The Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, Ancient and Accepted Masons was erected in 1733. It is the third oldest Grand Lodge in the world and the oldest Grand Lodge in the Western Hemisphere.
The District Grand Lodge at the Panama Canal, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, oversees a district of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, having a District Grand Master appointed by the Grand Master of Masons in Massachusetts, and other officers, some elected and some appointed by the District Grand Master. The Masters and Wardens of the three constituent lodges of the district are members of the District Grand Lodge as are current officers and certain past officers who are designated as Permanent Members.
The Lodges composing the district are Sojourners Lodge, Ancon Lodge and Gatun Lodge.
The Founding of the Lodges of the District
The Canal Zone District (now named Panama Canal District) had its faintest beginnings in 1898 when Sojourners Lodge No. 874 was founded in Colon, Republic of Panama, under the Grand Lodge of Scotland. As more and more Americans arrived on the Isthmus to work for the Panama Railroad and the Canal they began to apply to Sojourners Lodge as affiliated members or as candidates for the degrees. Over a number of years the character of the membership changed until it was predominantly American. The long delays in communications between the lodge and the Grand Lodge of Scotland and the desire for closer ties with their own homeland led the members to seek a connection with a Grand Lodge in the United States. On September 11, 1912, M.W. Everett C. Benton, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, announced in the regular Quarterly Communication of that body that “I have granted two dispensations for new lodges—one at the Canal Zone, Panama, called ‘Sojourners Lodge’ . . . “ At the Annual Communication of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts held December 11, 1912, the Committee on Charters and By-Laws recommended that a charter be issued. This recommendation was unanimously approved by the Grand Lodge and Sojourners Lodge became the senior lodge on the Canal Zone.
The Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts for 1912 shows in the Tables of Districts for 1913 the following:
Name of Lodge Precedence Location Election
Sojourners 1912 Cristobal (sic) Nov.
Canal Zone (U.D.) 1912 Ancon
On January 13, 1913, M.W. Benton opened a Special Communication of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts for the purpose of constituting Sojourners Lodge and installing its officers. Accompanying the Grand Master were the Deputy Grand Master, R.W. Herbert E. Fletcher, and the Recording Grand Secretary, R.W. Thomas W. Davis. It is recorded that there were Masons present from 40 states, two dependencies and four foreign countries. There were 190 charter members in this new lodge.
On the following day M.W. Benton opened a Special Communication of the Grand Lodge at Ancon, Canal Zone, to pay a fraternal visit to Canal Zone Lodge (now named Ancon Lodge) at its first meeting under dispensation. At the Annual Communication of Grand Lodge December 10, 1913, the issuance of a charter for Canal Zone Lodge was approved. On February 21, 1914, R.W. Herbert E. Fletcher, Past Deputy Grand Master, opened a Deputy Grand Lodge and constituted Canal Zone Lodge and installed its officers. There were 19 charter members in this lodge.
The March 5, 1916, Communication of Grand Lodge approved the granting of a charter to Army Lodge (now named Gatun Lodge), which was constituted by Wor. John B. Fields, acting on a commission as proxy for the Grand Master, on May 20, 1916. More than 300 Masons attended this communication. The officers were installed including R.W. Herbert A. White as Master. Army Lodge had 50 members on its charter.
The Founding of the District Grand Lodge
In February of 1916 the Board of Directors of the Grand Lodge gave the Grand Master authority to send someone to the Canal Zone to give attention to such matters connecting with the lodges there as were demanding early consideration. During 1916 the Grand Master was unable to prevail upon anyone of suitable rank to undertake the trip to the Canal Zone. A petition for a dispensation for a new lodge at Paraiso required careful deliberation and intimate knowledge of local conditions to assure a wise decision. Late in the year, the newly formed Grand Lodge of Panama asked for recognition of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.
Accordingly, M.W. Abbott, immediately on being installed as Grand Master, prevailed upon M.W. Melvin Maynard Johnson, his predecessor, to undertake the trip to the Canal Zone and issued on January 4, 1917, a commission containing the following seven points:
1. To open a Deputy Grand Lodge for the purpose of the appointment and installation of a District Grand Master for the Canal Zone.
2. To deliver a dispensation to certain Brethren in Paraiso, Canal Zone, who have petitioned to be formed into a Lodge.
3. To hold one or more Lodges of Instruction or Exemplification of the work and ritual.
4. To make inquiry concerning the newly organized Grand Lodge of Panama and report to the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts upon the advisability of recognizing the said Grand Lodge of Panama.
5. To negotiate the terms of a Treaty and execute a Protocol with the said Grand Lodge of Panama regarding the relations of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts with said Grand Lodge of Panama, such Treaty to have no force or effect until the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts shall extend Masonic recognition to the Grand Lodge of Panama and shall ratify such Treaty. Said Protocol may establish such relations temporarily and until such Treaty shall be ratified by both Grand Lodge or shall be rejected by either of them.
6. To do and perform all these acts for the good of the Craft in the Canal Zone as the Grand Master of Masons in Massachusetts should have power to do if personally present.
7. In all these matters the Special Deputy is to have power to act or refrain from action in the exercise of his discretion.
M.W. Johnson set sail from New York on January 13, 1917, and after a stop in Cuba where he was entertained by officials of the Grand Lodge of Cuba, he arrived in Cristobal on January 21, where he was met by Capt. Ralph Osborn, later to become District Grand Master. There ensued a number of meetings with local craftsmen and sightseeing to an extent that Brother Stanley Ford recorded in the Canal Zone Orient that “Never in the history of the Panama Canal has any party seen more of the Canal and the Canal Zone in so short a space of time than did Mr. and Mrs. Melvin Maynard Johnson and their son, Maynard, Jr., and Mrs. William H. L. Odell during their eleven days’ stay with us.”
On January 30, 1917, M.W. Johnson met with the Grand Lodge of Panama and signed the Treaty. This Treaty governed the relations between the lodges of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts and the Grand Lodge of Panama until it unilaterally abrogated by the Grand Lodge of Panama in 1980. The abrogation of the 1917 Treaty opened the door for the Massachusetts lodges to accept candidate for affiliation and membership from men of all nationalities.
On January 31, 1917, M.W. Johnson opened a Deputy Grand Lodge at Cristobal, Canal Zone, at which his commission from the Grand Master was read in the presence of about 300 Masons, R.W. Herbert A. White was installed the first District Grand Master of the Canal Zone Masonic District, the officers of Sojourners Lodge were installed, and the dispensation for Isthmian Lodge was presented to the committee of that lodge. R.W. White was Judge Advocate for the Canal Zone, a Major in the Army, a Past Master of Army Lodge at Empire and of Hancock Lodge No. 311, Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. The evening ended with the exemplification of the second section of the third degree.
Visitations by Grand Masters
It has been mentioned above that M.W. Everett C. Benton visited the Canal Zone and constituted Sojourners Lodge in 1913. Over the years since that early visit, most of the Grand Masters have come to the Isthmus for extended visits. This series of visitations has taken the usual form of visiting two or three lodge groups in a joint communication at which a degree would be conferred, and a Grand Master’s Reception for all Masons on the Isthmus and their wives to meet the Grand Master and his official party. The visits have included meetings with high officials of the Panama Canal and military, and sightseeing in both the Canal Zone and the Republic of Panama.
The Move From the Former Canal Zone
When the 1977 Treaty between the United States of America and the Republic of Panama went into effect, all of the lands in the former Canal Zone reverted to the Republic of Panama. This brought about conditions that forced the District Grand Lodge and two of the lodges under its jurisdiction, Ancon Lodge and Gatun Lodge to relocate. In December 1999 they moved their offices and lodge room to a section of Panama named Vista Hermosa. During his visit in January 2000 the Grand Master dedicated the new Massachusetts Masonic Hall in Vista Hermosa.