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The secret’s out: Local Freemasons offer look inside La Jolla lodge as branch celebrates centennial

The La Jolla Masonic Lodge is at 5655 La Jolla Blvd.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

The storied and secretive fraternal organization says its modern mission is to build on one’s life.

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Aside from their famous members throughout history — from George Washington and Benjamin Franklin to Thurgood Marshall and Harry Houdini — the Freemasons are known as one of the most secretive organizations in the world. With roots in religious faith and a self-improvement mission that has evolved over centuries, they conduct much of their business behind closed doors in ways known only to members.

But the La Jolla branch opened its lodge to non-members Dec. 13 for a dinner to help celebrate its 100th anniversary.

The history of Freemasons — now considered a fraternity-type association “dedicated to fostering and promoting every moral and social virtue in men” — goes back to the construction of the biblical King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE.

“That building marked the first time there were stonemasons that [created] industry,” said Freemason Johnny Law, and rituals were built around the traditions between stonemasons in the earliest guilds. “Since they couldn’t read or write, they had to come up with secret handshakes to indicate their … level or skill set,” Law said. “It was a way to recognize one another.”

Stonemasons evolved their form of communication to include passwords and symbols to protect their trade secrets, according to the organization. From there, lodges were established to take care of older members and/or their families if they were to become injured or die. Over time, those stonemason groups became Freemasons and organized as fraternal clubs rather than builders guilds. The Freemasons call themselves the world’s first and largest fraternal organization.

But the secretive nature remains.

The design of La Jolla Lodge No. 518 at 5655 La Jolla Blvd. is inspired by Solomon’s Temple, with pillars and a center “courtyard” that is actually an enclosed meeting room. Because a religious affiliation is required to be a member, the meeting room has an altar with holy text on it. In America, that often is a Bible, but the book can represent different faiths from across the world.

The local chapter of Freemasons meets in the La Jolla lodge.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

The “G” in the center of the Freemason symbol — which also features architectural tools (a compass and a square) — stands for God and geometry, Law said. “We feel that God speaks in math,” he said. “When you think of God being the architect of the universe, [God] would have done it through geometric principles.”

Though the Freemasons do not require faith in a certain religion, members must have a belief in a “supreme being,” Law said. However, the group doesn’t ask potential members about the specific faith or deity they believe in.

“There is this idea that ... you give your word to someone who is going to hold you accountable besides yourself and your higher creator,” Law said.

There is a tradition against having atheists join the organization, though in France, there is a subset of Freemasonry that allows atheists.

Similarly, women conventionally are not allowed to be Freemasons, but female chapters are developing that are part of a separate organization that holds separate meetings. “I wouldn’t be able to go to their meetings and they wouldn’t come to ours,” Law said.

Transcending the concept of building structures like the stonemasons did, the mission of modern-day Freemasons is to build on one’s life, Law said.

“What are you adding to your family, to your community? Are you contributing and building something?” he said. “There is this idea of being a builder and putting that one stone.”

Being a member connects one to the list of famous Freemasons and provides “a standard to live up to,” Law said.

Local Freemason Johnny Law reads an invocation before the La Jolla lodge's centennial dinner Dec. 13.
Local Freemason Johnny Law reads an invocation before the La Jolla lodge’s centennial dinner Dec. 13.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

At the beginning of the La Jolla lodge dinner Dec. 13, prospective member and retired Marine Karl Fontenot said he was driven to the Freemasons by the sense of camaraderie he had during his military service. Finding “a common mind” of “wanting to be better individuals and having that support to ensure you stay on that track” kept him going back to open meetings.

The Freemasons meet the second Tuesday of every month, but the public may only attend what are known as festive board dinners to learn about Masonry and meet the lodge members. Potential members are encouraged to attend open meetings at the lodge they hope to join.

“For those that transition out of the military … it’s hard to find that sense of brotherhood again, which can cause despair among veterans,” Fontenot said. “I looked up places around here. I live in Pacific Beach, so this was close to me. The first time I came here, I was greeted with open arms and could feel the care and support that much of us need.”

The model of “identifying men that seek information about life and how to be a better man” spoke to him, he said, as did the La Jolla lodge’s reputation for diversity and volunteerism in the community.

“There is this idea that ... you give your word to someone who is going to hold you accountable besides yourself and your higher creator.”

— Freemason Johnny Law

Freemasons are forbidden to recruit others for membership, and joining must be of a person’s free will.

Potential members are voted on by the existing members after a background check and interviews with a trio of assigned members.

During a meeting after the open dinner, Fontenot was unanimously voted in.

He said he was “so hopeful that I can call these guys my brethren, and every day I look forward to getting to know them more and more.”

The organization’s initiation rituals are kept secret, but Law said ceremonies involve readings that “impress upon a candidate good moral teachings and how to be an upstanding citizen … and how to be a better man.”

La Jolla Freemason secretary Vike Ovanessoff comes from Iran, where Freemasonry was banned in the 1970s.

“Some of the members got caught and were executed … so some members came to the United States and founded the Grand Lodge of Iran in Exile in Los Angeles,” he said. “They are very active, with a lot of members.”

Growing up, he said, he would check his actions against the standard of “would the lodge be proud of me for this?”

There are different levels of Masons — known as degrees — with different responsibilities. First-degree Masons are known as entered apprentices, which Law said involves retrospection and improving on one’s vices. Second-degree Masons are known as fellowcrafts, who focus on studying geometry and science. Third-degree Masons are known as master Masons, who focus on welcoming the next generation and bringing people together.

The Freemasons logo with the La Jolla lodge number is posted during meetings.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

As for why Freemasons are so secretive, Law said it is part of their commitment to preserve the integrity of the society.

“Trust is an important principle, and if my brothers can’t trust me at my word and if I can’t keep the simplest secrets, what kind of person am I?” he said. “That’s the first lesson Masons are taught.”

Learn more at SanDiegoMasons.com.