It is not often in Canadian history that an organization can announce that it has been active for 175 years. The St. John’s Masonic Lodge group pre-dates Canadian Confederation by 23 years and is still active in Champlain Township in Eastern Ontario. Members will be celebrating the group’s 175th anniversary with an Irish-themed dinner on March 16 starting at 6 p.m. The event will take place at the Vankleek Hill Community Centre, at 36 Mill Street in Vankleek Hill. The Lodge room will be open to the public between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on March 16. The members of St. John’s Lodge have a meeting room at 94 Main St. East in Vankleek Hill, located on the second storey of the Champlain Township Public Library building.
St. John’s 159 was constituted under the Grand Lodge of Ireland in 1844, then was constituted under the Grand Lodge of Canada in 1888. In 1844, it was comprised of local men in the area that shared a common goal of helping each other become better men. Its body of knowledge and system of ethics is based on the belief that each man has a responsibility to improve himself while being devoted to his family, faith, country, and fraternity. These devotions were as important then as they are today, say members.
From 1844 to 1888, St. John’s 159 was active in Hawkesbury (1844-1846), meeting at the Ouimet Hotel and then the group moved to West Hawkesbury (1846-1853), meeting at William Robinson’s house at Pleasant Corners. Many of the moves that took place were the result of either expanding membership or shifts in the numbers of members from the surrounding areas.
In 1853, the members of the lodge decided to relocate to Vankleek Hill. In 1856, the members of the lodge considered purchasing a lot of land and constructing their own Lodge building located on St. John’s Street. By the end of the 1860s, this property was no longer viable, the land was sold and the building was torn down.
In 1870, the Lodge decided to rent a space for one year from local innkeeper James Stewart. This space was located on the southeast corner of Main and St. John’s Street. From 1871 to 1887, the Lodge moved its meetings to James O’Brien’s house in L’Orignal. During this time, there was intense pressure from the Grand Lodge of Canada to have St. John’s 159 move from being an Irish Lodge to becoming a Canadian Lodge. In fact, from 1872 to 1887 members of St. John’s 159 were unable to visit the Canadian Lodges in the surrounding area, as they would not have been permitted to visit. This period was a difficult time for the members of St. John’s 159 as one of the more important customs of Freemasonry is to visit other Lodges, to meet members of other lodges and exchange Masonic ideology. The last meeting as an Irish charted Lodge was held in L’Orignal December 27, 1887.
From 1888 until the present day, St. John’s 21a has held its meeting in Vankleek Hill. In 1891, meeting were held at the Orange Hall, located on Union Street and continued there until July 26, 1898. On August 30, 1898, the Lodge moved to McCallum Hall on the second floor, which was situated on the west side of St. John’s Street just one door from where the Lodge had been in the 1860s. Special meetings were held at Fletcher’s Hall in Hawkesbury, but no further Lodge move took place until June of 1910. The Lodge moved to Farmer’s Block on the second floor.
The final move to the present location at 94 Main Street, took place in 1930. In 1984, the Lodge purchased the building from the Bank of Nova Scotia and then arranged to transfer the property to the Town of Vankleek Hill in return for a 99-year lease.
St. John’s 21a has been active in the community, whether donating money to the Vankleek Hill food bank, giving the Al Dunsmore Bursary annually to local students who graduate from Vankleek Hill Collegiate Institute to assist with further education, to organizing the MasoniCh.i.p program using police approved techniques to create a child ID kit to assist with the safe recovery of missing children.