California Freemason: Brick by Brick

Bon Vivants


By Brian Robin

When Narbeh Bagdasarian and Philippe Milgrom got together to discuss their particular patch of California Masonry, they didn’t like what they saw. Or rather, they didn’t like what they didn’t see.

That’s because in fall 2023, the historic Vallée de France Lodge № 329 in Glendale was consolidated out of existence—extinguishing the flame on what had been a 125-year run for French Masonry in Southern California. For French and Francophone members like Bagdasarian and Milgrom, the loss left a gaping hole in California Freemasonry.

Although it’s a relatively small niche in this state, French Masonry has a long and proud history in California, beginning with the formation of the venerable La Parfaite Union № 17 in San Francisco in 1852. In 1897, a charter was granted to Vallée de France № 329, establishing a foothold for French-style Masonry in the state’s northern and southern metropolises.

Beyond the linguistic and cultural connections those lodges helped preserve, they also offered a ritualistic link to the old country by performing the first degree according to the Scottish Rite ritual, as is common in France and much of Europe and Latin America. (Other California lodges use the Preston– Webb Ritual, which is based on the York Rite; one major difference is that the Scottish Rite emphasizes the first degree, whereas the California ritual emphasizes the third.)

Above: Founding members of La France No. 885 inside the library of the Sunset Masonic Temple.

A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi at La France No. 885

For the pair, who had both belonged to Vallée de France № 329, that loss was too much to bear. So in 2021, as the group was facing consolidation, Bagdasarian, Milgrom, and several other members met for dinner and decided to form an unofficial French ritual club. Outside lodge meetings, they met monthly to practice both the California ritual (which has been translated into French), as well as the Scottish Rite ritual used by the National Grand Lodge of France (GLNF), which is the French body recognized by the Grand Lodge of California.

With wine flowing freely, conversation naturally moved to how to keep a more than century-old Masonic tradition in Southern California alive. Further meetings were held, and in 2022 the group applied for a dispensation to form a new lodge, what ultimately became La France № 885. On November 2, 2023, just weeks after Vallée de France № 329 was formally absorbed into Round Table № 876, La France received its charter, with Bagdasarian listed as master and Milgrom as secretary.

Despite its founders’ history in Vallée de France, they stress that the new group isn’t simply a reboot of the old. For one, the lodge trimmed its membership from 65 to 45, and it picked up stakes from its longtime home in Glendale for Santa Monica, where membership is more densely packed. (The group is currently meeting in the hall of the Sunset Masonic Temple.)

With Milgrom, whom Bagdasarian calls “the beating heart of La France № 885,” doing much of the legwork, the founders had to build the lodge from the ground up—and to follow the rules to a T. That meant, at least initially, only performing the California Masonic ritual. To the group’s surprise, however, the nascent lodge proved popular, gaining six new Entered Apprentices in its first year. At last fall’s Annual Communication in San Francisco, a group made up of members from La France № 885 and La Parfaite Union № 17 staged an “exemplification,” or demonstration, of the first degree of the French ritual for an audience of more than 100 California Masons. From there, word of the new Francophone group spread like gossip.

Meanwhile, La France № 885 cleared a major legislative hurdle: At the same Annual Communication, more than 92 percent of the Grand Lodge voted to allow the group to inherit Vallée de France’s grandfathered-in right to perform the French ritual. After that, “the news exploded and now everyone knows about this lodge,” Bagdasarian says. “We became famous.”

To him, that makes sense. Because while the group is understandably proud of its Gallic heritage, the fact that it is now one of the only outfits permitted to perform the Scottish Rite degrees in California gives it a distinctly international flavor. Fittingly, the new group is remarkably global, with members hailing from 10 different nations, including Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Bulgaria, several countries in the Middle East, and, of course, France.

In fact, several members of French lodges both in the United States and abroad, including Grand Master Jean-Pierre Rollet of the GLNF, even signed up as charter members.

That cross-jurisdictional membership is emblematic of members’ passion about the need to preserve French-style Masonry in America, which has a more than 300-year-old legacy. In fact, no less a figure than the Marquis de Lafayette, the hero of the French and American Revolutions, is believed to have been made a Mason at Valley Forge in 1777 by his lodge brother, the Continental Army general George Washington. L’Union Francaise № 17 in New York City is the oldest French-American lodge, having received its charter in 1798. That group was invited to be the first Masonic delegation at Washington’s funeral procession.

Above: Lodge members gather for a first-degree conferral at La France No. 885.

"Vive La France No. 885!"

Today, historic Francophone-American lodges like that are rare but not unheard of. (An important distinction: There are several Masonic lodges throughout the country, including in California, that are sponsored by French Masonic bodies, including the Grand Orient de France, Le Droit Humain, and more. These lodges are not formally recognized by most American grand lodges, including the Grand Lodge of California, although they often share halls and meeting spaces with recognized California groups.)

San Francisco’s La Union Parfaite № 17, one of the most significant of those historic groups, actually predates the formation of the Grand Lodge of California, having received its charter from the Grande Lodge Symbolique Écossaise in Paris. (It subsequently relinquished that charter and joined the California body in 1855.) That group counted several prominent figures among its members, including the famous San Francisco chocolatier Dominico Ghirardelli.

Among more recently construed bodies, there’s La France № 93 in Washington, D.C., formed in 1992, which has become something like a flagship for French-American Masonry. Its 80 members hail from all over the world, and it works closely with five GLNF lodges in France, as well as lodges from as far away as Gabon and Benin, in Africa.

It’s that sort of international profile that Bagdasarian, Milgrom, and others want to continue with La France № 885. Seeing that legacy disappear was inconceivable to Bagdasarian, an energetic and outgoing attorney who speaks four languages (English, French, Armenian, and Farsi, as a native Iranian) and has served as master of three lodges. As a former grand lecturer for the Grand Lodge of Iran in Exile, as well as past Grand Bible Bearer for the Grand Lodge of California, he was a natural diplomatic choice to lead the new endeavor.

Beyond the lodge’s historical significance, he says there’s something moving about seeing a Masonic degree ceremony performed in another tongue. “French degrees are beautiful,” he says. “They are dramatic and elegant, and we want that to survive. The French ritual has a unique flavor to it.”

Therein lies one of the new lodge’s main draws, he says: “It’s a great experience to go through [the French degree] and become initiated—or if you’ve already been initiated, it’s a great experience to see it performed. I know people who come and don’t understand French, but they always enjoy seeing it.”

For Milgrom, that point is key: “It’s really an open lodge,” he says. “The link is the French language and the ritual. But it’s really an international lodge. Anyone is welcome.”

As he describes his vision for the group, Bagdasarian talks about not only taking the French first-degree ceremonies on the road, but also coordinating projects and events with French-speaking lodges around the country. “We’re building a new lodge on old traditions,” he says.

As if to underline that idea, when the lodge met to celebrate receiving its charter last fall, Milgrom read aloud a message sent to the group from Rollet, the French grand master. “I am delighted that its role is to strengthen the links between the French National Grand Lodge and the Grand Lodge of California,” Rollet wrote. “Belonging to this lodge is, for me, a great honor and a great pleasure. Vive La France № 885!”

Above: Narbeh Bagdasarian (center) speaks with fellow members before a lodge meeting.

Photograph by:
Tom Story

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