Photo at left: The 257-year-old Bible used to administer the presidential oath of office to George Washington was displayed Saturday at Masonic Lodge, Temple No. 65. At right: Chris Jennings, a member of the Westport Masonic lodge and a descendant from a longtime Westport family, portrayed Benjamin Franklin at the presentation of Washington’s Bible. / Photos by Gary Webster
Visitors congregate around the Washington Inaugural Bible, which was brought to the Westport Masonic lodge Saturday to help the fraternal organization celebrate its 200th anniversary.

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — Many towns in New England claim, “George Washington slept here.” Whether Westport can make that claim or not, Westporters can be certain the Bible used at the inauguration of the nation’s first president has visited Westport.

On Saturday, the 257-year-old George Washington Inaugural Bible was proudly displayed for the community by the men of Westport’s Masonic Lodge, Temple No. 65, to mark the lodge’s 200th anniversary.

The Westport Masonic Lodge was chartered on May 12, 1824, before the town of Westport itself was incorporated, and is one of the oldest organizations in town, according to Richard Ruggiano, worshipful master of the Westport temple.

Richard Ruggiano, the worshipful master of Masonic Lodge, Temple No. 65, was among the local lodge members who welcomed the historic Bible to Westport.

The hands of four U.S. presidents have rested on the Bible during their inauguration, who in addition to Washington, include Warren G. Harding, Dwight Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter. George W. Bush also would have been sworn in using the Bible, but because it was raining the priceless Bible couldn’t be exposed to the weather, Ruggiano said.

The Bible was also present at the funerals for Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and at ceremonies to lay the cornerstone for both the U.S. Capitol building and the Washington Monument, he said.

“We should be sharing this with our community,” Ruggiano said of the Bible, which is owned by Masonic Lodge St. John’s No. 1 A.Y.M. (Ancient York Masons) in New York. “It has never been shone in Connecticut.”

The Bible’s public display Saturday drew Westport residents, members of nearby Masonic lodges and even “Benjamin Franklin,” a.k.a. Westport lodge member Chris Jennings, who portrayed Franklin. The real Franklin was a friend of Washington’s Jennings said in a presentation to visitors.

In his presentation, Jennings recounted the history preceding Washington’s inauguration, from the perspective of Franklin. He referred to Washington as “a young Virginia militia colonel,” 20 years before he became leader of a new nation.

Washington did not sign the Declaration of Independence because he was in New York state with his troops, according to Jennings, and was one of the nation’s founding fathers who believed it was important for the national legislature to have two houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Washington’s inauguration as the first president of the United States took place in 1789 at Federal Hall in New York City, according to information from St. John’s lodge. It lay open on a crimson velvet cushion when the oath of office was administered to Washington by the first secretary of the U.S. Senate, Samuel Otis. Among those present were the nation’s first vice president, John Adams; the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay; the first secretary of war, Henry Knox, and the first governor of New York, George Clinton.

Many of the nation’s founders were Masons, Ruggiano said, including Washington himself, his generals and many of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence.

A delegation from St. John’s Masonic Lodge No. 1 in New York accompanied the Washington Inaugural Bible to Westport. Wearing white gloves to handle the priceless Bible and stationed around the display to ensure its safety, from left, they were: Jameson Zakoura, Benjamin Lynn, Andreas Vavaroutsos and Joe Sticca, a past master of the New York lodge.

On Saturday, the Inaugural Bible made the trip from Manhattan accompanied by four members of St. John’s lodge, who donned white gloves and flanked the Bible as it was displayed in the local lodge to ensure its safety.

“We hire a conservation organization to take care of it,” said Andreas Vavaroutsos, a member of the New York lodge and part of the group that transported the Bible. The men drove the Bible to the Westport lodge at 210 Post Road East, and planned to drive it back to New York on Saturday evening.

It took Ruggiano many years to arrange for the Bible to be displayed in conjunction with the Westport lodge’s bicentennial, he said. But with arrangements complete and the Bible at the center of attention on a special day for the Westport lodge, he said, “We feel graced and blessed.”

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman and has taught journalism at New York and Southern Connecticut State universities.