Knights Templar of York Rite Masonry, recognized by their plumed chapeaux and military-style dress, has a fascinating history and an outstanding record of philanthropy in Pennsylvania and worldwide. Serving others is important to Knights Templar, which is well demonstrated by three strong programs: The Eye Foundation, the Educational Foundation, and the Holy Land Pilgrimage.
It appears that the Knights Templar degree evolved in the European Masonic structure and was brought to North America by the British military lodges during the Revolutionary Period. It is known from records dating to the late 1770's that Pennsylvania Masonic lodges were conferring a Knight Templar degree upon a limited number of members and by the mid-1780's the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania made reference to the Knight Templar degree.
During that period, groups of men who had received the degree began to organize encampments of Knights Templar in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Carlisle. In 1795, the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania expressed the need for a governing organization which brought about formation in 1797 of the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar of Pennsylvania, the first in the United States.
Because of turbulent and disorganized operations, neither that grand body nor another formed in 1814 survived. Knights Templar continued without a grand body until the late 1850's when the present-day Grand Commandery of Knights Templar of Pennsylvania was organized. Today, the Grand Commandery has 72 commanderies with some 9,000 members.
The Knights Templar Eye Foundation is a great humanitarian charity whose purpose is to provide research, surgical treatment, and hospitalization to those suffering from diseases or injuries to their eyes. It is funded by member assessments, donations, and fund-raising activities, wills and bequests. Since its inception, the Knights Templar have spent more than $35 million to help provide medical treatment for those unable to afford it. Today, more than 44,000 persons, regardless of race, color, creed, age, or national origin, have directly benefitted from that financial assistance.
Research grants have totaled more than $2.5 million. Pennsylvania organizations that have shared in the grants are the Geisinger Medical Center, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Wills Eye Hospital and Research Institute, the University of Pittsburgh Eye and Ear Hospital, and the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
The Knights Templar Education Foundation, the first of its kind, was organized in 1922 and has loaned, or given, scholarships of more than $32-million to students to complete their last two years of college, or to complete graduate studies. The financial assistance is granted without regard to race, color, creed, age, gender, or Masonic affiliation.
The Grand Commander of Knights Templar of Pennsylvania sponsors a Christian minister, as part of a larger group from throughout the United States, for a spiritually enriching tour of the Holy Lands. Masonic membership is not required and the minister can be male or female.
The Knights Templar of today are not connected directly to the crusading order that was founded in the twelfth century; however, they do carry the banner of Christianity, as was the duty of the ancient Templars.
To become a Knight Templar, one must be a member in good standing in a Masonic lodge and a Royal Arch chapter and he must profess a belief in a Christian religion. In keeping with their religious emphasis, Knights Templar sponsor memorial and divine services, most notably, the annual memorial service at Gettysburg National Military Cemetery the last week of September. Most commanders hold Christmas and Ascension observance and other appropriate services.