Chapters of the Holy Royal Arch in British Columbia and Yukon have two origins which united soon after the formation of our Grand Chapter in 1919.
The United Grand Lodge of England considers the Royal Arch the continuation of the Master Mason Degree and allows its lodges to have chapters of the Royal Arch attached to them. Oddly, none of the English lodges in the Colonial era in B.C. and on Vancouver Island had accompanying chapters. Some had Royal Arch Masons but perhaps numbers were too small to form a chartered organisation.
In the United States of America in the late 18th Century, Thomas Webb set up the “York Rite” with three preliminary degrees given in a chapter before one is exalted to the Royal Arch Degree. A similar system was practiced in Scotland and in Ontario, the two sources whence our Royal Arch is derived.
An abortive effort at starting a chapter in Victoria took place February 1, 1864 at the Masonic Temple in Victoria when Royal Arch Masons were called together by EC William Henry Thain, who was also present at the organisational meeting on July 12, 1858 to form the first Masonic lodge in the British Northwest colonies. Nothing came of it.
However, another meeting took place on February 10, 1867 with EC Thain as Secretary and EC Israel Wood Powell, later the Craft’s first Grand Master in B.C., presiding. The six Companions present agreed to request a charter from the Grand Chapter of Scotland; EC Powell’s lodge was under the Grand Lodge of Scotland. The application was granted and Columbia Chapter was entered as No. 120 on the Scottish Register, holding its first official meeting on August 5, 1867. It was empowered to work the Mark Master Mason, Past Master and Excellent Master (Veils) degrees in addition to the Royal Arch, though EC Thain was given approval to confer some side degrees, including the Ark Mariner.
British Columbia joined Confederation on July 20, 1871 with the promise of a railway linking the province with the East. In the meantime, the Grand Lodge of B.C. was created on October 21st the same year. The Craft and the Royal Arch became stagnant for the remainder of the decade; the peak of the Cariboo gold rush had passed. Slowly, but surely, steel tracks were laid further and further west from the Lakehead, across the vast prairie and through mountain passes. The Canadian Pacific Railway decided Vancouver would be the terminus, and the first through passenger train from Montreal arrived in the new city on May 23, 1887. This spurred Vancouver to become a major port. The economy zoomed upward. Scores of Freemasons came by rail to Canada’s new land of opportunity. They started filling one lodge in Vancouver and quickly formed a second, Cascade No. 12, on June 18, 1888. Some were Royal Arch Masons back in Ontario and they decided to apply for a charter from the Grand Chapter of Canada. The first meeting of Vancouver Chapter was held on December 12, 1888. It was warranted seven months later as No. 98. The first Z. was EC Isaac Oppenheimer, a Bavarian who came to Victoria from California with his three brothers during the Fraser River gold rush in 1858, selling supplies to miners. He was a PZ of Columbia No. 120.
Back on the Island, three Companions in Nanaimo belonging to Columbia applied to the Grand Chapter of Scotland for a dispensation. The first meeting of Keystone No. 235 took place May 7, 1892 with members of Columbia Chapter in the chairs. Seven Master Masons received the four degrees at a meeting which spilled into the next morning when the officers were elected and then installed. A petition for affiliation was also accepted. The first Z. was EC Marcus Wolfe, who was Grand Master of the Grand Lodge at the time and had been employed by the Oppenheimer brothers.
A mining boom was now getting underway in the Kootenays and this helped spread Royal Arch Masonry further. Canada warranted the following chapters: Kootenay No. 120, Kaslo (1898); Rossland No. 122, Rossland (1899); Nelson No. 123, Nelson (1900), Westminster No. 124, New Westminster (1900); Rocky Mountain No. 125, Fort Steele (1900); Revelstoke No. 128, Revelstoke (1901); Crow’s Nest No. 137, Fernie (1904); Cyrus No. 142, Cumberland (1904); Klondike No. 154, Dawson, Y.T. (1906); Okanagan No. 157, Vernon (1906); Boundary No. 174, Grand Forks (1910); Kaien No. 178, Prince Rupert (1910); Camosun No. 182, Victoria (1911); Pacific No. 190, Vancouver (1913); North Vancouver No. 191, North Vancouver (1913) and Kelowna No. 206, Kelowna (1916). In addition, Keystone gave up its Scottish charter and affiliated with Canada as No. 127 in 1901. The chapter had been dormant but was revived through the efforts of EC Fred Young in Nanaimo and REC Harry Watson in Vancouver. Watson was Grand Master of Grand Lodge at the time and Young was Deputy Grand Master. Because the Nanaimo Companions weren’t familiar with the Canadian ritual, Comp. Sidney Sykes travelled by ferry from Vancouver to serve as Principal Sojourner and instruct the brethren in the Ontario version of the degrees.
Enquiries were made in 1899 from Royal Arch Masons in Kamloops about forming a chapter, but then decided the time was not right.
While several Grand First Principals made the long rail trek from the East to officially visit chapters in B.C., it was clear that it would be far better if Royal Arch Masons in the province were not governed from distant Ontario, but by themselves. A meeting of Royal Arch members was held on June 19, 1912 prior to the Grand Lodge Communication in Vancouver to discuss the feasibility of forming a Grand Chapter. It was decided to hold another meeting, but postponed action.
The war years of 1914-18 were tough on chapters as many Royal Arch Masons enlisted and some never returned from overseas. Crow’s Nest Chapter couldn’t hang on. It surrendered its charter on January 29, 1918. But as the war ended, returned soldiers and others flooded Masonic lodges with applications for membership. Was now the time for a Grand Chapter? Alberta had split off (without permission) from the Grand Chapter of Canada. At a joint installation of Vancouver, Pacific and North Vancouver Chapters on January 14, 1919, MEC Watson was appointed to chair a committee to see what could and should be done (he had been made an Honorary PGZ of Canada in 1909).
He polled the chapters. Most favoured a B.C. Grand Chapter. On June 18, 1919, 22 Royal Arch Masons representing 12 chapters met in Vancouver. After being told the Grand Chapter of Canada approved of any separation, REC Frank Wheeler of North Vancouver moved, and EC William Coates Taylor of Pacific seconded, that a Grand Chapter be formed. The motion was carried unanimously. Next, officers were elected and appointed, then installed, with MEC Harry Holgate Watson as Grand Z.; REC Daniel Hazen Morrison of Kaien, Grand H.; REC Charles Frances Sherwin of Kootenay, Grand J. and REC John William Prescott of Pacific as Grand Scribe E.
The chapters were renumbered in order of precedence on the Canadian register: Vancouver No. 2,
Kootenay No. 3, Rossland No. 4, Nelson No. 5, Westminster No. 6, Rocky Mountain No. 7, Keystone No. 8, Revelstoke No. 9, Cyrus No. 10, Okanagan No. 11, Boundary No. 12, Kaien No. 13, Camosun No. 14, Pacific No. 15, North Vancouver No. 16 and Kelowna No. 17.
Columbia No. 120 had delegates observing the session. It met in August and voted to join the new Grand Chapter under certain conditions. The Sept. 2nd convocation heard a letter from MEC Watson accepting the terms, including giving it No. 1 on the roll, retaining its Scottish ritual, regalia and honours, and Past Grand Z. rank being conferred on three of its very respected Past Zs.
There were 1,742 Companions in the jurisdiction at the end of 1919, up about 90 from the outset.
The new Grand Chapter elected to go with a four-degree system. In 1921, it revived the Past Master degree which had been eliminated under the Grand Chapter of Canada in July 1894, with a committee appointed to write it. Columbia Chapter continued conferring its version from Scotland.
Klondike Chapter was not part of the new Grand Chapter because it was outside B.C., and the Grand Chapter of Canada only approved chapters in the province to form a Grand Chapter. It applied for affiliation with the Grand Chapter in 1924 and the application was approved unanimously, including financial terms involving life members. But the chapter inexplicably carried on under Canada until it surrendered its warrant in 1953.
Royal Arch Masonry now experienced a spurt of growth thanks to independence from Ontario. The following chapters were warranted (year of dispensation listed): Kamloops No. 18, Kamloops (1920); Chilliwack No. 19, Chilliwack (1921); Mount Moriah No. 20, Fernie (1922); Triple Tau No. 21, Grandview, Vancouver (1922); Penticton No. 22, Penticton (1923); Signet No. 23, Mt. Pleasant, Vancouver (1925); Composite No. 24, Cedar Cottage, Vancouver (1925); Observatory No. 25, Anyox (1927); Tzouhalem No. 26, Duncan (1928); Papyrus No. 27, Powell River (1928) and Mission No. 28, Mission City (1930). In 1924, the Grand Z. refused a request for dispensation for a chapter in Mission due to a lack of a Past First Principal to serve as Z.
The Depression was felt by Freemasonry in the province, manifesting in suspensions for non-payment of dues. Then came World War Two. A percentage of members enlisted, though nowhere near the numbers of World War One. Despite the hardship, no chapters closed.
The end of the war again resulted in a huge influx of new Freemasons which translated into more Royal Arch members and more new chapters: Granite No. 29, Salmon Arm (1946); King Solomon No. 30, West Vancouver (1947); Joppa No. 31, Marpole, Vancouver (1949); Mount Horeb No. 32, Point Grey, Vancouver (1949); Majuba No. 33, Ladysmith (1951); Semiahmoo No. 34, White Rock (1952); Cathedral No. 35, Port Alberni (1956); Fort George No. 36, Prince George (1956) and Kalum No. 37, Terrace (1956).
The Past Master Degree was eliminated in 1955 in all chapters except Columbia, which had been promised upon joining our Grand Chapter it could maintain its ritual from Scotland.
Our Grand Chapter received an application for affiliation that was granted in June 1959. It was from Yukon Chapter in Whitehorse, instituted on January 16, 1950 and constituted a year later as No. 256 under the Grand Chapter of Canada. As the Craft lodges in Yukon were members of the Grand Lodge of B.C., it was only fitting the chapter there would come under our Grand Chapter. It was given No. 38 on our register.
Membership applications began dropping in the 1960s but several new chapters were formed: Georgian No. 39, Roberts Creek (1960); Simon Fraser No. 40, Richmond (1960); Dawson Creek No. 41, Dawson Creek (1960); Sidney No. 42, Sidney (1967); Caribou No. 43, Quesnel (1975); Pacific Rim No. 44, Sooke (1990) and Discovery No. 45, Campbell River (1999).
Membership in our Grand jurisdiction peaked at 5,584 at the end of 1965. The downward spiral has had a devastating effect. Vancouver’s seven chapters shrank to three, with Vancouver, Signet and Triple Tau merging in September 1990 and Pacific, Joppa and Mount Horeb combining in February 1991. Composite maintained the status quo before joining forces with Triple Tau in October 2010. In Victoria, Camosun handed in its charter in 2003, leaving one chapter in the provincial capital.
In some of the smaller towns, valiant efforts were carried on by a handful of companions to keep their chapters alive, but they eventually surrendered to a lack of willing officers and an aging membership. Some consolidated with the closest chapter. Others reluctantly gave up their warrants. The jurisdiction currently consists of 25 chapters.
We can only hope for the best for the future, with new Master Masons becoming interested in learning more about Masonic symbolism by petitioning to join the Holy Royal Arch.
PZ, Joppa No. 31.
Grand Historian, 2005-present