(Above: Kathie Hicks and Peter Halley Owners of The Spirit of Newfoundland, Masonic Temple)
Little girls, who attend their grand-fathers’ funerals, never really understand the full magnitude of it at the time. All they know is that a loved one has passed, and they don’t get to play with them anymore. I still remember the day that I walked up the Masonic Temple steps to my grandfather’s casket. The building was larger than life, and the people were flocking by the hundreds from everywhere. The only place I felt secure was next to my mom.
My grandfather, Hedley Bramwell Snelgrove, was a Grand Master. Back in those days, that was quite an honor, as it was the highest order of the Masonry at the St. John’s Masonic Temple. At the time, all I knew about the Masons was that they had private meetings and secret handshakes, from which women were excluded. It wasn’t until much later in life that I discovered how much good they did for the community, supporting businesses, the economy, and people down on their luck who needed a hand. Over the years, I’ve heard people say that Hedley was a short but powerful man—strong willed and strong voiced. He gave a lot of speeches, motivating and inspiring people. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, since I spent last weekend teaching a group of transformational training students about personal and professional empowerment at the Masonic. In many respects, it helped to bring them to a higher level of themselves, just as the Freemasons seek to do. As I looked out at the students in my transformational class, my ten-year-old twins, Angelina and Ben, were there. I marveled at the idea of three generations learning and being a contribution to our people and our culture—all because of the grand legacy of Hedley Snelgrove.
Freemasonry always had a certain appeal for me. Perhaps, it was the mystery of the organization or, maybe, it was the way people lived and worked, abiding by admirable virtues. Today Freemasonry exists in many forms around the world with an estimated six million people involved. For Pop Snelgrove, the Masonic Temple was his second home. It is a handsomely crafted building that is now a majestic free-standing icon, built 118 years ago in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The Freemasons held the first Masonic meeting in the building in 1896, and the last meeting was held there in June 2007.
Currently the Masonic Temple is owned by a pair of visionaries, Kathy Hicks and Peter Halley, who had the foresight to turn the venue into a home for the arts. Fondly known as the Spirit of Newfoundland, you can find the most entertaining, gut-splitting, roaring-with-laughter musical theatre in Newfoundland at the Masonic Temple today. People who come to the theatre for a fantastic meal and a grand show quickly realize that the word spirit has many meanings in that building. Not only does it mean the spirit of art, entertainment, culture, and heritage, but it also defines the ghostly spirits that are associated with the building’s dungeon, old walk-in safe, pipe organ, time capsule, main altar, iconic all-seeing eye in the ceiling, and other leftover symbols and secrets of the Masons.
The other spirit you will find at the Masonic Temple is RUM. Just this year, the Spirit of Newfoundland Team opened the first-of-its-kind Screech Room–a museum and pub-shoppe, where you can explore artifacts and the age old story of rum-running. The Screech Room also offers a not-to-be missed special ceremony, giving you the right to become an honorary Newfoundlander. It is a destination stop that should be on a tourist’s bucket list, and, two times a day, it offers one of the oldest and most creative ceremonies of our time—the “Screech-In.”
The Screech-In is about rum and Newfoundland’s love affair with rum instead of other grain spirits like whiskey. In the early days, St. John’s was a fishing community, and cod was traded for molasses and Jamaican rum. When the Government took control of the liquor business, they began selling rum to the local people. It arrived in barrels, and the government required that it be packaged in clear glass bottles. No label was required. So for many years, this unnamed rum was the Spirit of Newfoundland.
The term “Screech” appeared in the 1940s, and there’s an old story about how it got its name. It goes something like this: During World War II, a commanding officer came from America to Newfoundland. Drinking with the locals, the American and the Newfoundlanders together downed a shot of screech in one gulp. The American let out a blood-curdling scream, which frightened everyone and got a lot of attention. A close-by American sergeant, who heard the scream, demanded to know, “What the cripes was that ungodly screech?” The Newfoundlander who’d just taken a shot, fondly replied, “Da Screech? ‘Tis the rum, me son.” Before you knew it, the word got around that there was a rum that could make you screech, and in the true spirit of Newfoundlanders, they were up for anything that would make you screech!
Just like the Masons, I can’t reveal all the secrets of the “Screech-In” here, but what we can say is that you might need to wash out your mouth after it’s over—because you get to kiss the unthinkable! Tourists and come-from-aways—grab your grannies and get over here! I can only imagine what my Pop Snelgrove is saying to himself up there in the heavens right now, with all the rum on the go: something like “Oh, my goodie! I’m winded.”
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