Fraternal orders like the Masons, International Order of Oddfellows, Knights of Pythias, and Improved Order of Red Men enjoyed enormous popularity in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century America. All were exclusively male and based on esoteric, supposedly antique initiation rites, secrecy, and the possibility of earning an ever-ascending hierarchy of degrees. Freemasonry was one of the largest and grew explosively in the early twentieth century; it had 850,000 members in 1896 and 3.3 million by 1930. [1][2] Its growth was at least partly spurred by changes in Masonic practices that gradually turned the group from a deeply enclosed order focused on self-improvement and fellowship to a more outward-looking organization, with a greater emphasis on community service. The Masons even began to include women in social events and encouraged the establishment of women’s auxiliaries (although women were never accepted as Masons). The great majority of members were white middle class Protestants (including Protestant clergymen), but there were, especially in New York, numerous ethnic and foreign-language lodges, reflecting the diverse population of the city.What is a mason?

It was in this atmosphere of growth and change that nineteen Syrian men—all of them already Master Masons—came together in 1908 to discuss the formation of a Syrian lodge.[3] First, all nineteen had to obtain releases from the lodges of which they were members. The group elected as their Chairman Nacle F. Forzly, a manufacturer of hosiery and underwear, and directed him to obtain these “dimits” as they were called; all were granted. Then Forzly wrote to the lodges likely to be affected by the formation of the new “Star of the East Lodge” (as the Syrians first named it) in New York’s Tenth Masonic District. The Tenth was known as the “Polyglot District” because so many of its lodges were foreign-language lodges. All the lodges contacted gave their approval. So on the nineteenth of November, 1908, the “Grand Master of Masons in the State of New York” granted the Syrians permission to form the now-named “Damascus Lodge, U.D. F & A.M.,”[4] the first—and for many years the only—Syrian Masonic lodge in the United States.

Their serious commitment was evident from the first:

Damascus Lodge, F. and A. M.

Damascus Lodge, U.D., the baby lodge of the Tenth District, at its last stated communication, conferred the third degree and despite the fact that this was the first time the officers had conferred the degree, the excellence of the rendering of the ritual showed careful and conscientious study, and augurs well for the future success of the lodge.”

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 17 February 1909

There were thirty-four charter members including the founders; they were Orthodox, Melkite, and Protestant, along with one Syrian Jew, Ezra Sitt,[5] and at least one Maronite, my paternal grandfather, Joseph Jacobs.[6] The lodge met every second and fourth Saturday in the Johnston Building on the corner of Nevins and Fulton Streets in Brooklyn; the “work” (as the rituals were called) was conducted in English and Arabic. As a “baby lodge,” the Syrians were assisted (and monitored) by members of other lodges as well as by a representative of the Grand Lodge itself. They were able to confer degrees on their members in short order, and by April of 1909, still under dispensation, all members had been raised to the third degree, that is, to Master Mason. The lodge had collected thirty dollars from each member as initial dues, spent $585 on Masonic “paraphernalia,” and showed a balance of $365 in the treasury in April when applying for its charter.

First line officers of Damascus Lodge. Nacle Forzly, Grand Master, is in top hat.

First line officers of Damascus Lodge. Nacle Forzly, Master, is in top hat. (Courtesy of Livingston Masonic Library, New York)

In May of 1909, the New York Grand Master granted a charter to “Damascus Lodge No. 867” (it was the 867th lodge established in New York). The first senior officers were Nacle F. Forzly, Worshipful Master, Samuel D. Barbari, Senior Warden, and George A. Ferris, Junior Warden.[7]

Petitions for membership began to flow in (new members were initiated every February), and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which regularly reported on Masonic doings (and which by 1919 was devoting a full page to fraternal society news), reported that the room in the Johnston Building was always well-filled with members and guests from other lodges. By 1912, the membership had increased to about 50, and the annual banquet at the Hotel Bossert attracted 150 guests. In 1915, there were ninety-one members, and in 1919—their tenth anniversary—they began to hold some of  their meetings in the new Brooklyn Masonic Temple on Clermont Avenue.

George A. Fuleihan in his 32nd Degree Masonic regalia, ca. 1921. He was Grand Master of Damascus Lodge.

George A. Fuleihan in his 32nd Degree Masonic sash. Probably taken in 1921, when he was  Master of Damascus Lodge.

The lodge was diligent in its charitable obligations as well. In its very first year, it made a donation of five dollars toward a “Masonic Bed” in a local hospital (hospitals were a favorite charity for many fraternal orders); each year the amount increased. During World War I, when the Syrian colony took up the challenge to raise $300,000 for a Liberty Loan, the Damascus Lodge contributed $50,000 (one newspaper reported $100,000) to the total.

In addition to the “work,” the members did plenty of socializing. There were dinners after every meeting at the Imperial restaurant on Fulton Street, where a banquet for fifty cost the members $62.50, plus $6.00 for beer. As early as 1911, they hosted a party in the Johnston Building for members, guests, and their wives, which featured a blackface entertainer, classical pianist, charity auction, and a catered dinner. Public speaking became one of the hallmarks of a successful Mason. The lodge had a standing entertainment committee, which organized the parties and annual fund-raising galas. Women’s nights were added in the 1920s, but only as social events; no “work” was done in a woman’s presence.

Masonic gravestone, Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY

Masonic gravestone in the Syrian Orthodox section of Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY

Why did the Syrians become Masons? After all, it was expensive to join and maintain a membership, given the dues, costumes, Masonic paraphernalia, and social and charitable obligations. It also took up an extraordinary amount of time, with the length of the meetings increasing as more degrees were awarded. They had most likely joined originally in order to make American business contacts in a uniquely American fraternal setting. But why form their own lodge, when they already knew each other and worked together in lower Manhattan? As one historian explained in relation to the Jewish fraternal societies, the primary purpose of immigrant lodges was to provide a path to American status that did not compromise their cultural values: “Immigrants reassured themselves that they could remain faithful to received ethnic and religious traditions and, at the same time, take part in a distinctively American cultural form.”[8]

This likely applies to the Syrians, but there were probably other motives as well:

  • The lodge provided a camaraderie that may have been lacking in the lives of these early immigrants who were constantly struggling to make good in their new home.
  • It was non-sectarian (one only had to believe in a Supreme Being to become a member), which contrasted sharply with what was going on outside the Lodge, where sectarian battles reached their highest pitch at this time. Other Syrian associations and clubs had been founded in the nineteenth century, but they were generally based on sect, a practice that kept open-minded men apart.
  • Most of the Syrians’ charitable giving had been done on a sectarian basis, whereas the Masonic charities were non-sectarian, civic-minded, and “American.” Freemasonry provided a structured way to give to causes that were outside the Syrians’ ambit, and these donations played well with the American public.
  • Already well established in Syria, Freemasonry was familiar, but it was also aspirational because it had the  approbation of American businessmen.
  • The frequency with which (American) fellow-Masons attended lodge events meant that there continued to be interaction with American businessmen even in the all-Syrian lodge.

The members apparently succeeded in their aims, since the Damascus Lodge continued to meet until quite recently: it enabled the men to be part of an American institution within an ethnic framework, and to transcend their everyday struggles in their reach toward a higher goal.

[1] There are many excellent books and articles about Freemasonry in the United States, including Mark C. Carnes’ Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (New Haven: 1989), and David G. Hackett’s That Religion in Which All Men Agree (Berkeley: 2014). A  “Monitor” that outlines Masonic history and ceremony can be found here. My thanks to Jeffrey Croteau, librarian at the Scottish Rite Museum and Library, Boston, MA, for his help in pointing me toward these references and for correcting some misapprehensions in the text. Thanks are due as well to Morgan Aronson, Librarian of the Livingston Masonic Library in New York City, for her patience and help.

[2] Membership in all fraternal organizations plummeted in the Great Depression and has continued to do so, although there is some evidence that a revival is afoot. See, for example, http://www.freemason.org/index.htm and Hackett, pp 219-227.

[3] They were (in order of seniority): Nacle F. Forzly, Samuel D. Barbari, Tewfik M. Mattar, Khalil A. Salih, Anton Simon, Najeeb Sahadi, Salim A. Kisbany, Selim Barson, Ameen Aramonie, Rasheed Simon, Ezra Sitt, Joseph H. Lutfy, Kalil F. Dibbs, Michael Jabaly, Najib S. Maloof, Alexander J. Hamrah, Najeeb M. Diab, George A. Ferris, and Charles (Shukri) Baddour.

[4] U.D. stands for “Under Dispensation,” that is, the lodge was set up on a trial basis. It could grant the  three degrees, which are “Entered Apprentice,” “Fellowcraft,” and “Master Mason.” F & A.M. means “Free and Accepted Masons,” one of two standard designations for lodges.

[5] See my blog, “A Special Relationship,” for more information about the relationship between Sitt and the Syrian colony.

[6] Despite the fact that Freemasonry was anathema to the Catholic Church, there were many Italian lodges in New York. It must have been difficult—but obviously not impossible—for Jacobs to reconcile the hostility between the church and the lodge. He was still a Mason when he died in 1933, but no Masonic emblem appears on his tombstone in the (Catholic) St. John’s Cemetery in Queens.

[7] Twefik Mattar, the original Junior Warden, went back to Syria due to ill health, and Ferris took his place, reducing the total number of new members to thirty-three.

[8] Hackett, p. 208, citing Daniel Soyer 1999.