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Rediscovery of Alpha Lodge's Charter

Many relics of North American Co-Freemasonry's early history remain doggedly lost until it is time to be found. This article is about one of those relics, the first English Charter of the first Co-Masonic Lodge in North America; how it seems to have been lost and its stationary journey to being found.

Prior to the spring of 2010, there was no hint that the charter could have survived the first part of the 20th Century. Many of these early charters had been transferred to the then international headquarters in Paris, France and then were destroyed shortly after occupying German forces entered Paris in 1940 during World War II. The assumption had, for decades, been that the English Charter of the first Co-Masonic Lodge in North America was among many lost in that conflict.

Not that the English Charter had been the first Charter. When Alpha Lodge 301[1] was consecrated October 18, 1903 in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, the first Charter issued was in French. There followed quite a controversy about the lack of English language charters[2] and Alpha Lodge eventually traded its French Charter for that in English.

Such charters are supposed to be displayed during Lodge meetings or at least on the Lodge premises but Alpha Lodge's rocky history makes this difficult to trace. Over the decades, Alpha Lodge went periodically dark and was resurrected. On January 9, 1938, the Lodge transferred across the river to Monessen, with a full roster of officers and seems to have thrived for a while only to repeatedly wax and wane in the next few decades. Records are scarce but Alpha Lodge appears to have gone dark for good in the 1970s and almost all of its relics are considered lost[3].

It didn't occur to me when I arrived in Charleroi May 19, 2010 with two other Brothers, Darylee Foertsch and Velma Foertch, that we were about to find evidence Alpha Lodge's English Charter has survived World War II and the Lodge's going dark. I then was doing intensive research for the first written book on worldwide Co-Masonic history. I and the Brothers Foertsch went to Charleroi to visit the print shop of the Louis Goaziou, first Right Worshipful Master of Alpha Lodge 301 and the Order's second Grand Commander. Goaziou also was one of the Order's primary founders. Goaziou's old print shop is preserved by the Charleroi Area Historical Society and we expected to meet with the society's chair, Nikki Sheppick[4]. Also on hand was Charleroi Mayor Nancy Ellis.

Shortly after we entered the shop, something hanging high upon a wall caught our eyes. Though neither Sheppick or Ellis knew exactly what it was, I and the Brothers Foertsch recognized it as a charter. Once the image was lowered from the wall, we were very excited to see it looked like the first English charter of Alpha Lodge 301. Sheppick let us know that what we were looking at was a high quality photo copy of what she thought was the original that the Goaziou family had given to the historical society; and that the society had carefully stored offsite. Sheppick agreed to allow us to see the original the following day.

Thrilled, we alerted Brothers at headquarters in Larkspur, Colorado that we thought we would see the original English Charter for Alpha Lodge 301 the following day. Naturally, there was a good bit of excitement.

That excitement was dampened the following day, back at the print shop, when we were allowed to view the "original"; which turned out to be a high quality, full scale black and white photograph of the original. It was a very clear and well done photograph, impressive as it was to scale. However, the gold seal clearly wasn't a seal (and was in black and white, so not gold) and on the back of the photograph in three-lined printing were the words "THIS PAPER / MANUFACTURED / BY KODAK".

Obviously, the image itself provided some much needed information for my research but it was the printing on the back carried its own importance as evidence the true original might still exist somewhere in the world. In any case, it was proof the Charter survived into the second half of the 20th Century.

Kodak commonly used that printing on the back of their photo paper in the 1970s and 1980s and not prior. That meant the original still existed at that time. The Charter probably never made it to Paris and was not destroyed by the Nazis during World War II. I tried to guess at the likely path of the Charter and came up with a theory. When Alpha Lodge 301 went dark for the last time in the 1970s, it may be the Goaziou family was hesitant to part with it given its attachment to their predecessor, Louis Goaziou. It's possible the Order agreed to leave the family with a high quality photograph in exchange for the original. Which would then have been sent to headquarters in Larkspur. And where it might still be.

Another call was placed to Larkspur to let the Brothers there know we did not, after all, have access to the original but to please keep their eyes open for the charter in Larkspur.

Months passed and the charter drifted out of my thoughts. However, the Brothers in Larkspur did keep their eyes open. In early March 2011, as the publisher was reviewing final proofs of the book, Rosario Menocal, President of the American Federation of Human Rights, was in the archives looking from something totally unrelated when she noticed a large roll of paper. She unrolled it and there it was, the original English Charter for Alpha Lodge 301. Now it was my turn to receive an excited phone call. Bro Rosario told me what she'd found and I also could hear the cheers of other Brothers in the background.

It had been found just in time for a good quality scan to be included in the book published later that year.

Today the first English Charter of Alpha Lodge 301, the first Co-Masonic Lodge in North America, is beautifully and archivally framed and hangs on a wall in the anteroom where the Order's Supreme Council meets.

[1] Numbering conventions in early worldwide Co-Freemasonry history can be a little confusing. In general, Lodges founded in France started with single digits as that was the first country where Co-Masonic Lodges were consecrated. The second nation where Co-Masonic Lodges were founded, under the direction of famed human rights activist Annie Besant, was Great Britain, where numbering eventually began in the 200s. As the US was the third nation where Co-Masonic Lodges were founded, numbers began in the 300s with Alpha Lodge given the initial number of 301.

[2] For more information about these early French charters, as well as other information about early Co-Freemasonic history, see my "On Holy Ground: History of the Honorable Order of American Co-Masonry, the American Federation of Human Rights" (Masonic Publishing Company of the US, 2011).

[3] A very notable exception is Alpha Lodge's first minutes book which is preserved in the archives of the Larkspur, Colorado headquarters of the Honorable Order of American Co-Masonry, the American Federation of Human Rights.

[4] Her fuller title is "society administrator, researcher,, 'part time' creative carpenter-painter and all around worker".

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