Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with three old friends who found a sense of community when they joined the Freemasons. They discuss what Masons actually do together (at least the parts that aren’t secret) and how their weekly meetings at the Joel H. Prouty Lodge in Auburn, Massachusetts, have added a crucial regularity to their friendship.
Jim Gonyea, 47, an IT program manager who lives in Cherry Valley, Massachusetts
Rob Lajoie, 50, a graphic designer who lives in Leicester, Massachusetts
Chris Lapierre, 46, an electronics technician who lives in Sturbridge, Massachusetts
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Julie Beck: How did you three first meet and become friends?
Jim Gonyea: Rob and I met in college, through a mutual acquaintance. I don’t remember the person who introduced us, but 30 years later, I’m still friends with Rob. We had a lot of the same interests, like music and Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe 15 to 20 years ago, Rob met Chris through the Dungeons & Dragons game. He introduced Chris to me, we got to know each other through that game, and then 12 years ago, we all became Freemasons.
Chris Lapierre: I saw an ad that Rob had posted at a game store, and joined the game he was running. I kind of squeezed myself into Rob’s group of friends. I’ve got to say this about Rob: He collects people. He is a central figure of so many different groups. It’s pretty impressive. I’m not as outgoing. Rob really gets people talking about things in life, and next thing you know, you’re hanging out with his other friends.
Jim: Rob is the person who got both Chris and me into the lodge that we belong to and into the Masonic fraternity.
Beck: How did you become interested in joining the Masons?
Chris: I had a pretty severe accident when I was 9 years old. I was badly burned. I went to the local hospital, but somebody in town [who was a Mason] made phone calls and I was transferred to Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston, which is world-renowned for its burn treatment. I don’t know if I ever met this guy. I spent a month there, and it was such a positive experience from something so horrific. I wanted to give back. That was my inspiration to learn about Masonry.
When I was a young person without a lot of money, I put it off, thinking it must be really expensive. Then later on, I saw a Masonic funeral service in a church. They line up around the walls and pay their respects to their fallen brother. It really hit me as an important event.
A few years later, Rob got involved. I think he knew I wanted to join, and once he was in, he was like, “Hey, you need to come join my lodge.”
Rob Lajoie: Jim and I studied philosophy and comparative religion in college. We always had questions around Freemasonry—What was it about? What did they do in the buildings? Years went by, and then they had a campaign in Massachusetts—they were going to do open houses at the different lodges. You could go and talk to the members a bit. I think that drove both of us to see what was happening at the lodge and inquire about joining, independently of each other. We each came to it on our own.
Jim: I picked up on it separately, but at one point, Rob reached out to me and said, “Hey, you remember all of our discussions way back then about Freemasonry? Well, guess what I just did!” He told me that he joined and asked me if I was interested, and of course I was.
Beck: What year did you guys join? Was it roughly the same time?
Jim: Yeah, 2007. Rob joined in January, I joined a few months later, and then Chris joined right after me.
Beck: How do you get in? Do you just apply? Are there certain qualifications?
Chris: Because it’s a fraternity, you have to be a male. You need to have a belief in God. It doesn’t need to be a certain religion as long as you have a belief in a higher power. You have to apply, then you go through a background check, and you provide references. A committee will be sent out to investigate that applicant—make sure that the person is truthful, is looking to join the fraternity for good reasons, and doesn’t have any ill will toward the fraternity. There’s a lot of conspiracy stuff out there. When you’re actually in the fraternity, there’s no conspiracy going on.
Beck: Have you all seen National Treasure?
Chris: Maybe there are some kernels of truth in that, but it’s a movie; it’s sensationalized. There is a lot of history tied to the fraternity.
Beck: Nobody stole the Declaration of Independence?
Chris: Not to my knowledge.
Jim: Between business meetings and degrees for initiating new members, there’s not a lot of time to go out and steal the Declaration of Independence.
Beck: Can you explain to me what Masons actually do? When I think of Freemasonry, I just think of charity and secrets.
Jim: Masonry itself is an allegory of the building of Solomon’s Temple. It’s designed to teach a man moral principles. In Masonry, there are three degrees. The degrees are called entered apprentice, fellow craft, and master Mason. They are very similar to the concepts in a union or trade group of the apprentice, journeyman, and master—because Masonry adopted a lot of its structure from the old stonemason guilds of medieval times.
The degrees [each] have initiation rites. Anybody who’s been a member of a college fraternity has gone through this sort of thing. In the initiation ceremony, there’s no violence; there’s no weird stuff. All of the officers who perform the initiation ceremony are doing it from memory. Each degree is designed to give a candidate an impression of [what goes on in] Freemasonry and a certain amount of moral teaching.
Rob: The intention behind putting so much time into the memorization is so that every new member has as close to the same exact experience as possible, no matter where they’re getting their degrees or what lodge they’re joining. Then that becomes a shared bond with everyone in the fraternity, no matter where you come from.
Jim: We don’t teach people a certain philosophy; we’re not a religion. We’re a fraternity that’s trying to teach men to be more moral men. Chris kept mentioning the Shriners; in order to become a Shriner, you have to become a Mason. The Shriners do the Shriners Hospitals. Our lodge does charitable work with a youth and family service group.
A lot of what we do is just take care of the other members. Every year we visit the widows of the brothers who have passed away.
Beck: So if I joined the Masons, how would I spend my time? Doing charitable work, socializing, studying readings that I’m given?
Jim: We don’t actually give people stuff to read. Once people become Masons, they’re welcome to have a copy of the ceremony to learn themselves. A lot of what we do is just good people hanging out with good people. We hang out at our lodge building every week. Anybody who’s new is invited to attend our rehearsals [for ceremonies]. Then we have the charitable work that we might do—food drives and stuff like that. You can put in as much [time] as you want, or as little.
Beck: Can you describe a typical weekly meeting?
Rob: During the summer in Massachusetts, many lodges will shut down. Our lodge actually remains open, and we still meet every Tuesday night. During the summer, we’ll get together and figure out, do we want to stop somewhere to get food or cook a meal for everybody? Sometimes we’ll do some rehearsals during summer; a lot of times we’ll just sit down and play cards.
During the other months, we’ll typically have a meal before the business meeting. Then we’ll go ahead and discuss paying the bills and plan different events. After the meeting, we’ll head down, have a bit of dessert, and if there’s time, we’ll play some cards or just enjoy each other’s company.
Beck: If it did, how did joining the Masons change your friendship?
Rob: I don’t know if [Masonry] changed it so much as it provides a weekly night out where we get to see each other. This is also true with Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a reason to go out and physically be with friends. I say physically because nowadays [friendship] seems to be getting less [physical] with everything being online.
Jim: When I first had kids, I was very focused on the family end of things, and I didn’t go out and interact with Rob as much as I had previously. I really started to withdraw and drop the friendship. It picked back up for a while when I was introduced to Chris. Then I got into computer programming, which took up a lot of time, and I have a three-hour commute, on average, every day. Between commuting and long hours at work, you don’t engage with people. You get home, you’re tired, and you don’t necessarily want to go out. Having the lodge—that shared space—and that need to physically go out, it’s strengthened things. We spend more time together than I think we otherwise would have.
Beck: How many people are in your lodge?
Jim: We have maybe 15 or 20 guys who show up on a regular basis. Our total membership roster is about 150.
Beck: How do you feel about having the lodge be a male-only space? Has that been an advantage, having that in your life?
Jim: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. Two things that get guys into trouble are politics and chasing women. In Masonry, we’re not allowed to talk politics, we don’t talk religion, and we’re not competing over the affections of the opposite sex. Masonry gives guys an opportunity to be around other guys without having to deal with politics or competition. One of the things that we like to teach people is that the only competition in Masonry is to see who can be the better person. There’s no machismo going on; it’s not like a locker room. It’s more adult conversations in a very open and relaxing atmosphere.
Rob: My wife knows where I’m going; she knows I’m going to be around a group of really great guys. She’s met almost all of them. She knows that the focus is not only on improving ourselves, but also on helping out others in the community. For me, it’s having a night out where she doesn’t have to worry about anything.
Beck: Is there anything that you have learned through your experience with Freemasonry that changed how you think about friendship and community?
Chris: Right after I joined, I was helping out a co-worker who was really struggling at Christmastime. I convinced another co-worker to [help], and he was like, “You know what? Ever since you became a Mason, you’re a better person.” I always thought I was a pretty good person anyway, but to hear somebody recognize the change in me—I was pleasantly surprised. You’re told, “You’re a master Mason; you need to act as such.” It changes you in that sense.
Jim: Much like Chris, I guess I do hold myself to a higher standard now. The other thing that I have found is that because we can travel to other lodges and meet new people, it’s easier to make new friends. If I meet somebody who’s a Mason, I automatically have something in common with them.
Rob: If you’re surrounding yourself with good people who have the greater community in mind, it builds on itself. If you’re surrounded by people who are always talking about how to improve things, it rubs off on you. It’s not zero-sum—rather, everyone improves.
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