The Origins of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence…
…according to Sister Vicious PHB
In 1974, 75 and 76 at the University of Iowa, Fred Brungard and I co-produced the first Midwest Gay Pride Conferences. This was at a time when Iowa gay organizations consisted of 3 bars and two student groups.
At the same time I formed a traveling drag performance troupe called The Sugar Plum Fairies, consisting of myself, Tracy Bjorgum, Susan Short (a born female) Lisa (a transvestite) and Michael Salinas (who later became editor of one of the most important gay newspapers in the U.S.-The Bay Area Reporter).During a weekly planning session Susan said, “I know the Mother Superior in an Order of Catholic nuns in Cedar Rapids (Iowa). Mother Superior is a good friend of mine. When nuns die there they put their habits into storage. If I ask her if I can borrow some habits she’ll probably loan them to us.” Susan went to the Mother Superior and told her we were doing The Sound Of Music and she got the habits. The original names of the dead nuns were still sewn into the habit collars. We performed at the few gay bars across the state of Iowa. Most drag shows at the time consisted of classic diva tributes (Diana Ross, Judy Garland, etc.) Queens weren’t ready for the iconoclasm about to engulf them! When we hit the stage doing a pompon routine to the U.of I. Fight song the audience erupted into pandemonium!
Following the final Pride Conference in 1976, Tracy and I realized we were preaching to the converted and needed a way of reaching the general public with our messages of gay liberation, challenging their homophobia. I suggested to Tracy we apply for a marriage license, knowing the statewide media would give us wide visibility. At this time most people did not think they knew a gay person. The whole word “gay” was not familiar to most Iowan’s. In their minds queers were imaginary child molesters with horns and tails. We set out to show the people of Iowa that a gay person could be their neighbor, friend, relative and co-worker. Privately to our friends we called it ‘A Fag In Every Living Room Campaign”.
We were the FIRST people to apply for a same-sex marriage license in the state of Iowa. The statewide mainstream newspaper The Des Moines Register carried our photo and story applying for the license . This is how I “came out” to my parents!
In 1977 I moved to San Francisco from a gay farm on the outskirts of Iowa City. I had “come out of the closet” in 1973 and lived every day in scag- drag, as a political statement. While packing for the move I decided to throw all my drag in the trash. I was getting out of drag and into the new leather/levi look that gay men were adopting. While packing for the move I came across those nun’s habits. It is amazing that history can turn on a small moment and an instant decision. I decided they would be the ONLY drag I would keep “in case one day I get bored”. If I had not kept those nun’s habits we might have become the CLOWNS of Perpetual Indulgence.
In 1978 I convinced Fred Brungard to move to San Francisco and live with me. We found a cottage apartment at 272 Dolores Street.
The atmosphere in San Francisco at the time was VERY conformist. S.F. Chronicle columnist dubbed it “the castro clone” look. On Holy Saturday (day before Easter) 1979 I announced to Fred that I was bored and “the only thing different that I have are those nun’s habits”. Fred, myself and Bruce (Barouk) Golden dressed up in those habits and terrorized the Castro, Lands End and Polk Street. The reaction even in liberal and jaded San Francisco that first day out was electric, like someone had lit a stick of dynamite!
In June of 1979 the Gay Softball League played against the San Francisco Fire Department in a game in Kezar Stadium. I asked my friend Edmund Garron to come along to the game. I said,” Now, we can go as normal looking college cheerleaders or as nun cheerleaders.” We decided the habits I had from Iowa would be more fun. We ran around the rim of the stadium and ran our veils up the flagpole. We caused so much distraction with the crowd cheering us that the game had to be stopped temporarily. That was the moment, I believe, that Edmund caught the nun bug and saw the potential of a group of queer nuns, I then introduced my roommate Fred Brungard (who became Sister Missionary Position) to my friends Bill Graham (Reverend Mother) and Edmund Garron (Agnes- Sister Hysterectoria).
I had met Edmund in a dance class in San Francisco run by a lesbian friend , Francesca Dubee, from Iowa in 1977. Bill was a teacher in the gay Transcendental Meditation group I had formed with him in San Francisco in 1977. The 4 of us moved into a flat on Ashbury Street in 1979 which became known as The Convent. We discussed our mutual experiences we had in those nun’s habits earlier in the year. The general consensus between us was that we should form a group, making use of the intense energy this iconic symbol seemed to evoke not only in the general public, but also in ourselves. Maybe we could use this as a tool for social activism and have some fun as well.
The 4 of us convened a meeting of our friends to form SPI later that year.
The friends of the 4 of us formed the first Order of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and our apartment on Ashbury (The Convent) became the meeting space for the General Membership. Our telephone was the SPI telephone line.
In 1980, Fabian, a friend of Sister Missionary Position who became Mother Abbyss (formerly Mother Inferior) came to stay the night in The Convent. After being exposed to our Sister activities he returned to Sydney, Australia and formed the second Order of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (SPI). The third Order of SPI in the world was in Toronto, Canada (which no longer exists) and the fourth Order of SPI in the entire world (second in the United States) was in Seattle, Washington founded by Mother Theresa Nervina in 1987. In 1990 the first French Order was formed in Paris by Archimere RITA du Calvaire-de-Marie-Madeleine-Car-Elle-Aussi-A-Beaucoup-Souffert .Shortly after that the first German Order was formed by Erzmutter JOHANNA Indulgentia in Heidelberg. Today Orders are formed or forming on four continents.
Our first experiences in those Iowa nun’s habits in 1979 were the flame that became a roaring bonfire blazing across the world to this very day.
If only those Catholic nuns and Mother Superior in Cedar Rapids, Iowa knew what their habits had ignited!!!
Grand Mother Vicious Power Hungry Bitch
A Founder of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
Sister Soami’s Angel-on-a-Pinhead History of the Order of Perpetual Indulgence
On Holy Saturday, 1979 I donned a nun’s habit for the first time. With two other `gay male nuns’ I sashayed out among the faithfully queer on the Castro and then trekked to the nude beach at Land’s End to frolic with the pagan babies there assembled. At each location we were embraced and honored. “Good Afternoon, Sisters.” “Happy Easter, Sisters.” “Bless me for I have sinned, Sister.” It was an afternoon of revelation and retribution.
Years before I had studied to be a priest with the Capuchin Franciscan friars until I was rejected when I confessed my repressed gay feelings. Then fifteen years later in the city of St. Francis in one playful afternoon of transgender dress-up, I reclaimed my earlier calling to the religious life.
In the next several months I, along with the other three `founding mothers’ of SPI (Sr.Vicious Power Hungry Bitch, Reverend Mother Abbess— now deceased, and Sr. Hysterectoria, aka, Agnes deGarron) recruited ten others—mostly Radical Faeries—to form an order of gay male nuns with a mission to promulgate joy and expiate guilt. By January1980 we named ourselves The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. In the intervening three decades we have become more inclusive with les/bi women, transpersons and even a heterosexual male, Sr HedraSexual, taking the veil.
Our first official public appearance was a march and rally in SF against nuclear power on the first anniversary of Three Mile Island. Reverend Mother attended the planning sessions. Some organizers told us not to come. We were politically incorrect. We were drag queens. We were not germane to the issues at hand. (As if anyone on the planet could not be!) Sr. Succuba had calligraphed our gothic SPI banner. Neighborhood Arts had sewn our first fourteen habits. At the convent we’d been making black and white pompons for days. The rally in Golden Gate Park would be just two blocks form the two convents that housed ten of us. So we gracefully showed up at the Civic Center, jumping in between the giant Mutant Sponges from the Farralon Islands and Haight hippies pushing a coffin marked Capitalism. En route we alternated cheerful pompon routines with a Rosary in Time of Nuclear Peril. It was a meditation on the Five Sorrowful Nuclear Realities: the U.S. Bombing of Hiroshima, the U.S. Bombing of Nagasaki, Karen Silkwood Killed in Oklahoma, The Chernobyl Disaster in Russia (added later), Three Mile Island in Harrisburg. The Ave Prayer in between implored the Great Mother to protect us from the earth defilers. On that first outing we established the range of our ministry, from silly satire to thoughtful spirituality.
The rest has been a colorful history quite often played out in the media both locally and internationally. We are sacred clowns in queer culture. We employ the sanctifying grace of camp humor as a survival strategy and for social and spiritual transformation. . We support playing and praying in public. Our first charity work was with MCC to benefit Cuban refugees. It was a church hall bingo followed by a salsa dance party directed by Sr. UnityHarmony. Two days later we protested at USF at their 125th anniversary party that tried to deny the existence of the lesbian and gay campus groups at this Jesuit school. Two years later in 1982 we produced the first safe sex pamphlet, Play Fair. Srs. Mary Media, Roz Erection and Florence Nightmare, R.N., AKA, Bobbi Campbell the 1st AIDS poster boy, gently guided that accomplishment. And that year Sr. Boom Boom, running as `nun of the above,’ garnered 22,000 votes—almost becoming an SF Board of Supervisor.
For the first ten years I was known as Sr. Missionary Position. At our 10th anniversary party I altered my sisterly habits to become Sr. Missionary P. DeLight. In 2002 to honor the passing of a beloved faerie brother I became Sr. Iamosama DeLite, the Sodomite of the Most Holy and Beautiful Dove, Rumi Sufi Heart Now or for short Sr. Soami.
In 1981 Mother Inferior Across the Abyss established the Order of Perpetual Indulgence in Australia. The Sisters there colonized New Zealand, Thailand and England. Toronto, Seattle, LA and Germany spontaneously combusted with our blessings or was it parthenogenesis? No, they definitely were not virgin births.! Sr. X (RIP) of SF was the godmother of the Parisian Sisters. I believe England begat Scotland and we are not sure who infiltrated Uruguay and Colombia.
In the few years, Srs. Edith My Flesh and Helen Wheels at the Mother House have assisted in the formation of new houses in Portland, San Diego, Palm Springs and Las Vegas and The Russian River. Srs. Merry Peter and Mary Timothy continue on with guiding SPI missions in Eureka, Arizona, Tampa, St. Louis and Sr. Ivanna Mann is organizing Chicago.
The Missionary Order of PI under the Reverend Mother Generalship of Sr. Clara CumPassionata operates from Des Moines and Kansas City thru Tennessee and on to Philadelphia and Rhode Island. More than a hundred of our 500 sisters worldwide attended our June 2006 Conclave in Los Angeles to celebrate the Order’s 10th anniversary there. Srs. Sparkle Plenty, NovaNilla and the rest of the Russian River Order are hosting the World OPI Conclave this September.
We combine social activism with glamour drag for public edification and personal enlightenment. We produce public parties. We lampoon political and clerical party lines. We celebrate queer diversity and community. We visit the sick. We shelter the homeless.We scatter the ashes of our dead.
Sister Soami (which is short for Sr. Iamosama DeLite, the Sodomite of the Most Holy and Beautiful Dove, Rumi Sufi Heart Now!)
A Founder of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence