Sisters celebrate 30 years of good deeds
by Matthew S. Bajko
It is hard to believe that a fit of boredom one night 30 years ago gave birth to one of the city's most beloved and creative institutions, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of mostly gay men who don nun's habits and face paint to conduct charitable activities within the community.
But thanks to the prospects of a lackluster evening the Saturday prior to Easter in 1979, and some religious garments "borrowed" from a Roman Catholic convent in Grand Rapids, Iowa, three friends living in the Castro created what has become a worldwide phenomenon and perennial thorn in the side of the Catholic Church.
"I was living with another friend from Iowa and I said, 'I'm bored. Let's put those nun habits on and go out.' We went to the Castro, Land's End, and Polk Street. Psychological car wrecks were happening left and right," recalled Ken Bunch, who would go on to christen himself Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch. "People were shocked, even in liberal San Francisco."
Bunch, 57, and his friends quickly discerned that they had hit upon something more than a mere prank. By pure luck of their wardrobe, they had invented a powerful tool for both political activism and social change.
"Once we saw the incredible effect wearing these nuns habits had on people we met on the streets, we recognized we had a stick of dynamite and we should do something more with it," said Bunch, adding that if it were not for his keeping the nun habits, "we probably would be the Clowns of Perpetual Indulgence. We liked to paint our face. With nun habits it takes on more activist and political tones."
The group went on to don their outfits that year at the opening day of the Gay Softball League, the Castro Street Fair, and at a Radical Faerie gathering near Los Angeles, drawing in new recruits to their merry band.
"That was it. We were then off and running," recalled Fred Brungard, one of the Sisters' four original founders.
[Once known as Sister Missionary Position, Brungard changed his name in 2002 to honor the death of a fellow sister and goes by Sister Iamosama DeLite, the Sodomite of the Most Holy and Beautiful Dove Rumi Sufi Heart Now. For a shorter version, he refers to himself as the nun now known as Sister Soami (pronounced as So Am I).]
By December 1979 the early members of the group met at a house on Frederick Street and settled upon the name Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the guiding principle that their "mission is to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt."
"We like to say we're 21st century nuns, and we said that in the 1980s in the 20th century," said Bunch. "People always ask 'You aren't real nuns, are you?' We do the same work as Catholic nuns. We do raise money for charity and serve the hungry and needy."
To Brungard, who once studied to become a member of the Capuchins, a branch of the Franciscan Friars, the Sisters have been a way to reconcile his calling to religious life with his gay political activism.
"It has been the fulfillment of my vocation to spiritual life," said Brungard, who lives on a Radical Faerie farm in Tennessee.
Almost immediately the Sisters gained international notoriety for their work. They joined in demonstrations, launched their bingo nights to raise funds for charity, and won scorn from Catholic officials for creating their own rosaries.
While exact figures are hard to come by, locally, the Sisters raise on average about $100,000 a year, most of which is distributed to smaller LGBT organizations. The IRS Form 990 from 2007, the latest year available, shows the Sisters in San Francisco raised $150,000. In 2005 that figure was $109,000 and in 2004 it was $97,000, according to the tax forms.
As the AIDS epidemic began to devastate the city's gay male residents, it was the Sisters who in 1982 created "Play Fair!," the first safe-sex pamphlet to use plain sex-positive language to educate men about the then little understood disease plaguing the community. They also held the first AIDS fundraiser that year, which drew actress Sh
When the pope visited San Francisco in 1987, the Sisters canonized Harvey Milk as a saint and conducted an exorcism in Union Square. The pope returned the favor by officially declaring the group papal heretics. The feud came to loggerheads during preparations for the Sister's 20th anniversary when they sought to shut down Castro Street during Easter Sunday in 1999.
Catholic officials vehemently opposed the Sisters' street closure request, and the controversy once again brought worldwide attention to the group. The issue eventually went before the city's supervisors for final approval and led to then-board President Tom Ammiano's famous retort, "Walk a mile in my pumps and you will see what I mean."
When the openly gay politician later ran for mayor, some tried to tarnish the Catholic-raised Ammiano as anti-Catholic for allowing the Sisters to hold their street party. The Sisters even entered the debate over the appointment of Jim Hormel, an openly gay man, as ambassador to Luxembourg.
"Jim Hormel stood up for the Sisters. He said they are a worthy charitable organization and the right-wing used that against him as ambassador," recalled Ammiano. "They are that powerful that the right-wing likes to use pictures of the nuns with people who are elected against them."
This year's celebrations have not born any backlash like the one seen 10 years ago. To Ammiano, it is a sign of just how woven into the fabric of the city the Sisters have become.
"I think people are now used to the idea. They still make some people uncomfortable. But that is what makes them delicious," he said. "I think they are just great."
Today, the Sisters are most known for hosting the Pink party during Pride weekend and their annual Easter party in Dolores Park. They hold countless fundraisers throughout the year and help man the entrance gates at Pride and LGBT-oriented street fairs.
"The need for activism is needed as much today as there was a need for it in 1979," said Brunch. "The artistic things each order does and the creativity that goes into it is so great. The whole idea of putting a nun's habit on opens your artistic and creative channels. Then it just flows out."
In Ammiano's eyes, San Francisco would not be the same city without the Sisters.
"It is a perfect marriage, no pun intended, of San Francisco and the gay community and the Sisters," said Ammiano, now in the state Assembly. "They are divas but they do do good work. Some people take what they look like as meaning disrespect. I can respect that but that is not my take on it."
More than 200 Sisters from across the globe are in town to celebrate their anniversary, starting tonight (Thursday, April 9) with a tribute to the original members at the Dance Mission Theater, an opening night ritual Friday for a new show about the group at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and a conclave and beverage benefit Saturday at the Eagle Tavern.
Sunday brings the return of their annual Easter party in Dolores Park, starting at 11 a.m. with a children's egg hunt and later in the day the popular Hunky Jesus and Easter Bonnet contests, as well as live entertainment. For the special occasion this weekend, the Sisters have also planned a "Rebirth Processional" that kicks off at 4 p.m. and ends up at the "Afterbirth Block Party" at Noe and Market streets in the Castro. The dance party goes from 5 to 10 p.m.
For more information about the weekend's events and the Sisters themselves, visit http://www.thesisters.org.