“Beacon Hill, the Common, the Church beside God’s Acre! How full of suggestion the Tri Delta that was to be, how symbolic of the Tri Delta that is! Church, State, and the Common Wealth — each separate, each distinct, yet with each touching the other. Each representative of an organized effort to stand for the eternal verities, to make life sweeter and more soul-satisfying.” –Sarah Ida Shaw, Thanksgiving 1925
The city of Boston is filled with history. You can hardly turn a corner without running into some vestige of America’s past: Paul Revere’s house, the Old North Church, the site of the Boston Tea Party, the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The same is true of Tri Delta’s history. Our Fraternity was founded in this city, and all around Boston there are markers of Tri Delta’s past. The buildings are no longer utilized in the same way they once were, and some are no longer standing. Much about Boston has changed since 1888: cars now line the streets, people now walk briskly down sidewalks, talking on cell phones or listening to iPods, and modern amenities are found on every corner.
But when you walk down a Boston street, if you ignore the cell phones, the cars driving by, the Starbucks across the street, you can almost imagine the Boston of Sarah Ida Shaw. And you can know that Sarah, the other Founders and the earliest members of Alpha Chapter also walked the same path.
The long streets of Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood are lined with old Victorian brownstones. The neighborhood is mostly quiet and, due to its proximity to the Charles River, a popular place for joggers. The main street that runs through Back Bay is Commonwealth Avenue — a wide, shady boulevard with a long, narrow park in the center. At 131 Commonwealth sits a lovely white mansion, nearly hidden by the trees out front, that has been turned into an apartment building. An elegant cast iron gate separates the building from the sidewalk, and cars are parallel parked along the street. This was once the Panhellenic house, used by Tri Delta and other sororities on the Boston University campus in the 1940s. The house included common rooms, rotating chapter rooms for the eight sororities and a dormitory where three women from each group lived.
If you walk directly across Commonwealth Avenue and stop on the corner of Commonwealth and Dartmouth Street, you’ll be standing in front of another large, white building. A sign near the entrance identifies the building simply as The Vendome and lists the offices housed inside: several doctors, a couple of realtors and a tailor. The Vendome was once Hotel Vendome, originally built in 1871 in the Boston Sarah Ida Shaw knew. Hotel Vendome was the site of Tri Delta’s fifth Convention in 1902 and Tri Delta’s 50th Anniversary Convention in 1938. It was here where the 50th Anniversary Convention attendees heard a radio address from Sarah Ida Shaw, who was in her home in Roxbury.
The Twinkling Lights of Beacon Hill
“One may still look up to the wide expanse of sky, brilliant with the eternal stars. A single glance can still take in Beacon Hill, aglow with twinkling lights, the Common alive with hurrying throngs, the Church with its stately spire, symbol of truth that can alone set man free, and close beside it God’s acre.” –Sarah Ida Shaw, Thanksgiving Eve 1925
In contrast to the long, linear streets of Back Bay, Beacon Hill’s streets are mostly short and extremely narrow. The neighborhood is steep, the streets are sloped, and the sidewalks are an uneven red brick. The area, largely residential, is lined with federal-style row houses and gas-lit streetlights. The edge of Beacon Hill, Beacon Street, borders the idyllic Boston Common, the oldest city park in the United States. Although today the Boston University campus sits farther west alongside the Charles River, in 1888 parts of the campus were right here, and students would stroll through the park to reach classes. In February 1892, Charlotte Joslin, Boston, wrote in The Trident: “One of the pleasant features of B.U. life is the delightful walk across the Commons on a fresh spring day.”
Joy Street in Beacon Hill runs alongside the Massachusetts State House. The houses in this area were the residence of some early Tri Deltas, including Emily Allen, Boston, who boarded at 16 Joy Street. The red brick home, several stories tall, still stands and the front door leads directly inside from the sidewalk. It was in this home on Jan. 15, 1889, that Alpha Chapter held its Initiation. Around the corner from 16 Joy Street is 33 Mt. Vernon Street. The house that stands here is another home where Alpha Chapter held many early meetings.
Two streets over from Joy Street is Somerset Street. If you Google the address 12 Somerset, the directions will lead you to an empty lot, now beginning new construction. Today the lot belongs to Suffolk University, but on this spot once sat Boston University’s College of Liberal Arts — a building called Jacob Sleeper Hall after one of the university’s founders. This was the building where Sarah Ida Shaw and Eleanor Dorcas Pond sat and drafted their plans for Delta Delta Delta. And with its close proximity to the Beacon Hill residences, it’s easy to imagine the group of Tri Deltas making the three-minute walk from Jacob Sleeper Hall, around the corner to Emily Allen’s home on Joy Street to prepare for their Initiation.
In the Shadow of Park Street Church
“A great many other places in Boston have passed through a metamorphosis, but one may still stand on the old historic corner, where Eleanor and I parted on that memorable evening, our hearts a thrill with a joy akin to motherhood.” –Sarah Ida Shaw, Thanksgiving Eve 1925
Park Street Church, situated in Beacon Hill, is an important piece of both Tri Delta history and American history. This stop on the Freedom Trail was built in 1804 and is adjacent to the Granary Burial Ground, the final resting place of revolutionary patriots such as John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. It’s located directly across from the Boston Commons and the Park Street Station of the subway system’s green line. The area is a bustling one, and there’s no escaping the steady flow of traffic and the constant stream of people along the sidewalk. The square across from the church is lined with food vendors, souvenir stands and the occasional person dressed in revolutionary-era garb, providing snippets of history to tourists stopping along the Freedom Trail.
If you arrive by train, as you ascend the escalator of the Park Street Station and look up through the glass roof, you can see the steeple of the church slowly appearing above you. Stepping out of the station, you’ll cross Park Street to find yourself directly in of the red brick church, staring up at the stately steeple which seems to climb forever into the heavens, casting its shadow back onto the ground. As you stand in the shadow of Park Street Church — blocking out the buzz of traffic, people and nearby vendors — you can imagine that on this same spot stood Sarah Ida Shaw and Eleanor and Dorcas Pond as they clasped hands and swore “eternal loyalty and fealty to Delta Delta Delta” on Thanksgiving Eve 1888.
“Be assured … that I am with you in spirit, that my good wishes go with you now and always, that it is my special hope and my special prayer that Delta Delta Delta may stand through its members for all that is best in life, for all that is worth the living.” –Sarah Ida Shaw, Nov. 2, 1907
On the corner of Cobden and Cardington Streets in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury there sits a yellow wooden home, ivy growing up the side, a turret on one side with three delta-shaped windows at the top. For 30 years, Tri Deltas all over the country received letters and correspondence from 5 Cobden Street, the home of Sarah Ida Shaw. It was here where she married William Holmes Martin in 1896. It is here where she gave her radio address to the 50th Anniversary Convention attendees who gathered at the Hotel Vendome in 1938, and it was here were she passed away on May 11, 1940.
However, if you drive up to the house today, the turret’s windows are boarded up, and the top, near the deltas, is very badly burned. The house sits empty and abandoned. If you speak to a neighbor, he will tell that the house caught fire and burned. And he will tell you when it happened: Thanksgiving 2012.
Not far from Cobden Street is Forest Hills Cemetery. The cemetery spans 271 acres. As you drive up to the entrance you’ll pass through a large gate and to the left will be a giant, 200-year-old Weeping Beech tree. The cemetery is quiet; the only noise heard is from the nearby birds. And there, in a far corner of the grounds, sitting beneath a shady tree along the Artemesia Path, is a headstone engraved with the name Shaw.
Here, Sarah Ida Shaw is buried alongside her parents, Edwin and Eliza Shaw. On the ground, a few feet in front of the headstone, lays a marker presented by the Fraternity on its 100th anniversary in 1988. The marker, inscribed with three deltas, reads: Sarah Ida Shaw Martin Founder of Delta Delta Delta at Boston University Thanksgiving Eve 1888.
Here, the footsteps of Sarah Ida Shaw end. However, her dream and her vision in the form of Delta Delta Delta continues its journey 125 years after it first began in Beacon Hill, in front of Park Street Church.