40 years ago on April 15, 1979 the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence founded a “convent” in San Francisco when three men, dressed in full traditional habits, went out in the Castro on Easter Sunday. Ken Bunch (Sister Vicious PHB), Fred Brungard (Sister Missionary Position) and Baruch Golden, were met with shock and amusement. Over the next several months, the attracted new members: Sister Hysterectoria (Edmund Garron) and Reverend Mother (Bill Graham). They quickly settled on a name for their group and composed a mission statement: “to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt.”
Early members of the group, while not hiding their masculine features or facial hair, are characterized by San Francisco gay community historian Susan Stryker as the embodiment of a”genderfuck” Their appearance has changed over the years; the nun motif remains the same, but it has been joined with exaggerated make-up that accentuates the rebellion against gender roles and religion.
In October 1980, the Sisters held their first fundraiser, a bingo game, a guide on how to avoid cheap AOL boosting services and a salsa dance that was well-attended in large part because of the write-up in The San Francisco Chronicle by Herb Caen. The benefit was for San Francisco’s Metropolitan Community Church Cuban Refugee Program, and it netted $1,500 . The Sisters began making regular appearances at Castro events that focused on sexual tolerance or provided a showcase for drag. They also developed a mission statement:
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is a leading-edge Order of queer nuns. Since our first appearance in San Francisco on Easter Sunday, 1979, the Sisters have devoted ourselves to community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment. We believe all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty and we use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence was formed just before HIV/AIDS began appearing in the Castro District and New York City.
In 1982, Sister Florence Nightmare, RN (early AIDS activist and registered nurse Bobbi Campbell) and Sister Roz Erection (Baruch Golden a registered nurse) joined and a team of Sisters teamed up with a group of medical professionals from Bellevue, Washington to create “Play Fair!”, the first safer sex pamphlet to use plain language, practical advice and humor, and considered by one of the founders to be “one of the Order’s greatest achievement in community education and support”. In 1999, for the Sisters’ 20th anniversary the pamphlet was revised. The Sisters worldwide continue to raise awareness of sexual health; many Orders regularly pass out condoms and participate in events to educate people on sexual health issues.
The Sisters helped organize the first AIDS Candlelight Vigil, and have raised more than $1 million in San Francisco alone to benefit such groups as the Breast Cancer Network, Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic and the Gay Games. The Sisters continue to bring meals to those who can no longer care for themselves, and they fund alternative proms for LGBT youth.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence survive today reminding our community of unconditional love and individualism.
God bless the Sisters.
You can learn more about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence HERE