back.
It's been 3 1/2 years since the Elmhurst Freemasons had to sell their temple at the corner of York and Arthur streets. They had occupied the landmark building, with its stained glass windows, since the early 1920s. While it wasn't their first Elmhurst location—the Masons established an Elmhurst lodge back in 1911—they occupied the century-old building for about 90 years.
But, as 100-year-old buildings do, it required some big repairs. By 2008 the Masons simply could not afford to keep the building up; they had no choice but to sell it. Foodmix Marketing Communications came calling, and still operates there today.
"It was very tough (giving up the building)," said Mark Entwistle of Elmhurst, treasurer of the Elmhurst Masonic Lodge and, on a larger scale, assistant area deputy grand master. "We really got lucky. We sold before the market came down."
After the sale, the Elmhurst lodge rented space for a short time at First United Methodist Church, then moved to Bensenville. But the local Masons have been trying to get back into Elmhurst ever since.
They finally got their wish.
At a Crossroads
St. Luke's Lutheran Church, at North Avenue and Larch Street, has been struggling with a declining congregation. The church could no longer afford its large building.
The church has about 50 members, not all of them active, said Pastor Michael Wonderlich, who has been with the church since 1998.
"I'm in my 14th year," he said. "We had about 50 active participants (when he started) so it's not a drastic decline. We've gone up and down."
But the decision was made to put the church up for sale.
"We were renting to other congregations and, as we were contemplating what to do, the Masons showed interest (in purchasing it)," St. Luke's administrator Julie Hassler said.
The result is a shared space for both the church and the Masons. The church is now a tenant of the building, and parishioners meet in the original 1920s portion to the north of the sanctuary. The Masons will take the larger sanctuary portion of the building, which was added in the 1960s.
"That is a big burden off our backs," said Wonderlich, adding that the church can now focus on outreach to the community and possibly hiring a youth minister to try to bring families back into the congregation.
"We're trying to reassess, find our mission and make sure we're doing the right thing, ourselves," he said.
Some work must done to make the space habitable for both the Masons and the congregants.
"There's some renovation going on right now," Entwistle said. "The sanctuary, now the Lodge room, is being remodeled. We're putting in air conditioning, handicap accessibility, working with (Fire Chief Mike) Kopp bringing it up to fire code, alarm systems and some other minor stuff."
The church will turn the original building back into a sanctuary.
"The old bungalow building looks like a house, but it never was a house," Hassler said. "When they moved into the (new sanctuary) back in the 1960s, they turned the old building into a library, with a pastor's office and Sunday school classes. We're going to turn it back into a sanctuary. It doesn't need anything that extensive. It's been well taken care of."
The Masons will share the kitchen and other areas with the congregation.
"Because they are nondenominational, they can't have our altar and our cross and things like that hanging in their meeting room, but the rest of the building is user-friendly for both of us," Hassler said.
Who Are the Freemasons?
Terry Seward, grand master of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of Illinois, visited the building earlier this month.
"I got a little tour," he said. "It's a beautiful building."
The Elmhurst lodge membership numbers more than 330, he said, and they draw members from as far as Plainfield.
"It's one of our larger lodges, as far as membership is concerned," Seward said.
It's a volunteer, fraternal organization, Seward said, and members pay their dues and are very careful with their money.
"They have members who make bequeaths and so forth," he said. "Masons invest carefully, because it's always other people's money. That's the way we look at it."
Membership includes a former mayor, senators and many local dignitaries. In fact, Entwistle is a former Elmhurst alderman (1989-93). It's also common on a broader scale for political figures to be Freemasons; 14 U.S. presidents fall into that category.
"It's not unusual that a lot of town dignitaries are Masons," Seward said. "It's not that the Masons are trying to run things; it's just an appealing organization for them. We sit in a Masonic meeting with men from all walks of life, and there's absolutely no difference (between them). We are all there on an equal level."
While political leaders are involved in Masonry, members are forbidden to discuss religion or politics in their meetings, Seward said.
"Those are the things (people) disagree most about," he said "It's a respite for a lot of men to just come and get away from the world, be with other men and kind of just have that time to refresh."
Elmhurst Masons support several local charities, including the Illinois Masonic Children's Home in La Grange, Elmhurst Children's Assistance Foundation and the American Cancer Society, Entwistle said. They also offer two to three scholarships to Elmhurst high school graduates each year.
The move into St. Luke's church will mean more than just sharing space, Hassler said. The two groups plan to work together on civic projects and community issues. They are talking about doing a blood drive together, as well as fund-raisers and maybe a food pantry.
Seward said that while the Masons don't do a lot of partnering with churches, there is no problem with that from the Masons' point of view.
In addition to charity work, the organization teaches an upstanding way of life.
"We always want our Masons to be good, upstanding men," Seward said.
The precepts of Masonry are the same today as they were when the first, official Grand Lodge began in England in 1717, Seward said.
"We still are true to the original precepts. We stick by those pretty closely," he said.
Much information about Masons can be found on the Internet, but Seward cautions people not to believe everything they read. The group has stirred controversy for generations, probably due to some of its secret rituals. And Masonic symbols, like the eye on top of the pyramid on the dollar bill, has been a topic of much conversation. There are some who believe the motive of Freemasons is government control, but Seward says that's not the case.
"(Some) say we're a secret organization. We're not a secret organization. We mark every building, we advertise our meetings. Most Masons will wear a lapel pin or a ring," he said. "We have traditional secrets that we recognize each other with—it's part of our teachings—but there is no drastic, world-dominating secret or anything like that."
Official Opening Planned
Hassler said the church congregation is grateful the Masons are welcoming them to share the space.
"There were a couple of other churches that were interested in our space—even offered us a larger amount of money—but they didn't want to share," she said. "The Masons have been more than gracious to let us stay."
It won't be long before the Masons are meeting regularly in their new lodge. The big square and compass is up on the outside of the building, and the contractors are just finishing up the work.
Sometime in November, Seward and Grand Lodge officers from across the state will come to Elmhurst to dedicate the new lodge with an ancient ceremony that will be open to the public, Seward said.
"We're excited to be back in Elmhurst where we belong," Entwistle said. "We'll be more involved in the community now, doing charity and community events. Anyone who wants to see the building can contact us when it's done, and we'll be happy to let them in to see it.
"We did not purchase this building for 5 to 10 years. This is not a financial investment," he continued. "This is an investment in the future of the Elmhurst Masonic Lodge for the next 100 years."