Part 4: Growth and Maturity
By Chris Ruli, Grand Historian
Capitular Masonry in the District of Columbia grew dramatically at the turn of the twentieth century and, by the 1920s, became the second largest Masonic body in the jurisdiction. Its popularity had been fueled, in part, by a rapidly growing population of Masons who wished to continue their education through the Royal Arch degrees.
The Grand Chapter modeled itself after the Grand Lodge with committees on jurisprudence, correspondence, and ritual. The Grand High Priest, while subservient to the Grand Master, assumed similar duties for royal arch chapters. The body developed its own membership card system to track historic and current records and annual proceedings mirrored the Grand Lodge’s format. Royal Arch Masons formed an Association of High Priests, the presiding officers of a chapter, to help provide auxiliary support to chapters. The Grand Chapter developed a similar set of grand representatives to foreign jurisdictions. There were, however, some differences between the grand bodies. The Grand Chapter often held a single annual communication compared to the Grand Lodge’s three. An Order of Priesthood, or a jurisdictional-wide board of high priests, conferred the order of high priest upon prospective high priests prior to their advancement in the east. This practice remains today with prospective high priests. The body had its own executive leadership with a President and Vice-President.
Royal Arch Masonry’s popularity in Washington enabled the Grand Chapter to accumulate enough funds to support jurisdictional-wide projects. In 1911, Grand High Priest Kenyon Harper proposed that the body divert part of its annual assessment, one fourth of total assessments, to help fund the District’s Masonic and Eastern Star Home operations and complete its erection. The body agreed to help fund this endeavor and became the third largest contributor after the District’s Grand Lodge and Grand Chapter of Eastern Star. The home’s construction was completed three years later in 1912. Royal Arch chapters made monthly trips to the home to organize Sunday religious services and other activities for home residents. In 1923, Grand Chapter leadership proposed that the body fund a new annex to the home referred to as the Royal Arch Hall. The space would serve as a chapel and communal space for weekly activities and a basement gym and play area for the home’s orphans. Based on this proposal, the Grand Chapter voted to implement a voluntary $2 assessment to help reach their target of $12,000 ($210,000 adjusted for inflation). In his 1924 report, Grand High Priest Roe Fulkerson announced that the Grand Chapter had reached their fundraising goal with a total of $12,203.94. The new hall was dedicated on January 4, 1925.
The Grand Chapter voted during the 1915 annual meeting to join the Grand Lodge and Grand Commandery in supporting the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association’s efforts to build a memorial to George Washington in Alexandria. The three bodies purchased life membership in the association’s Roll of Honor, the association’s first fundraiser that cost $100, or $3,000 adjusted for inflation, per membership.
In 1918, The Grand Chapter invested $2,500 (or approximately $50,000 adjusted for inflation) in Liberty Bonds to support the national war mobilization effort. Many Royal Arch Masons served in the armed services during the first and second world wars.
The Grand Chapter discussed supporting the Masonic Employment Bureau during their annual 1929 meeting. The project, organized by the Grand Lodge in 1916 to assist masons and their families find employment around the District. The body agreed to donate $.10 per capita from the annual assessment towards the project. Their decision was timely as later that year the Stock Market Crash prompted many masons to apply to the bureau for assistance. The assessment was extended well into the next decade and ended permanently around 1938.
In 1932, Grand Chapter officers and Royal Arch Masons marched in Alexandria for the dedication services for the GW Masonic National Memorial. To commemorate the special occasion, the Grand Chapter organized a Royal Arch degree conferral on the premises on May 14, 1932. 192 candidates composed the “Bicentennial Class,” named after the anniversary of George Washington’s birth. Given the number of candidates in the class, the conferral program incredibly began at 2 AM in the morning and extended well into that same evening.
By the mid-1940s, the DC York Rite grand bodies – Grand Chapter, Grand Council, and Grand Commandery, had operated their activities in relative autonomy. That is until early 1944 discussions were held between representatives of the three bodies to better coordinate their efforts. The “York Rite Cooperation” committee agreed to hold their first coordinated degree conferral later that fall between November and December. The first schedule:
- October 30: Mark Master
- November 6: Past Master and Most Excellent Master
- November 10: Royal Arch
- November 30: Royal and Select Masters
- December 3: Super Excellent Master
- December 6: Order of Red Cross
- December 9: Order of Malta
- December 11: Order of the Temple
The first York Rite Bodies dinner was held three days later on December 14 at the Statler Hotel with two guest speakers: John H. Cowels, Grand Commander of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite Southern Jurisdiction, and Reverend Edgar Cordell Powers.
Given the jursidcition’s location in the United States, Freemasons in DC often served as hosts to national conferences and annual visits by national Masonic bodies to the nation’s capital. At times, these visits included participation by members of the Grand Chapter. DC Grand Chapter officers have served as hosts to several different triennial sessions of the General Grand Chapter of the Royal Arch Masons of the United States and several DC masons have ascended to the rank of General Grand High Priest. Visits by General Grand Chapter officers sometimes included trips to visit the White House, Capitol, and other national landmarks.
The last significant visit by DC Grand Chapter masons to the White House occurred on January 11, 1977. Several months earlier, chapter leadership received word of President Gerald Ford’s willingness to be initiated into Royal Arch. White House staff arranged for DC Freemasons to visit the White House on January 11 and perform a brief initiation ceremony in the oval office. DC Grand Chapter and Grand Council officers arrived at the White House that day, opened a session of both bodies in the Roosevelt Room and were then escorted into the Oval Officer where they were greeted by Brother Ford. He was then instructed on the signs, passwords, grips, and obligations for all four capitular and two cryptic degrees. The entire program lasted less than an hour.
Below: Ford and members of DC York Rite in the Oval Office