Last year in the middle of winter, Leo Valenti’s car broke down on a city roadway leaving him stranded with no cell phone and no pay phone nearby. So Valenti, thinking quickly, made a secret gesture to the passing cars. Five minutes later a man came to his assistance.
It may seem odd, but this is probably a common tale among the 2.5-million Freemasons residing in the United States, 100,000 of whom live in New York. A willingness to help a brother in need is a requirement to became a fraternity member.
The Freemasons, or Masons, are considered the largest and oldest fraternal organization worldwide. Theories about when and how the organization was formed abound, but many trace its roots back over 3,000 years to the building of King Solomon’s temple.
Valenti, a Whitestone resident, joined the order 35 years ago. He is a member of Herder Lodge No. 698, a 135-year-old lodge that meets twice a month at the Whitestone Masonic Temple located at 149-39 11th Avenue. Other temples are located in Astoria and College Point, and are shared by many lodges boroughwide.
The Masonic brotherhood has three stages: Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason. Members pass through the ranks after experiencing certain “life lessons” and other rituals, which Valenti insists contain absolutely no embarrassing moments.
Often thought of as a secret society, it is actually quite open. People are encouraged to visit the Grand Lodge of the State of New York, located at 71 West 23rd Street in Manhattan, and take a tour to learn more about its symbols.
The only things that remain secrets are the handshakes, and other gestures that Masons use to recognize one another, as well as the initiation and other rituals. “We do have our little quirks,” Valenti admits.
The Masons count scores of politicians, actors, sports stars and business people among its members. George Washington, Ben Franklin, Rudyard Kipling, Henry Ford, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, John Wayne and Arnold Palmer are only a few famous names that have appeared on the brotherhood’s roster.
Valenti said that the organization does not recruit new members in the traditional sense. Those interested in joining must approach a brother on their own volition. “We don’t push people into doing things.”
Once a person indicates he is interested, the lodge reviews the application and then visits the potential brother at his house. Valenti said the brotherhood should always be a very important aspect of a Mason’s life, but should not get in the way of family. For that reason, Masons always make sure a man’s wife and family understand and accept the commitment he is making.
Masons are not a religious sect, yet they do ask that their members believe in a Supreme Being.
More than anything, Masons are a charitable organization that claims to donate more than $1.5 million a day to help the needy. The New York brotherhood supports its own research institute, the Masonic Medical Research Laboratory, which focuses on cardiovascular research.
Valenti said brothers must pay annual dues of about $100, and an initiation fee of $225. The fee covers certain ceremonial items, like a bible in the brother’s chosen religion and the traditional lambskin apron that one receives upon being accepted into the order.
While there are still millions of Masons worldwide, the thousand year-old infrastructure clearly faces some very real problems with declining membership.
As author Jay Kinney wrote in a recent issue of the Scottish Rite Journal, “where once there were four million Masons in the U.S., now there are only half that many. One in four American men used to be Masons—now only one in a hundred are. Moreover, the average age of Masonic members has been climbing, so much so that Freemasonry is often perceived as an old folks’ club.”
One of Valenti’s brothers, who did not wish to be identified, said he has definitely seen membership decline. “The old ones are dying away, and new ones don’t come up.”
Valenti agreed the numbers may be shrinking as people retire, move or pass away. “In order to keep it going, we advertise.”
It has been working. Valenti said actor Timothy Hutton recently became a member of his lodge.
For more information on Masonry or to inquire about joining, call 718-393-1614 or visit www.nymasons.org.