By Barbara Ramsey
“His high personal character commanded the respect of his brethren, and his genial good nature won their hearts. He was widely known as ‘John R.’ It is said that a friend once wrote him a letter and addressed it ‘John R., St. Louis, Mo.,’ and the letter reached him.”
— PGM C. H. Briggs
Timothy Parson and Agnes Templeton were married in Yorkshire, England on March 9, 1829. By 1833, they had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and resided in Toronto, Canada. Four years later, they moved to America.
On February 24, 1839, John Rolph Parson was born in Buffalo, Erie County, New York.
Parson would grow up in Buffalo attending local schools for his education. After he left Buffalo, he lived in Chicago for a short period of time prior to his move to St. Louis. Upon his move to St. Louis in 1859, he joined the Parson & Co. regalia and flag business, a business his father had established. He and his older brother, Timothy T., would later take over the business from their father.
John married his first wife, Hattie A., on November 26, 1861. On February 15, 1868, Hattie died young at the age of 27. There are two small stones in the cemetery next to hers that show the couple lost two daughters in infancy, Carrie Lillian and Clara.
The following year John would begin his Masonic journey.
On March 29, 1869, John R. Parson took his first degree in Aurora Lodge No. 267, was passed to the degree of Fellow Craft on April 18, and was raised to Master Mason on May 2, 1869.
Parson began his journey into the appendant bodies on July 6, 1871, when he was exalted in Bellefontaine Chapter No. 25 R.A.M. A month later, he was created a Knight Templar in St. Aldemar Commandery No. 18, St. Louis. In October, he was elected to membership in Old Hiram Council No. 10, Royal and Select Masters.
July 8, 1872, John married Emmeline Woods Bamer. She came into the marriage with a son from her first marriage, Charles A. Bamer. Four years later, John and Emmeline welcomed the birth of their little girl, Evelyn T. Parson.
Parson continued to be active in the fraternity. In 1874, he presided as Eminent Commander Knights Templar. In 1875, Parson became a charter member of Bellefontaine Chapter No. 69, O.E.S., and he was elected Worthy Patron. That same year, he also helped with the formation of the Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star in Missouri serving as Grand Secretary until 1887. 1876 was the year Brother Parson made his first appearance at the Grand Lodge of Missouri’s Annual Communication representing Aurora Lodge No. 267 as Junior Warden.
He became Worshipful Master of Aurora Lodge in 1878. While representing the Lodge at Annual Communication that year, Parson was appointed Grand Marshal.
After serving as Master, Parson became Treasurer for his Lodge serving from 1879 until 1895.
Parson continued to hold offices in many of the organizations in which he belonged. In 1878, he served as Thrice Illustrious Master for two years and High Priest Royal Arch and received the Order of the High Priesthood. The following year he was reappointed Grand Marshal.
In 1881, he was elected Grand Master of the Grand Council, R. and S.M., of the State of Missouri. In addition, according to his biography in The Masonic Year-Book, the degrees and grades from the 4 to the 32 (degrees), inclusive, of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite Bodies in St. Louis were received by him from Albert G. Mackay March 17th, 18th, and 19th.
From 1882 to 1885, Parson continued his service in multiple roles within multiple organizations: High Priest Royal Arch Mason (1882-1883), Grand Sword Bearer in the Grand Encampment of the United States of America (1883-1886), Grand Treasurer of the General Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star (1883 to 1889), and Master of Kadosh (1885-1894).
In 1886, Parson was chosen Chairman of the Triennial Committee of Knights Templar, created a Nobel in Moolah Temple A.O.M.S., elected to the Masonic Home Board serving on the Executive Committee, and chosen the Grand Standard Bearer in the Grand Encampment of the United States of America (1886-1889).
The years 1888 and 1889 were important in Parson’s Masonic journey. In 1888, he served as High Priest for the fourth and final time. He became Grand Patron of the Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star in Missouri for two years. In 1889, Parson was serving on the Masonic Home Board when he became Chairman of the Masonic Home Dedication Committee. Parson was elected Junior Grand Warden in the Grand Lodge of Missouri on his journey to Grand Master.
At the session of the Supreme Council in Washington City, October 22, 1890, Parson received the 33d and last degree of the A.A.S.R.
Most Worshipful Grand Master Parson was elected the 49th Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Missouri in 1892. That same year, he served as Grand High Priest of the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of Missouri.
In 1893, GM Parson was not able to preside at Annual Communication, because he was confined to his bed with a malignant fever. He was so ill that he was unable to prepare the annual Grand Master’s address, so he relied upon Grand Secretary John D. Vincil to assist him.
Parson dissolved his business partnership with his brother on December 14, 1895, and he began his own company that he would run until 1904.
In 1903, Parson became Grand Treasurer of the Grand Lodge of Missouri. He resigned the following year after the passing of Grand Secretary and Past Grand Master John D. Vincil, and he was appointed the new Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Missouri. He would serve as Grand Secretary until 1921 when he resigned due to his advancing age.
Parson lost his wife on August 7, 1916. He would live with his daughter, Evelyn, until he passed away at age 85 in his home on April 8, 1924.
The story above is one of service and leadership.
It should be noted that this long list of accomplishments and work done by Parson is incomplete. Biographies and memorials give an even longer list of offices held and accomplishments.
In a biography of him written by John D. Vincil in 1901, Vincil stated:
Brother Parson holds membership in each and every Masonic or kindred body that he ever entered, never having dimitted from any one. Brother Parson is also distinguished as one of three in the State of Missouri who have presided in all of the Masonic Grand Bodies.
Grand Master Joseph McIntyer’s Memorial of Parson would acknowledge this incredible list of accomplishments and dedication to the Masonic Fraternity, but he also said:
It will be seen that he gave a very great part of his entire life to Freemasonry and he was always careful to impress on everyone that he regarded the Blue Lodge degrees as absolutely fundamental, and the equal of any other degrees or honors that might be conferred on any member of the Craft in any one of the other Masonic Bodies.
Grand Master McIntyer also helped personalize this giant of a man by sharing that he was known as “Uncle John” or “John R.” and “was one of the most beloved members our Craft has ever had in Missouri.”
PGM C. H. Briggs described the man behind the titles:
His high personal character commanded the respect of his brethren, and his genial good nature won their hearts. He was widely known as “John R.” It is said that a friend once wrote him a letter and addressed it “John R., St. Louis, Mo.,” and the letter reached him.
Every biography and memorial found for this article mentioned Parson’s greatest accomplishment. It was not a title, an office, or an honor bestowed upon him — it was the Masonic Home of Missouri. Parson’s story is that of a man who used his titles, talents, money, and leadership to help create the great institution that would become the Masonic Home of Missouri.
GM Ralls made the first call for the Masonic Home of Missouri at the Grand Lodge’s Annual Communication in 1875. In 1876, a Committee was created at Annual Communication to look into the possibility of a Home – this was the first year Brother Parson attended an Annual Communication.
Unfortunately, the Committee would remain inactive until 1881. By this time, Parson had become extremely active in the Fraternity and started holding positions of leadership. By 1884, a committee report showed some progress was being made to help educate the membership on the need for a Home.
The only significant objection raised against starting a Home was the concern that debt would be incurred. The Committee was adamant that they were opposed to burdening the Home or the Grand Lodge with debt. They felt it was imperative to “pay as we go” with donations, income from an Endowment, and any resources the residents themselves could provide toward their care.
When it became clear that this new entity would need to have its own legal standing with the state, the committee began working on creating governing documents. July 12, 1886, was the day the Masonic Home of Missouri became incorporated with the State of Missouri.
But the Home could not really come into existence without funding. This is where Parson leveraged his role as the Chairman of the Triennial Committee of Knights Templar.
Shortly after the Home was incorporated, the twenty-third Grand Encampment of Knights Templar of the United States was held in St. Louis, Missouri. PGM Dorsey A. Jamison said that it was Brother Parson, “an active and zealous Knight Templar,” who conceived the plan to have a “Charity Day” at the old Fairgrounds in St. Louis. A committee was appointed with Brother Parson as Chairman.
Parson organized all of the visiting bands into one grand band, which created a band of over two thousand instruments. The event was attended by local St. Louis Masons along with other visitors. The committee charged admission, and the event raised $35,114. This was given to the Board of Directors for the Endowment Fund to be known as the “Knights Templar Endowment Fund.”
It is not unreasonable to speculate that the Masonic Home of Missouri may never have come into existence without this significant sum to help establish the Endowment Fund that would forever help fund the Masonic Home.
The Home was incorporated. It had a successful fundraising event. However, there was a critical final step that had to occur. During Grand Lodge Annual Communication in October 1886, the Committee on Industrial Masonic Home (which was the name of the committee at the time) submitted its report with the considerable work to be done to create a Masonic Home. The discussion was lengthy. A motion was made to defer consideration to the next Annual Communication. Pending consideration of this request, the Grand Lodge was called from labor until 7:30 that evening.
The Grand Lodge once again assembled at 7:30 p.m. and was called to labor by Most Worshipful Grand Master James W. Boyd. Again, discussion was lengthy. A vote was ordered and taken by the Lodges regarding postponement to the next Annual Communication. 445 Lodges voted against postponement and 90 voted in favor.
The motion to postpone lost. The next vote was for the adoption of the report of the committee. The report was adopted almost unanimously. At 11:00 p.m., the Grand Lodge was called from labor.
Once the membership voted to adopt the report, it was time for the Masonic Home Board to organize itself. C. C. Woods was initially chosen to be the new Board President. However, he felt he must decline the honor. He was not certain he could devote the time necessary to the office. Noah M. Givan was then unanimously elected President. John R. Parson was elected Vice President. F. J. Tygard was re-elected Treasurer. The work of the Board of Directors was in many ways just beginning.
The Executive Committee of the Masonic Home (Parson, Vincil, Jos. S. Browne) was instructed to continue raising funds for the Home. New Masonic Home Board President Givan was asked to present a resolution to the Grand Lodge at the current session to ask for an appropriation of $10,000 for the Home.
In 1888, the Board of Directors secured property in St. Louis after visiting several different sites around the state. The property consisted of fifteen acres near Forest Park with a residence which would be used to house the first residents.
On June 15, 1889, the Grand Lodge of Missouri dedicated the Home. Parson was Chairman of the committee in charge of making the arrangements for the dedication. He saw the opportunity to once again raise funds for the Home. There was a large tent placed on the property for the occasion, and he solicited each of the Lodges in St. Louis to have a table to serve refreshments with the proceeds going to the Home. Over $7,000 dollars was raised.
The early years of the Home were completely dependent on voluntary donations from the Masonic Bodies and individual donor support. At Grand Lodge Annual Communication in 1891, it was decided to have all the Lodges in the State contribute 50 cents annual per capita dues for each member for the support of the Home. This was the year prior to Parson’s election to the office of Grand Master.
In 1904, the Masonic Home lost one of its staunchest supporters when Past Grand Master and current Grand Secretary John D. Vincil passed away. When Parson was called upon to fill the vacancy in the office of Grand Secretary, he responded by closing his business and agreeing to become Grand Secretary.
In the office of Grand Secretary, Parson continued his work for the Home. The increase in residents made it clear that a new hospital was needed. On March 18, 1911, the cornerstone of the hospital was laid. Parson was instrumental in raising the voluntary contributions of over $102,000.
A new Administration and Children’s building was needed next. The Grand Lodge passed a resolution requiring each Lodge to pay a one-time $2 per capita of its membership to help raise the funds. Ultimately, these funds totaled $126,515.08. However, the funds did not immediately come. Some Grand Masters became frustrated and advocated for the use of harsh methods to enforce the payment.
Grand Secretary Parson advised them not to go that direction. Instead, he asked them to give him time to allow him to collect the funds in his own way. Parson spent a great deal of his time and sent a large amount of correspondence to the Lodges throughout the state presenting them the facts and the Home’s needs. By the time Parson was done, all of the 643 Lodges in the state paid for the improvement fund in full. In 1914, the new Administration and Children’s Building opened.
Parson was elected to the Board of Directors of the Masonic Home in 1886 and served consecutively until 1901. In addition to his Board appointment, he was elected Secretary of the Home in 1891 and served consecutively until 1908.
Parson helped guide the Home as a member of the Board from its infancy through the tornado of 1896, the building renovations in 1897, the building of the first OES Chapel in 1897, the 1904 World’s Fair, and the building of the new “old folks” home in 1906. By 1903, he saw the Endowment Fund for the Home pass $100,000.
As Grand Secretary, Parson’s continued advocacy and leadership helped the Home navigate the addition of the Hospital and the Administration and Children’s Building. In 1915, the Grand Lodge again increased their per capita support raising it to $1.25, which would support over 300 men, women and children living in the Home.
At the 1918 Grand Lodge Annual Communication, a Resolution was put forward to honor and recognize Parson. M. W. Jamison said, “I believe in scattering a few flowers along a brother’s pathway while living, rather than heaping them upon his grave.” Parson had been a Master Mason for 49 years by this Annual Communication, and the Masonic Home Board of Directors wanted to formally acknowledge Parson’s service to the Home. The Home Board put forth a resolution which stated, in part:
We, therefore, submit that in view of the wonderful work that has been done by M. W. Brother John R. Parson, in behalf of the Masonic Home of Missouri, he is entitled to the encomium of “The Father of the Home” and should be known as having been one of the staunchest friends and workers for the Home during the whole time of its existence.”
Past Grand Master Charles C. Woods would ask to add the following:
When the Grand Lodge in 1885 appointed a committee to visit other institutions of similar character and purposes, I had the honor to be the chairman of that committee when this committee reported to the Grand Lodge in 1886. They were ordered to organize. Immediately, Brother John R. Parson, who was a member of the original Board, went to his own Lodge, to his Chapter and to his Commandery, and before any of us knew anything about it or what was going on, he went ahead and personally secured a donation of $100 from each of them and brought it to the chairman of the committee after the organization of the Board.
Woods went on to say:
Now, I wish Brother John R. Parson may not only be recognized as the legitimate Father of the Masonic Home of Missouri, but that he may be recognized as the one who secured the first donation of the very first dollar that was ever contributed to the building of this great institution.
Grand Secretary Parson’s reply:
This is one more evidence of the kindly feeling which you have shown towards me since I have been a Master Mason: and I want to say that I appreciate it. A man couldn’t be a man and not appreciate it very highly indeed. I am very grateful for the kind words of M. W. Brothers Jamison, Dockery, and Woods, and for the kindness that I have always received from the members of this Grand Lodge.
Brethren, if I can continue to meet your approval and keep your good will, your confidence and your love, I am perfectly satisfied.