Each Thursday evening, 45 Princeton students cloaked in black robes meet by candlelight and swear an oath of loyalty to a hooded figure known to them as Most Noble Archon.
“Si vis perfectus esse, vade, vende quae habes et da pauperibus, et habebis thesaurum in caelo; et veni, sequere me.”
The biblical passage, from the Gospel of Matthew, translates as: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” It serves as the opening refrain at each meeting of Princeton’s largest semi-secret society, the coed fraternity Delta Psi, commonly known as Saint Anthony Hall or St. A’s.
The Latin pledge comes from the legend of Saint Anthony of Egypt, the father of Christian monasticism who is said to have heard these words in a church when he was 20 years old. Saint Anthony figures prominently in the rituals of the organization that bears his name, and the black robes worn by members during their weekly meetings have the saint’s emblem — the Cross of Tau — embroidered over the right breast.
Little is known about these meetings, beyond the opening ceremonies, but several members interviewed for this article made reference to a ritual known as “drinking the blood” performed by members at each meeting to “symbolize their physical and emotional connection” to one another. The members declined to elaborate on what this ritual entailed, stating only that it was inspired by a passage from the Book of Ruth.
On a campus where all Greek organizations strive for some semblance of secrecy given the University administration’s opposition to them, St. A’s has embraced its covert persona, cultivating an image as a mysterious hybrid of fraternity and secret society.
“What defines St. A’s is a strong sense of loyalty between the members,” said Virginia, an alumna of the society. “A’s is also about a lot more than partying and getting into eating clubs. It’s about making a life commitment to the group and the wellbeing of each member.”
The names of the two current members and one alumna interviewed for this article have been changed because they spoke on the condition of anonymity. A total of six alumni and seven current members were contacted for this article: 10 declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
Unlike the other fraternities and sororities on campus, which hold rush during the first few weeks of the academic year, St. A’s rush occurs in the spring semester. Only freshmen and sophomores are permitted to rush, and prospective members may not belong to any other Greek organization.
“Potential pledges are nominated by members and invited to a series of parties where they can meet the membership,” said Greg, a current member of the society. “Any Princeton student, however, is allowed to rush, even if they have not been formally invited to an event.”
The prospective pledges are invited to one-on-one coffee dates with members to allow for more in-depth conversation, Greg explained. After several rush events, the current members meet to decide whom to accept into the pledge process. The society accepts roughly 10 to 14 new pledges each year, and candidates must receive unanimous support from the full membership.
Not all pledges ultimately receive a bid for membership, he added, since some are turned down throughout the pledging process.
“The group is pretty representative of Princeton,” Virginia said, adding that the members are ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. She also noted that there is an even breakdown between men and women in the society.
“In recent years, women have taken over leadership of the group, and the society is better for it,” Virginia said. “The people I met were a bright star in an otherwise lackluster freshman year at Princeton. They were inviting, intelligent and really seemed to care for one another.”
The organization has 10 officers, she added, noting that there are two presidents each year. The first is a secret president — known only to the members — who is referred to as “Number One.” The second president is the organization’s more public face, known as “Number Two.” This year, both the Number One and the Number Two are women, Virginia said, but she declined to identify them.
The past three Number Ones were Jesse Madigan ’08, Jacob Candelaria ’09 and Chanel Carmona ’10, and the past three Number Twos were Chris Arp ’08, Alison Laporte-Oshiro ’09 and Kevin Rodriguez ’10, two members confirmed. All six individuals either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
The Number One is “the real leader,” Greg said, explaining that the Number Two is in charge of organizing rush and the group’s Thursday gatherings.
“The society meets once a week in a location known only to members,” Virginia said. “I will not discuss what goes on in meetings. The date, time and duration of meetings is information reserved for members.”
This sense of secrecy is deeply important to the members and central to their identity on campus. “We’ve got to cultivate the mysteriousness,” one alumnus, who did not respond to follow-up questions, said in an e-mail. Though none of the Greek organizations on campus publicize their membership rolls or regularly host public events, St. A’s appears to make the greatest effort to conceal its activities, and members frequently use a secret alphabet for internal communication.
A representative at the Saint Anthony Hall national office declined to comment for this article and refused to give her name. Later calls to the same number indicated that it was the voicemail of Nicola Leckie, the executive secretary of Delta Psi.
Saint A’s, like all other Greek organizations on campus, is not formally recognized by the University, but members said they had no interest in obtaining such recognition.
“We stay under the radar and like to keep it that way,” Greg said. “The society cares about its members and doesn’t really worry about what other people might say — let alone whether the University recognizes us or not.”
Though its weekly meetings are private, the society sometimes engages in public activities on campus and enters the annual USG-sponsored dodgeball tournament, Virginia said. The group used to register for the tournament as the Law and Public Affairs Forum but began calling itself the Figure Drawing Club after the former group became active. “We sort of just co-opt groups,” she explained. “Last year, we took third place in [the] medium size [bracket].”
Like several of the other Greek organizations on campus, St. A’s has a reputation for feeding into certain eating clubs, members said. Traditionally, St. A’s members have joined Terrace Club and Ivy Club, but in recent years some have also successfully bickered Tower Club, Greg said.
Many members regularly attend social functions with members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Zeta Psi fraternities, he added. But unlike some other fraternities, St. A’s does not haze its pledges, Greg said, explaining, “We do not try to degrade potential members.”
Travel is common among members, he added, noting that in recent years some members have visited Mexico, Russia, China and various European countries together. Some of these trips are community service endeavors, funded by either the Princeton chapter or the fraternity’s national organization. Over Intersession last year, seven members of the organization took a chapter-funded trip to the Dominican Republic as part of a medical mission.
“It is a good idea to have a passport if you are a pledge,” Virginia said. “Members like to travel, and they like to take pledges along for the ride.”
All three members interviewed for this article declined to discuss the specific amount of the group’s membership dues, but Greg noted that the society has never suspended a member due to an inability to pay.
The Saint Anthony Hall national organization was founded at Columbia University in January 1847. The original Princeton chapter was established four years later as an all-male institution, but it became defunct shortly after the Civil War. The Princeton chapter was revived in 1986 as a coed fraternity by several members of Tiger Inn who had friends involved in the St. A’s chapter at Penn, Greg said.
There are roughly 300 living alumni of the Princeton chapter, Greg added, noting that they are “actively involved in supporting the chapter” and that there are regular alumni cocktail parties in New York City. The Princeton chapter continues to have close ties with the Yale and Penn branches, he said.
There are currently 10 undergraduate chapters of St. A’s, at Columbia, Penn, Trinity College, Princeton, Brown, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Mississippi, the University of Virginia, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in order of their founding, according to the national organization’s website. The Princeton chapter is the only one without a house, and seven of the 10 existing chapters are coed. The chapters at Penn, Mississippi and Virginia are all-male.
The chapters also vary in their levels of secrecy. The Columbia chapter has no website, while Princeton’s chapter boasts a particularly cryptic homepage at andruthsaid.net. Penn’s website lists an outdated roster of members, as well as a schedule of its 2009 speaker series and a photo gallery. The websites of the Trinity, Brown, UNC-Chapel Hill and University of Mississippi chapters also provide names of members and photo galleries. The University of Virginia, Yale and MIT chapter websites provide information about upcoming events and their chapter history.
Several chapters of St. A’s include an intellectual component, like a public lecture series or literary publication, but Princeton’s does not. The chapters at Columbia and UNC-Chapel Hill publish poetry journals, the Brown chapter publishes a literary and visual arts magazine, the Trinity chapter endows a professorship in art history, and the chapters at Yale and Penn sponsor public lecture series.
A February 2007 article in The Columbia Spectator stated that the focus of the Columbia chapter revolved largely around members’ wealth. Members who do not live in the fraternity house at Columbia are required to pay $5,200 per year in dues to cover 10 meals per week as well as social fees, the Spectator reported. Members of the Princeton chapter said their dues were much lower since they do not have a house or other board costs.
The Columbia chapter is known for “parties, secrecy and money,” according to the Spectator article, which alleged that new members at Columbia are required to buy plane tickets and then burn them.
One anonymous member of the Columbia chapter told the Spectator, “I got Paris ... but you also kind of hope that it’s a joke, that you don’t really have to burn it — till you see the lighter and you’re like, ‘Ahh!’ ”
The Yale chapter places less of an emphasis on personal wealth and more on the literary and intellectual roots of the organization, according to a March 2006 article in The Yale Daily News.
“St. A’s offers a relaxed approach to the intellectual rigor,” former Yale chapter member Sam Kahn told the News. “It helps to fuel people’s intellectual growth, and the lectures make for a much more interactive, open environment with distinguished speakers than you’d get in a normal class.”
Yale’s chapter also hosts a breakfast every Tuesday morning for members and their guests, and organizes an annual black-tie dance called the Pump and Slipper.
At Yale, home to many of the nation’s most well-known secret societies, St. A’s is an anomaly in that it has both a private and a public side, with secret members-only activities as well as its public lecture series and gala.
“Our secret aspects are truly secret, and our non-secret aspects are truly non-secret,” former Yale chapter president Eli Luberoff told the News. “It’s rarely been a problem for us.”
The Princeton chapter is moving in the direction of less secrecy and fewer mysterious rituals, said Elissa, a current member. She noted that members on campus were more laid back about the organization than alumni had been in previous years, and said she thought most current members viewed it more as a secondary activity than their central social group.
“St. A’s does provide its members the chance to hang out and enjoy each other’s company socially,” Virginia said. “The group travels together, and basically does what any group of close-knit Princeton friend groups would do. Being in St. A’s is what you make of it. For some people, it makes the Princeton experience. For others, not so much. If you invest in the group — just like anything else in life — you will find that the rewards far outweigh the costs.”
This is the fourth article in a five-part series on Greek life at the University. Tomorrow: A look at whether the University should recognize the fraternities and sororities on campus.