The Biography of J.J.J. Gourgas
By Ill. Michael Lakat, 33° -- Valley of Southern New Jersey
The Masonic life of J.J.J. Gourgas began when he became an Entered Apprentice on May 19, 1806 at Lodge L’Union Francaise No. 14 (now No. 17) and was listed as member No. 207 on the lodge rolls. He received both his Fellowcraft and Master Mason degrees on June 9, 1806 and in 1807 became Custodian of the Seals and Records for the lodge. On May 16, 1808 he demitted, and there is no further record of his membership in any lodge. This situation was not uncommon at the time insofar as lodge records were not maintained as they are today. Regardless of his status with the lodge, he was recognized as an active and full-fledged Mason. In fact, in tribute to his Masonic career in 1864 his lodge elected him to honorary membership.
On July 26, 1806 he was initiated into the Sovereign Grand Chapter of Rose Croix d’H-R-D-M of Kilwinning at New York City and became the Chapter’s secretary. On August 4, 1806 he was elevated by Antoine Bideaud, 33° to Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret 32°. Two days later Bideaud established the Sublime Grand Consistory 30°, 31°, 32° and Gourgas was named its secretary. On November 12, 1808 John Gabriel Tardy appointed Gourgas Deputy Inspector General of the Rite of Perfection. According to the register of Abraham Jacobs, published in Folger’s The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (1881), Gourgas also received the degree of Select Masons of the Twenty-seven and the Dublin Royal Arch.
On May 1, 1813, Emanuel De La Motta, of the Supreme Council at Charleston, initiated J.J.J. Gourgas and Sampson Simson into the 33°. Then, on August 5, De La Motta, acting as the Grand Commander in a “special sitting,” initiated four others, and the Grand and Supreme Council of the Most puissant Sovereign Grand Inspectors General of the Thirty-third Degree of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite for the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction of the United States was organized. Daniel Decius Tompkins was chosen first Sovereign Grand Commander. Within seven years Gourgas went from Master Mason to a coroneted 33°. On that day, he was also named the first Grand Secretary and served in that position until 1832.
On March 7, 1832 the second Sovereign Grand Commander, Ill. Bro. Sampson Simson, resigned and Gourgas became the third Most Puissant Sovereign Grand Commander, a position he held until September 4, 1851....
Ill. Bro. Gourgas died in New York City on Tuesday February 14, 1865 and was buried in New York Bay Cemetery (now Bayview-New York Bay Cemetery) in Jersey City. He was buried by his family with little or no notice or recognition from his brethren. Since his death he rested in virtual anonymity along with seven other members of his family. The gravesite was neglected, but was rediscovered and rededicated by Supreme Council in 1938 during the 125th anniversary year of Supreme Council.
Why is Illustrious Brother Gourgas Buried in Jersey City, New Jersey?
By Ill. Robert V. Monacelli, MSA, 33° -- Valley of Northern New Jersey
When the Deputy for New Jersey, Illustrious David A. Glattly, 33°, asked me to serve on the Gourgas Memorial Restoration Committee, the first question I asked myself was how such a Masonic luminary as Ill. Brother Gourgas came to rest in a small, forgotten cemetery in the Greenville Section of Jersey City. We know that during the years when Ill. Brother Gourgas served as the Secretary General and Sovereign Grand Commander, the Supreme Council for the Northern Jurisdiction was based in New York City. Why was he not entombed in a churchyard in Manhattan? The quest was begun by trying to establish his place of residence which was discovered in an 1859 index of residents of New York City, as being located at 66 Bedford Street in what is now the western part of Greenwich Village. Next we found an 1863 New York Times obituary for his son, Frederick W. Gourgas who predeceased him. The obituary listed St. John’s Chapel on Varick Street as the location of the funeral service and the New York Bay Cemetery as the place on interment. St. John’s Chapel was built as an uptown annex by Trinity Church in 1803 to service the needs of its parishioners who were moving away from the crowded precincts of lower Manhattan to build more fashionable residences in the vicinity of today’s Washington Park and Canal Street areas. The Gourgas residence on Bedford Street would have been located about one half mile north of the chapel. Having worked in lower Manhattan in my younger days I knew that no such church existed on Varick Street, and it was discovered that the chapel had been razed in 1918 to allow for the widening of Varick Street and the construction of the Holland Tunnel. The entrance to the tunnel, in fact, occupies the very land where St. John’s once stood.
But why was he buried in Jersey City? This was answered by studying the laws regulating burials in the City of New York. The Rural Cemetery Act was a law passed by the New York Legislature on April 27, 1847. It authorized the development commercial burial grounds in rural New York State which led to burial of human remains becoming a business for the first time, replacing the traditional practice of burying the dead in churchyards and on private farmland.” In 1852, the Common Council of New York City, then consisting solely of Manhattan Island, passed a resolution that banned further burials within the city limits in response to public fears stemming from cholera epidemics in 1832 and 1849 which were believed to have contaminated the well water supplying the city. Entrepreneurs quickly bought up land in Queens, the Bronx and New Jersey in order to open cemeteries. The New York Bay Cemetery was a scant 6 miles from the Bedford Street home of Brother Gourgas. Maps of the period show that it would have been a short ride from St. John’s Chapel to the waterfront where the coffin would be loaded onto a ferry bound for Paulus Hook on the Jersey side of the Hudson River, and then transported a few miles overland to Greenville and the cemetery overlooking the bustling harbor of New York. Thus it came to pass that Ill. Brother Gourgas rests alongside his family near the graves of three Past Grand Masters, a Past Active Member of Supreme Council and numerous other Masonic brethren from both New York and New Jersey.
Rededication and Remembrance of Gourgas Gravesight Memorial
From The Magpie Mason Blog
Known as the “Conservator of the Scottish Rite,” it was Gourgas who safeguarded the rituals and records of the AASR during the darkest days of the scandal following the “Morgan Affair.” Spanning from 1826 to about 1840, this period saw the AASR go dark, and most grand lodges nearly collapse, as the American public rejected Freemasonry, fearing it was ruling the country from the shadows. Gourgas, as Sovereign Grand Commander, personally took charge of keeping administrative matters current and maintaining contact with Masonic leaders around the world until whenever the controversy finally would end.
I always wondered why there is a St. John’s Lane right outside the Holland Tunnel near Canal Street. St. John’s Lodge used to meet way downtown, in today’s Financial District, but not really near this St. John’s Lane.
This ceremony of rededication was very impressive. Ill. David A. Glattly, 33°, Deputy for New Jersey; and MW William H. Berman, Grand Master of New Jersey (and 33°); and Ill. John William McNaughton, 33°, Sovereign Grand Commander of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction all consecrated the monument with the ritual elements of Corn, Wine, and Oil, respectively.
Awarded only 35 times previously in its 71-year history, Grand Commander McNaughton presented the Gourgas Medal to the New Jersey Scottish Rite brethren, the first time the honor was conferred upon a group
The Gourgas Medal
Prompted by the first memorial service to Gourgas in 1938, Sovereign Grand Commander Melvin M. Johnson secured Supreme Council’s approval for the establishment of a special decoration to be known as the Gourgas Medal, which could be awarded by a vote of Supreme Council, or on the individual initiative of the SGC, upon any Scottish Rite Freemason of any Jurisdiction, for “notably distinguished service in the cause of Freemasonry, humanity or country.” The award was not given for several years thereafter, but in 1943 was voted to Senator Harry S. Truman, who did not actually receive the Medal until November 21, 1945, by which time he had succeeded to the Presidency of the United States. Recipients of the Medal are:
1945 Harry S. Truman
1946 Melvin M. Johnson
1949 His Majesty King Gustav
1952 Kaufman T. Keller
1952 Roscoe Pound
1953 Winfred Overholser
1954 Mark Wayne Clark
1956 George E. Bushnell
1959 Christian A. Herter
1963 Edward W. Wheeler
1964 Richard A. Kern
1968 George A. Newbury
1971 John W. Bricker
1973 Norman Vincent Peale
1974 Gerald R. Ford, JR
1975 Robert P. Taylor
1978 Stanley F. Maxwell
1978 George E. Gardner
1980 Robert H. Felix
1981 Louis Williams
1982 John H. Van Gorden
1983 Edmund F. Ball
1984 Warren N. Barr, Sr.
1986 Raymond C. Ellis
1988 Thomas F. Seay
1989 Francis G. Paul
1990 Charles E. Spahr
1995 Richard B. “Red” Skelton
1998 Carl H. Lindner, Jr.
1998 Robert O. Ralston
1999 John H. Glenn, Jr.
2002 W. Clement Stone
2003 Samuel Brogdon, Jr.
2006 Walter E. Webber
2006 Ronald A. Seale
2009 New Jersey Council of Deliberation
The portrait of JJJ Gourgas is from the collection of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library in Lexington, MA.