What do Winston Churchill, George Washington, Mark Twain, and Colonel Harland Sanders have in common? They were all Freemasons. Little is known about this society that has roots in the Middle Ages. They are men — and only men — from all walks of life. They have secret handshakes and wear strange clothing but as Luke Kirkness discovers first hand, much more goes on behind closed doors.
My night with the Freemasons didn't go as expected and to be honest, I didn't really know what to expect.
I have friends and family all with different opinions and theories and there is an endless supply of rumours online too.
However, I can confirm there were no sacrifices, I couldn't find a connection to the Illuminati and there was nothing to suggest they faked the moon landings either.
I was given a unique and rare opportunity to spend an evening with Lodge Te Papa at the Tauranga Masonic Centre last week.
The newspaper was invited to witness, along with a group of other guests, a ceremony called 'The Empty Chair' which originated back in 1875.
The seldom-seen ceremony came about following the end of the American Civil War to commemorate the lives of those who died during the conflict.
It was held on April 27 to coincide with Anzac Day and was an "extremely rare" occasion non-Freemasons members were invited inside the Masonic Centre.
Freemasonry is one of the world's oldest fraternal societies with the precise origin lost in time, however, its traditions date back to the Middle Ages and the stonemasons who built the cathedrals and castles of Europe.
The connection to stonemasons is behind their logo — a compass and a square.
Only men can be Freemasons.
Freemasons keep their cards close to their chest about the goings-on behind their closed doors and would not tell me about their ceremonies.
They did confirm there was a secret handshake, however, and there's not just one but a variety which is all based on one's rank.
While there are a number of different positions within each lodge — a local organisational unit — there are three main degrees of medieval craft guilds.
The three degrees are apprentice, fellowcraft, and master — of whom all wear different aprons which pay homage to stonemasonry.
Apprentices wear plain white aprons, fellowcraft aprons have two rosettes towards the bottom, and master aprons have metal tassels.
When asked if they were a secret cult, the faces of Lodge Te Papa's members quickly soured with what appears to be a common misconception.
"We aren't a secret society, we are a society with lots of secrets," one member explained.
They also reminded me their meeting place was right beside State Highway 29A and had their name branded in bold capital letters above the door — hardly incognito.
Freemasons claim to provide a code of living based on moral and ethical standards and to be an organisation driven to live by integrity, goodwill and charity.
Part of this is keeping their rituals and ceremonies secret from non-members which doubles as a test of good character.
In the centre of the ceremony room was a tiled rectangle of blue and white squares, which were bordered by black and blue tiles shaped into triangles.
The directions of the compass were found on the border, with the master of the lodge's chair located at the room's east wall.
At the centre of the north, west, and south walls were other masonry members with distinguished positions within the organisation.
A capital G hung from the roof at the east-side of the rectangle and was said to mark the centre of the room.
For the ceremony, the Freemasons were wearing their different aprons — which are a small rectangle worn around the waist and covering the groin, not like a kitchen apron.
They were also all wearing sashes, meanwhile, some wore other regalia like rings, gloves, and pins on their suits.
An empty chair was carried into the room and placed in the centre of the rectangle with the United Tribes of New Zealand flag draped over it.
War time speeches were read aloud and Freemasons laid leaves on the flag and guests were invited to lay poppies on it too.
The night ended as any ceremony should — with some grub, tea, and even a beer if you were up for it.
While the ceremony itself was interesting but hardly eventful, the night as a whole was a bit of an eye-opener and a lot of questions were answered.
They dressed a bit funny and had interesting titles for each other such as Worshipful Master but it all appears to be a nod towards tradition.
If you were to take away all of their regalias, they'd just be an average group of blokes who meet semi-regularly.