In New York State, the last Lodge meeting I attended was Monday, March 2nd, when we raised two new Brothers in their 3rd Degree. There was talk that evening due to the impending coronavirus outbreak in New York City that it may be some time before we would be able to meet again safely. April 2nd, our Grand Master, MW Willaim M. Sardone, issued a proclamation that postponed all Masonic activities and events until further notice. Looking back at my calendar, Monday, April 13th, was my first "Virtual Masonic Meeting" hosted by Masters Lodge #5 in Albany, New York. I remember thinking there would be five of us that night since this was my first attempt to attend online. As it would turn out, there were almost 20 Brothers in attendance that night! The virtual meetings continued through the end of our Masonic year in June with education programs, discussions, and after-hours conversations that stayed late in the evening.
As the dark months of summer set in, Brothers would check the Grand Lodge of New York State's website, hoping for an update from our Grand Master on when Lodge's could reopen. Like small business owners, those working from home, or Americans furloughed due to the pandemic; we sought even the slightest sign of normalcy in an era of confusion. One tradition I want to share from my jurisdiction that brought relief every evening is the 9PM Toast to Absent Brethern on our District's private Facebook group page. Every evening, a new Brother would honor posting a toast, each putting his personal mark on the event. "To our absent Brothers, may we soon be reunited."
Lodge. Precisely, what would the Trestleboard resemble in September?
The conversation picked up again a week later when the officer line met to plot calendar dates for a second time. This was my second experience working with a Master on his Trestleboard. I can see why it is sometimes referred to as a tracing board, in that, dates and events are often subject to change due to several reasons. The DDGM's Official Visit, weather, degrees... so many factors can affect even the best-laid plans. Since our Lodge meets twice a month, September was easy to plot. The first meeting will be the election and officer installation. Our second meeting falls in October, "we'll do a walkabout of the Lodge," the Master suggested. When we turned the page to November an air of uncertainty was detected. We usually host a Thanksgiving Dinner on the second meeting of the month, which serves as the Lodge fundraiser. "Are we going to be able to plan for food for more than our immediate members this year," one Brother asked. "Are we even going to be able to have a meeting," I said out loud.
A hush fell.
A segment of Masons fall into the category of "at-risk" due to their age or underlying health conditions (or both). And we were aware of the increase of coronavirus cases being reported in July, having experienced the spring shutdown in New York State; a resurgence of COVID-19 was a real possibility. We all agreed that even with the strictest safety protocols in place, following the guidelines of wearing a mask, no physical contact in the Lodge room, physical distancing, and washing of hands - history does not guarantee that we would be able to hold a meeting. Sensing the stress in the group, I asked a question to change the subject.
"Are there any records in our archives or minutes of how the Lodge operated during the Spanish Flu?" All eyes turned to our Past Master, Michael A. Hernandez. He is deeply familiar with the history of Mount Vernon Lodge #3. It was soon apparent that Bro. Hernandez had searched the archives. He looked up and said, "On Monday, October 21st, 1918, the following resolution was adopted. 'Resolved that out of respect of the order of the civil authorities forbidding any public or private assemblage on account of an epidemic of influenza, this meeting should be closed until our next stated communication, unless specially convened.'"
That was it? The Spanish Flu devasted the United States for two years, and, I'm sorry, the only record was one sentence?
Bro. Hernandez understood my surprise. He shared his idea to include a letter and accompanying correspondence to be added to the Lodge's permanent records. Below is a portion of his letter that I found moving.
"While these materials can in no way serve as a complete and comprehensive synopsis of what transpired during these several months, we do hope that it will serve as a memorial and testament to the fact that during this time this Lodge and Freemasonry endured."
In our Old 17th District Facebook group, I asked if any Lodge Secretary had a Lodge record from the Spanish Flu. I want to thank RW Timothy Smith, Secretary of Mount Zion Lodge #311, for contributing this letter. It's dated October 17, 1918. What is significant about this time is that the city of San Fransisco had implemented a shutdown and enforced mask-wearing in public that fall to combat the Spanish Flu spread. The city ended up with nearly 45,000 cases and over 3,000 reported deaths. While Americans were dealing with a pandemic at home, in Europe, our soldiers were fighting in World War I. This communication is with Bro. George Barnes, an Army Corporal, stationed in France during WW1. It is very possible that his unit was part of the Aisne Offensive during the summer of 1918.
I want to include this line in Bro. Hernandez's letter to future Brothers as his words capture the spirit of how we best come together to serve and work.
"As we moved beyond this initial uncertainty and trepidation, many of our Brothers took it upon themselves to reach out to each other and offer any assistance that their circumstances permitted them to offer. Additionally, numerous acts of kindness and generosity were recorded, which manifested in tangible ways the principles and tenets of our Venerable Institution at a time when the world needed them most."