Formation efforts to establish a Masonic Lodge in Andover began in 1818. At the time, the initial effort was thwarted by members of Good Samaritan Lodge in North Reading who did not want another lodge that close to them. Following some "salesmanship" by the Andoverites, the charter of St. Matthew's Lodge was granted on Dec. 11, 1822.
Meetings were held at Widow Mary Parker's House (Tavern) in what is now North Andover, and David Rice was the charter master. In 1826, permission was granted to relocate the lodge to the South Parish section of Andover and members erected a hall on the present site of the Bank of America building on Main Street.
For the first five years of its existence, the Lodge flourished with a goodly number of new members but by the end of the 1820s the anti-Masonic movement was sweeping across the country. This movement resulted from the actions of certain individuals in Batavia, N.Y.
William Morgan, a man of ill repute and questionable background, gained access to a Masonic Lodge in that town and was part of a group trying to establish a new Royal Arch Chapter. There were objections and his name was withdrawn from the petition but he attempted to join the new higher Masonic body. His application was rejected and, following a threat to publish a book containing "all the secrets of Freemasonry," he was jailed along with the potential publisher. The two were soon released. William Morgan, however, was seized by Freemasons and carried off. He was never seen again. Although there were never any positive findings, the Masons were accused of killing him, causing a public sentiment that spread across the countryside.
A separate political party was founded solely upon this wave of sentiment. Many of the Masonic Lodges in the nation were forced to close and surrender their charter.
St. Matthew's Lodge maintained a low profile during this period but never surrendered its valuable charter. The presiding master at the start of the anti-Masonic movement, Worshipful Merrill Pettingill, a blacksmith in Andover, preserved the charter by burying it in his cellar on Punchard Avenue. John and Peter Smith also served terms as master during this so-called "Dark Period."
In 1843, when the anti-Masonic movement was essentially over, several members of the local lodge met to reorganize as an active body. In 1845, Nathan Frye was elected master and presided in that role for a total of 12 years.
The stability of the lodge during Worshipful Nathan Frye's terms as master was somewhat tenuous, and in 1851 there was a vote as to whether to continue or disband. The 13 voters opted to maintain the charter and membership remained steady. Following the Civil War there was a surge of applicants, undoubtedly resulting from the comradeship established during that War Between the States.
The lodge continued to grow with many notables of the town of Andover serving as master. John H. Flint, who later donated his residence at the corner of Elm and High streets to the lodge for use as a "social club" served as master in the early 1870s. The lodge meeting place, owned by the Andover National Bank, was completely rebuilt in 1890 and membership continued to grow with major influxes experienced around the years of World War I and World War II.
Throughout its 188 years of existence, St. Matthew's Lodge has experienced several ups and downs with associated periods of adjustment, but has overcome each adversity with increasing strength. The lodge continues to be proud of its contributions to the community as well as to its fellow members.
"Andover Stories" is a weekly column about interesting local people and events, told in anticipation of the Andover Historical Society's 100 anniversary in 2011.