MAYS LANDING — After more than 150 years of service to the community, Unity Lodge #96 of Free and Accepted Masons on Mill Street will close its doors permanently sometime next year, but new members continue to find their way into the Masonry fraternity in Atlantic County and elsewhere.
Mike Flores, a Lodge trustee and an Egg Harbor Township resident, doesn’t want the Lodge to disappear without residents realizing the contributions of former members, who were Masons.
Flores was speaking on behalf of Worshipful Master Dave King, who is the head of the Unity Lodge.
“We were constituted in 1869 and were instrumental to the thriving of Mays Landing,” said Flores, who added his lodge branched off from Trinity Lodge when it was in Atlantic City.
The community would have been very different without the support of J. Harold Duberson, William Davies and George L. Hess, all of whom had schools named after them, and others who were former Masons, Flores said.
The Masonic Lodge building used to be the Wheaton Glass general store, he said.
“A lot of business owners in Mays Landing were brother Masons,” Flores said.
In the specific case of the Unity Lodge, a lack of membership resulted in insufficient funds because the lodge didn’t have enough members to hold fundraisers without repeatedly relying on the same people, Flores said.
It is widely accepted that the Masonic Fraternity arose from the stone masons’ guilds during the Middle Ages. The first Masonic lodges started showing up in the American colonies in the early 18th century. Thirteen of the 39 signatures on the U.S. Constitution belonged to Masons.
Without being a religion, Freemasonry has a code where charity, morality and obedience to the law of the land is emphasized.
Masons are men, and all applicants must believe in the existence of a Supreme Being.
Flores joined 15 years ago and was a past master of the lodge in 2010.
“My reason for joining was it gives me a great sense of self worth to help my community,” said Flores, who added a community breakfast used to be held at the lodge every Sunday. “One of our most prominent statements is to take good men and make them better. As a whole, the fraternity has made me a better person. I am very sad to see this lodge closing. It’s 150 years old.”
Unity Lodge has been known for its fundraisers for the community, Flores said. During Flores’ time as a member, his lodge donated hearing aids for the deaf.
At least eight years ago, Flores said he started to wonder whether Unity Lodge would be able to continue into the future.
“The older brothers were dying. We weren’t replenishing. That’s when you know things are going bad. When I joined, the lodge had approximately 130 members, and now, we are down to 87,” said Flores, who added one of the rules is a Mason cannot recruit a stranger; an interested individual has to ask to become a Mason. “The outgoing to incoming ratios were not equal.”
The 87 are complete dues-paying members, but about 30 of them don’t live in South Jersey anymore, Flores said. They just continue to pay dues.
Doug Dickinson, of Egg Harbor City, is with the Mason’s Hiram T. Dewey Lodge #226, also based in Egg Harbor City, but he is also the district deputy grandmaster in charge of all the six Masonic Lodges in Atlantic County, including Unity. There are Masonic Lodges in each county of the state, including Cumberland, Cape May and Ocean.
“Right now, we’re holding steady,” said Dickinson, 72, who has been a Mason for the past 45 years and is one of about 95 members of Hiram T. Dewey.
A new program has started to promote masonry, Dickinson said.
Some younger members hear about the Masons for the first time through the charitable works they do, such as the Children’s Dyslexia Centers, including the one in Northfield, which is a charity of the Scottish Rite Freemasonry, Dickinson said. The last brother who was taken in at Hiram T. Dewey was 29, he said.
At the Atlantic Lodge #221 in Absecon, the officers, except for the secretary and the treasurer, are all age 40 and younger, Dickinson said.
Six years ago, Alexander Huffard, now 29, of Egg Harbor Township, met three different Masons from the Atlantic Lodge, who were not connected to each other, within 48 hours. One of them was an old friend of his who had a Masons’ tattoo.
Huffard, who is a history buff, attended nine Mason dinners before he was handed an application to join. He found the conversations to be philosophically engaging and thought provoking.
Huffard is the Worshipful Master, which is considered the president. The average age of the officers in the Atlantic Lodge is the early 30s, Huffard said.
The Atlantic Lodge is one of the more serious lodges as the members want to follow in the footsteps of such historic Masons as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.
“We believed and still believe that every man is capable of greatness. ... There are a lot of really bright young minds coming out and becoming Masons,” Huffard said. “I firmly believe Freemasonry has a funny way of finding you when the time is right.”
A Mill Street Bridge replacement project in the township also hurt the lodge, Flores said. Unofficially, lodge visitors would park across the street in the old Wheaton Glass Factory parking lot when the lodge’s parking lot was full. Construction materials and equipment has taken over the Wheaton parking lot, Flores said.
The Unity Lodge building is up for sale, Flores said. There is a great deal that can be done with the building because it has a kitchen and a bathroom, he said. He would like to see it turned into a bed and breakfast.
The building’s selling price is $275,000, said George Phy, broker/owner, of Glen Cove Real Estate, based out of Mays Landing. The lodge has been shown a few times, but no one has purchased it yet, Flores said on Tuesday.
Unity Lodge members will be able to join the new Trinity-Justice-Unity Lodge #79 in Egg Harbor Township, if they want to, Flores said. If Unity Lodge is sold, money from the sale would be used for any existing debts first and what is left over would be given to the new lodge, he said.