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Masonic Service Association of North America

Focus January 2004

Response to Tragedy in New York

A terrible tragedy occurred recently in Patchogue. In the context of a social club that the New York Grand Lodge of Freemasons did not sanction, a local group decided to go outside the bounds of Masonic ritual and develop what was intended to be a harmless initiation rite of their own. In a tragic series of events, the social club's 'ceremony' went terribly wrong, and a man was accidentally shot and killed. The shock and sorrow that this truly senseless act has caused can never be fully expressed. Masons care deeply about one another, and the loss of any Masonic brother is a cause for sorrow, let alone a loss under such tragic circumstances.

The shattered lives that have resulted from this senseless act will never be the same. However inadequate these words may be, they are sincerely meant. The family of our late brother William James has our deepest sympathy, compassion, and remorse. We are truly sorry for what happened.

The incident that occurred was completely unauthorized and had absolutely no Masonic purpose. True Masonic ritual, as it always was intended to do, teaches the great lessons of life: The importance of honor and integrity, of being a person on whom others can rely, of being both trusting and trustworthy, of realizing that you have a spiritual nature as well as a physical nature, of the importance of self-control, of knowing how to love and be loved, of knowing how to keep confidential what others tell you so that they can "open up" without fear. In short, Masonic ritual teaches us to reach for a higher standard in conducting our lives.

Freemasonry sometimes has been referred to as a "secret society." This is an inaccurate statement. Freemasons certainly don't make a secret of the fact they are members of their Lodges. We wear rings, lapel pins, and tie clasps with Masonic emblems like the Square and Compasses, the best-known of Masonic signs that, logically, recall our early symbolic roots in stonemasonry. Masonic buildings are clearly marked and usually listed in the phone book. The only thing that could be referred to as secret-although we prefer the word private-are the methods of recognition such as grips, words, signs, and our ritual by which we induct new members.

Over the centuries, Freemasonry has developed into a worldwide social and community service organization, emphasizing personal study, self-improvement, and social betterment via individual involvement and philanthropy. During the late 1700's, it was one of the organizations most responsible for spreading the ideals of the Enlightenment: the dignity of man and the liberty of the individual, the right of all persons to worship as they choose, the formation of democratic governments, and the importance of public education. Masons supported the first public schools in both Europe and America.

The 3.5 million Masons worldwide continue to help men and women face the problems of the 21st century by building bridges of brotherhood and instilling in our communities ideals for a better tomorrow.

(This response was prepared by the Masonic Information Center;
a portion appeared in Newsday (Long Island) on 3-18-04.)

Letter from GM Carl Fitje to New York Masons

My Brothers:

It is important that all New York Masons have knowledge of what the Grand Lodge is doing regarding a tragic accident that occurred last week in which Brother William James died.

As Grand Master, I personally have spoken to the widow of our departed Brother, and communicated our deepest condolences and sympathies to her family. In Masonic tradition, a fund to assist the widow and her family has been established, and contributions have begun to come in. Additional contributions may be sent to the Masonic Brotherhood Foundation for the Brother William James Fund.

The death of Brother William James on March 8, 2004 has been widely reported in the public media. We are deeply anguished and outraged because a fellow Mason has died in an incident that never should have happened. Based on currently available information, it appears that the death occurred during a Southside Fellowcraft Club social meeting held in the basement of a building in Patchogue, New York where South Side Lodge No. 493 meets. Media reports reflecting a lack of information and understanding of Freemasonry in New York may have created certain public misconceptions. The incident did not involve a Masonic Lodge meeting, the use of a Masonic Lodge room, or any New York Masonic Ritual. The social club involved was not itself a Grand Lodge sanctioned Masonic organization.

I have appointed a panel of respected and experienced Masons, all of whom are attorneys and some of whom also have backgrounds in the judiciary, to review the activities and operation of social clubs that make use of Masonic premises in the State of New York. Pending completion of that investigation, I have suspended the Charter and members of South Side Lodge No. 493. The panel is charged to report back to counsel for the Grand Lodge within thirty to sixty days. The panel will make recommendations intended to assure that such a tragedy never happens again.

Grand Lodge law, previously established, clearly spells out the one and only Ritual approved in the State of New York. No Mason can engage in or participate in any ritual that varies from the Ritual approved under Grand Lodge law. I wish to remind all Masons that firearms do not, and never have, played any role in any Masonic Ritual in the State of New York.

I have full confidence that you will continue your good works in your communities, and stand tall and proud of your membership in Freemasonry.

Sincerely and fraternally, Carl J. Fitje, Grand Master

Note: While the primary intent of this letter was to address New York Masons, copies have been sent to the Grand Lodges of North America. Anyone wishing to contribute to the William James Fund is welcome to do so. Send your contributions to: William James Fund Masonic Brotherhood Foundation Grand Lodge of New York 71 W. 23rd Street New York, NY 10010-4149

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