Fire unearths links between church and lodge
Somerset, or Sandys, where I was born and bred more than 8.5 decades ago, was once regarded by the rest of Bermuda (so I’ve been told) as the country’s most refined, somewhat aristocratic and certainly progressive of Bermuda’s nine parishes. But it seems these days to be losing some of its refined edge.
True enough, one of the first recorded drive-by shootings occurred in Somerset way back in the 1930s for which a man named Allen was convicted. And many years before that, another man named Skeeters gave us enormous notoriety when he was convicted for murdering his beautiful church-bound wife on a Sunday evening.
Nowadays, Sandys or Somerset is making the headlines for all the wrong reasons, a frequent murder or shooting here or there, a stabbing, robbery, drug trafficking, you name it. “We are getting like the rest of Bermuda,” a prominent resident remarked.
It was only on Sunday while taking a stroll on Church Hill I spotted a bulldozer clearing the site where not one, but two historic lodges once stood. And not far away was St James Parish Church. I was moved to take a photograph getting both places in one frame, as seen above. The bulldozer is faintly seen through the bushes to the top left, and the stately church through the gables of the house in the forefront.
To my utter surprise I read in my morning Gazette how firemen spent over two hours Monday bringing a blaze on the lodge site under control.
I was obliged to dig into my archives for the following feature I wrote in the Mid-Ocean News (January 5, 2001) for the historical facts connecting the lodge site with St. James Church, and the Masonic Prince Alfred Lodge No 233 of the Grand Registry of England. That is the two storey lodge building situated next door to the HSBC Somerset Bank Branch on the main road in Mangrove Bay:
The 1837 laying of a church cornerstone is commemorated
A Significant bit of history was substantially relived at St. James Parish Church in Somerset last Saturday.
It was the commemoration of the laying of the cornerstone 163 years ago to the distinctive northern and southern wings of the church by Freemasons belonging to Prince Alfred No. 233 of the Grand Registry of England (GRE).
That is the lodge which owns the two-storey building strategically nestled between the two banks on the main Mangrove Bay Road in Sandys.
That public-spirited action of the Masons on December 27, 1837 resulted in the church gaining its "lovely, simple, balanced symmetry, to quote from the book “Sandys”, which put St. James with its spiralling steeple and long welcoming aisle in a class by itself among public buildings in Bermuda.
St. James has a fascinating architectural history, being the oldest public building in the parish, with the original edifice built in 1653. Likewise Prince Alfred Lodge is steeped in history. In fact, the divine service on Saturday marked the 200th anniversary year of the founding of the lodge which was in 1801. Originally the Master of Prince Alfred, Wor. Bro. Allan T. Robinson, and his brethren had planned to make a spectacle of the dual commemorations, with a parade to St. James from West End School, led by the Somerset Brigade Band. Rarely are English Masons in full regalia allowed to parade in public. A special dispensation permitting it was granted by their Grand Lodge in England.
But adverse weather caused cancellation of the parade.
The church, however, was packed with members and their spouses from all other Masonic lodges who braved the elements to share with Prince Alfred. They were given a warm welcome by the Rector of St. James and Archdeacon of Bermuda. Dr. Arnold Hollis, who conducted the service and preached the sermon.
Dr. Hollis expressed regret he did not yield to the gentle persuasion by his late father-in-law, Ralph Yates, and educator Solomon Kawaley, both Past
Masters of their lodges when years ago they tried to get him to take an interest in Freemasonry. His excuse to Mr. Yates was that he was too busy with church work to think about anything else. But in preparation for the service he had made some interesting discoveries.
One of those items was an excerpt from an old report of how Prince Alfred, in celebrating the Festival of St. John the Evangelist attended St. James on December 2, 1837. The report noted:
“The Lodge was joined by Loyalty Lodge No. 712, GRE, when the Worshipful Master of Loyalty Lodge presented a trowel to be used in the laying of the Corner Stone. A sermon was preached by the Rev. Bro. Hoare, P.M., No. 283 and a collection in aid of the Church building fund raised Seventy Pounds. The
Corner Stone was laid by the Worshipful Bro. Hoare, P.M., acting Prov. Grand Master. The Brethren returned to their Lodge and partook of a good dinner; the tables were suitably decorated by the ladies of St. James’s Sunday School.”
Archdeacon Hollis said if he had known those historical facts before he might have sought membership in Prince Alfred 24 years ago when he became Rector and worked on them to continue to make St. James the soundest and most beautiful of all parish churches.
However, he was sure that the Masons looking around the interior of the church could see for themselves that its needs are great and immediate. The service was fully choral with the congregation singing such hymns as O Master let me walk with Thee, Onward Christian Soldiers and Guide Me O thou Great Redeemer.
Following the service Archdeacon Hollis and the Grand Inspector of the Bermuda Group of Lodges, under the Grand Lodge of England, Very Worshipful Bro. C.W. Kempe, led the congregation to the nearby church hall for a repast.
Regarding the history of both St. James and Prince Alfred Lodge as well as other lodges in the parish, this writer gleaned some interesting facts fro
Sandys , the 1999 publication of the Bermuda National Trust in its series on Bermuda’s Architectural Heritage.
Firstly, St. James, originally wooden when first built in 1653, had its entrance on what is now known as the West Side Road, running on the coastline from Rawlins’ old shop in Ely’s Harbour to Daniel’s Head. That was the main Somerset road then.
Two hundred yards from the junction of those two roads the Masons purchased a property and built their first lodge room. What remains of that structure is generally known as the ruin of the old Shepherd’s Lodge.
In 1780 the wooden St. James edifice was destroyed by a hurricane. It was during that period a new road, now the main Somerset road, was being cut to provide a more useful and central route through Somerset to Public Wharf. As the church was considered to be beyond repair, it was decided in 1783 to build a larger structure of stone with a steeple at the eastern end.
The first meeting in the new church was in 1789. Over the next 40 years many additions and improvements were made, including reversal of the entrance from west to east, the addition of a vestry and a larger gallery to accommodate slaves and free blacks.
Land was also purchased from a free black, William Tankard, in 1832, enabling expansion of the graveyard to the west, when the church began assuming it modern form.
That’s when the Prince Alfred Freemasons came to the fore. In 1827 they purchased the land not many yards from the church and built their first lodge room. They remained on that site for the next 30 or more years.
Meantime, emancipation of the slaves took place in 1834, the first black overseas-based based friendly Societies opened in 1848, with the Somers Pride of India Lodge of the Grand United Order of Oddfellows in St. George’s followed within two years by the Alexandrina Lodge in Hamilton and in Somerset by the Victoria & Albert Lodge No. 1057 of the same order. In 1857 when the Freemasons had built their new lodge on the property between the two banks further up in Somerset, Victoria & Albert purchased the Ely’s Harbour property from the Masons. The Oddfellows in 1896 purchased land along the Somerset main road and built the structure now used as The Kingdom Hall of Jehovah Witnesses.
The Samaritans Lodge by now was established in Bermuda, and they purchased the land and building vacated by the Oddfellows. Subsequently, they built their own lodge room on land leading to Scott’s Bay below the northwest corner of St James Church when the Shepherds became the last known owners of what was originally the Masonic Lodge. Both the Shepherds and Samaritans fell into ruins with the decline of their memberships.
Finally, the most impressive of all the lodges in Somerset came into being when the Independent Order of Manchester Unity Oddfellows built the two-storey
Loyal Irresistible Lodge, No. 6587 with its distinctive four-faced clock tower on the corner of Manchester Street and Cambridge Roads. The Oddfellows moved into that building in May 1902.
As we stated earlier, more fully annotated facts and photographs about Somerset, its churches, lodges and other public buildings and private buildings can be found in “Sandys”, the National Trust’s 195-page publication.
And, finally, events at St. James Church last Saturday had moral and spiritual connotations, demonstrating clearly how far Bermuda has advanced over the years in inter-racial relationships; and point up what the Holy Writ tells us about the first being last and the last first.
In 1837 when the Freemasons began impacting on St. James, blacks were slaves and therefore could not become Masons. The Freemasons of the day were by and large the slave owners. And in St. James, as in other parish churches, blacks could be seen and not heard, and were permitted only to sit in purpose-built galleries at the back of the church.
While it may go without saying, it is worthy of note to historians that the two principal officiants at the commemoration happened to be distinguished black men, the Master of the Lodge and the Archdeacon of Bermuda.
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