SUBMITTED BY: JC Knowles (edited and vetted by Cheri Todd Molter)
Along with many other “firsts” to its credit, North Carolina can claim to be the state that the first woman Master Mason in the history of the craft—from King Solomon’s Temple to the present day—called home for most of her life. Her name was Catherine Sweet Babington, and she was born near Princess Furnace, Kentucky on December 28, 1815 to her parents, Charles & Margaret Sweet. Her father died when she was six years old, and afterward she spent much of her time with her grandfather, Benjamin Ulen, and her six uncles, who lived nearby and were all Masons.
According to her biography, which was written by her son J.P. Babington, Catherine used to spend time in a two-story schoolhouse near her grandfather’s home that had a classroom on the first floor and, although it was originally meant to be a place of worship, a Mason Lodge hall on the second. Since her grandfather and uncles would often take her with them to sweep and clean up after their meetings, Catherine was familiar with the space. Curious about what they did there, she found a hiding spot under a pulpit, and when she positioned herself there beforehand, she found that she could observe and hear everything that went on during their lodge meetings.
One day, after a meeting, Catherine was seen emerging from her hiding place by one of her uncles as he was retrieving something he had left behind in the hall. After being questioned, Catherine admitted that she had been listening to them for some time and had learned a great deal. Masonry is not a secret organization; however, they do have secrets. Confronted with this problem, the Lodge realized she knew everything pertaining to the three degrees that would make her a Master Mason, so they conferred upon her the degree of Master Mason, making her the only woman Master Mason in the United States. She never attended a lodge meeting after she received the Master Mason degree.
Catherine Sweet married B.B. Babington in 1834. The couple left Kentucky and eventually settled in Ore Hill, North Carolina. Her husband became a Mason in 1859. In the biography he wrote, J.P. Babington attributed his mother’s knowledge of Masonry as the reason they managed to endure the hardship of war as well as they did: Their farm, located about five miles from Ore Hill in Chatham County, was in an area that was raided by Union troops after the arsenal in Fayetteville was destroyed, and many of their neighbors were left with nothing of value. However, since his father was away from home at the time, his mother conversed with the Yankees who came to their farm, and mysteriously, “she succeeded in saving everything that belonged to [them]” (Biography of Mrs. Catherine Babington, 1912, pg. 44).
Later, Catherine moved to Shelby, North Carolina. She died there on June 28, 1886. Catherine’s obituary in the Shelby newspaper stated, “At her death, she was the only woman Master Mason in the United States and was well versed in the mysterious workings of the Blue Lodge. Having overheard the secrets of Masonry when she was a girl of sixteen years, it was thought best to initiate her as a member and thus prevent any disclosure.” (from the Shelby Aurora)