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A Hotbed of Scottish Rite Freemasonry?

(published in Our Town, Vol. 2, Issue 1,  June 1987)

Local tradition has it that in 1863 highborn Austrian nobleman Ferdinand Maximilian von Habsburg - short-lived Emperor Maximilian of Mexico - began a colossal stone church on Guelph's Catholic hilltop. It is said that foundations for a structure six times the size of the Church of Our Lady were set into the hilltop. In his History of Guelph: 1827-1927, published for the Guelph Historical Society, Leo Johnson records the 1863 church cornerstone-laying ceremony but makes no mention of Maximilian...or of Scottish Rite Freemasonry.

If Maximilian von Habsburg did have a grand Masonic design involving Guelph as headquarters of a Peaceable Kingdom in the New World, the popular and controversial 1981 French history Holy Blood, Holy Grail has a thesis to explain it.

Authors Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent, and Richard Leigh claim in Holy Blood, Holy Grail that high ranking Scottish Rite Freemasons believe that members of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine are descendants of Jesus. Lincoln et al. maintain that the historical Jesus was of royal blood, a real King of the Jews, and that as a Jewish rabbi, Jesus would certainly have married and that his wife was likely the woman known as the Magdalene. The wife and children of Jesus, claims Holy Blood, Holy Grail, escaped from the Holy Land after the Crucifixion and settled in the Languedoc, the mountainous northeastern foothills of the Pyrenees in what is now southern France. In time, the descendants of Jesus became the Merovingian kings of Frankish History.

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According to Holy Blood, Holy Grail, in the 1980s a dozen families in Europe are able to claim Merovingian lineage. The top contender is the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, by virtue of the 1736 marriage of Maria Theresa von Habsburg and Francis, Duke of Lorraine: great great grandparents of young Maximilian who in 1863 began the huge church in Guelph.

Francis, Duke of Lorraine is known to have been an ardent Scottish Rite Freemason. He was a contemporary and friend of Charles Radclyffe, founder in Paris in 1725 of the first Scottish Rite Masonic lodge, and personal secretary to Prince Charles Stuart of Scotland. Francis's estates in Lorraine are said to have provided sanctuary to exiled royal Stuarts from Scotland. Holy Roman Emperor from 1745-65, Francis's court in Vienna was the Masonic capital of Europe. He became a great publicist for the Order and was responsible for the spread of Scottish Rite Freemasonry.

Scottish Rite claimed to have descended directly from the Knight Templars, the Order of warrior monks who played such a crucial role in the Crusades to recapture the Holy Land. Scottish Rite promised initiation into greater and more profound mysteries than did other varieties of Freemasonry, mysteries supposedly preserved and handed down in Scotland.

In the 19th century, states Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Scottish Rite Freemasons continued to pursue their dream of a heavenly kingdom on earth. Working through various organizations, they tried to revive the Holy Roman Empire which had been jettisoned in 1806. The new Empire of the Scottish Rite Freemasons, claims Holy Blood, Holy Grail, was to have been ruled jointly by the Habsburgs and a radically reformed Roman Catholic Church. The new Empire was to have been different, genuinely "holy" and "secular". The new Catholicism would embrace all Christians; in their heavenly kingdom they would be "Romans" like those in ancient Rome who had followed the true message of Jesus.

If the Holy blood, Holy Grail thesis is correct, Maximilian von Habsburg may well have had in mind for Guelph some grand Masonic scheme. After all, Habsburgs had ruled the old Holy Roman Empire for most of 500 years.

Certainly Maximilian's man in Guelph - Father John Holzer - doesn't appear to have been motivated by ecumenical or pan-Christian Masonic principles. Father Holzer, like other Catholic priests in Upper Canada, was attempting to create a separate society for Roman Catholics. An Austrian like Maximilian, Holzer had been sent out to Canada by the Society of Jesuits in 1848. During the 1850s and early '60s, he built schools, St. Joseph's hospital, an orphanage, a convent, and a rectory. He succeeded in all but the huge Habsburg church on Guelph's Catholic hilltop.

We don't yet have documentation for Maximilian's involvement in Guelph. What we do know is that in May of 1864, the 32-year-old Maximilian and his wife Charlotte became Emperor and Empress of Mexico. Sometime the same year, Father Holzer returned to Vienna in failing health. On July 19, 1867 Maximilian died at the hands of a Mexican Republican firing squad, ending all hope of the huge church in Guelph ever being completed. The foundation stones of Maximilian's "visionary" church were abandoned and in 1876 the Church of Our lady begun.


Scottish Rite Freemasonry might also explain another puzzle: How Guelph's central hill came to be given to the Catholics.

Could founder of Guelph, John Galt - or some of Galt's colleagues in the Canada Company - been pursuing a Scottish Rite Masonic dream? Could this explain Galt's gift of the Guelph's central hill to the Roman Catholics. After all, in 1827 when Guelph was founded, Upper Canada was an Anglican preserve, and Roman Catholics were still denied basic civil liberties. In Britain, Parliament still had two years to wait before it could wring a Catholic Emancipation Act out of George IV.

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Galt wrote in his 1833 autobiography that he'd reserved the hill for the Roman Catholics "in compliment" to his friend Alexander Macdonell, Upper Canada's first Catholic bishop. Galt had put together the Canada Company, a land speculation and settlement concern, the largest and most powerful commercial enterprise ever created in Upper Canada. It had been terribly difficult for him. Bishop Macdonell had provided crucial advice - and capital - at a time when Galt's negotiations with the British government had broken down. Gratitude towards Macdonnell had prompted Galt's wonderful gift of Guelph's central hill to the Roman Catholic Church.

Leo Johnson, in his History of Guelph: 1827-1927 writes that Galt also had other motives. Galt intended Guelph to become an important Episcopal seat for the Roman Catholic Church. Galt even had a Bishop in mind, Bishop (later Cardinal) Thomas Weld, another friend, and, like Bishop Macdonell, a shareholder in the Canada Company. Galt's grand designs for the Roman Catholic Church were not calculated to find favor with the majority of his Company directors or with Upper Canada's ruling Anglican elite.

Galt got into big trouble over his land gift. The formidable Archdeacon Strachan of York (Toronto) was not amused by Galt's gift of a mere "rising ground" to the Guelph Anglicans. Galt's extraordinary gift to the Roman Catholics included a huge area surrounding the hill; this was drastically reduced after his departure. Galt's gift is thought to be one of four decisions he made that led to his dismissal from the Canada Company.

Galt was not a Catholic; he came from a Scottish Presbyterian background. Ian Gordon, distinguished Galt scholar and biographer, in the recently published John Galt Reappraisals maintains that Guelph's founder was "basically secular" and expresses some doubt that Galt regarded himself as a Christian. Gordon thinks it unlikely that Galt himself was a Scottish Rite Freemason, but that he certainly knew powerful people who were.

Roman Catholic priests, bishops, cardinals, even popes, were Scottish Rite Freemasons in the 19th century, says Henry Lincoln in Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Though Rome might, and often did, stridently disapprove, Scottish Rite Freemasons persisted in regarding themselves as true Christians and Catholics. A Scottish Rite Freemason in the 19th century, claims Lincoln, was likely to be deeply religious and magically oriented: "Christian, hermetic, and aristocratic."

Galt's lack of religion may have excluded him from the Scottish Rite Freemasons, or perhaps it was his humble origins. The son of a west coast sea captain, Galt was reproved by his critics for having the "education and manners of a merchant." He was always scrambling for a living and seems to have had precious little time for alchemical experiments. The exclusive and aristocratic nature of Scottish Rite Freemasons may have appealed to the middle-class Tory side of Galt. However, it may also have worked to his own disadvantage: He may have wanted to become a Scottish Rite Freemason but was never invited to do so.

Galt came from the right part of the world for Scottish Rite Freemasonry. Charles Radclyffe's estates were not far from Irvine, the Scottish seaport where Galt was born. Only one mention of Galt occurs in J.R. Robertson's History of Freemasonry in Canada. He carried a letter from Simon McGillivray in 1829 when he crossed to London to defend himself - unsuccessfully - against charges of extravagance and insubordination.

There is no evidence to show that Bishop Macdonell and Cardinal Weld were Scottish Rite Freemasons. But Simon McGillivray certainly was. He was Masonic grandmaster for Upper Canada, sent out from Britain in 1822. McGillivray was a director of the Canada Company. It would be interesting to know how many of John Galt's colleagues were Freemasons. Their names occur on the list of subscribers to his privately printed autobiography, on the early lists of the Canada Company Court of Directors, and on Company shareholder lists. A check of these names in histories of British Scottish Rite Freemasonry is needed to verify the belief of one Galt scholar who says the Canada Company was "riddled" with Freemasons.

The enormous reality of religious strife in Guelph's history contrasts sharply with the utopian visions Maximilian von Habsburg and John Galt may have shared with the Scottish Rite Freemasons. Consider these reports from Leo Johnson's History of Guelph: 1827-1927.  Item: Oct. 10, 1843, the Catholic church is destroyed by fire, Protestant Orangemen the suspected arsons. Item: 1847, Orange and Catholic feuding results in Guelph's first public hanging.   Item: 1918, panic ensues when some townsfolk believe that the Jesuits are constructing a network of underground tunnels, presumably to invade the town.

Guelph still seems at times an unlikely choice for the headquarters of a Peaceable Kingdom.

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