Sisters celebrate 40 years with return to Dolores Park
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It's back. To commemorate their 40th anniversary, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence's annual Easter in the Park is returning to Mission Dolores Park near the Castro after being held at Golden Gate Park for the last five years.
The free public party (donations are welcome) takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 21, and brings back all the fan favorites; children's Easter egg hunt, live music, good eats, and the contests that have become rituals — Easter Bonnet, Foxy Mary, and, of course, Hunky Jesus.
The anniversary this year is a milestone for the nonprofit organization of drag nuns, which originated in San Francisco on Easter Sunday 1979. Today, the Sisters have thousands of members across 75 chapters in 10 countries. The Sisters believe that all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty and have devoted their organization to community service, ministry, and fighting for LGBT civil rights.
The beginning of the Sisters can be traced to Ken Bunch (Sister Vicious PHB), Fred Brungard (Sister Missionary Position), and Baruch Golden. They went in full, traditional habits through the streets of San Francisco and down to the nude beach, according to the Sisters' website. They were met with shock and amazement, but captured the public's interest. The founders came up with the name Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the group's mission: to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt.
For its first two decades, the Sisters held Easter in the Park at Collingwood Park, a small neighborhood park in Eureka Valley. On its 20th anniversary the Sisters went big and closed down Castro Street for a block party that was met with strong resistance from the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, which fought to have the street closure denied. It garnered national media attention and CNN aired footage from the event.
Over the years, opposition from the Catholic Church in San Francisco appears to have dissipated. A spokesman for the archdiocese told the B.A.R. this week that "nobody is actively contentiousness or opinionated about the Sisters at this end."
"Easter Sunday is the most joyful day of the Catholic year, memorializing Christ's Resurrection from the dead," spokesman Mike Brown wrote in an email. "Many people will choose to organize their day around celebrating Mass as a Catholic community and then joining together as families and friends in a meal and to continue the day."
Move to Golden Gate Park
After the 20th anniversary, the Sisters' Easter party was held in Dolores Park until 2014, when the park underwent renovations. After which, the city tightened its rules for large events at the park, for instance not allowing spiked tents in the ground, making it challenging to pull off a party with more than 5,000 people, which the Sisters typically draw. The city, however, was more accommodating this year, Sister Abbi Abnormal, the spokesnun for the Sisters, said.
"The Castro is where the Sisters got their start and gained a level of visibility," Abbi, 30, who identifies as queer, said. "This is going to be a big ole party and everyone is welcome to partake in the community."
A spokeswoman for the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department said the Sisters were welcome at Dolores Park this year.
"The Sisters held their Easter celebration at Dolores Park for many years and we love working with them and hosting their event," Tamara Barak Aparton, deputy director, communications and public affairs at Rec and Park, wrote in an email. "Because this is the 40th anniversary of the celebration, they are returning to Dolores Park due to its connection and history. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are longtime park supporters and stewards. They work closely with the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department to promote our message of leaving no trace at Dolores Park by packing out trash and leaving glass at home."
The event has been successful at Golden Gate Park the Sisters said, but they, and the community, are looking forward to bringing the event back to the Sisters' original stomping ground.
Sister Roma said this year's event is a "test run" at Dolores Park to see how it goes, Roma wrote in an email. The Sisters are having a "Love the Park" cleanup day at the park the day after the party, April 22, which is Earth Day. It begins at 9 a.m. Coffee and doughnuts will be provided.
"We managed to fill Golden Gate Park and we had a successful run there, but it never really quite felt like home," said Sister Roma, a 56-year-old gender fluid queer. "It's like coming home again. The community is really excited about it."
Roma has attended countless Easter in the Park gatherings over her 30 years of being in the group and called it a "beautiful celebration." This year's event begins with children's programming, including an Easter egg hunt, Sisters' Story Time, and free dental screenings. The main stage starts at noon with performances from GayC/DC, 9 Inch Males, Trash Can Marchink Band, and drag performances from Dusty Porn, the Devil-Ettes, and Fou Fou Ha. An order of Sisters from France will also perform, though Abbi said it was yet to be announced.
The contests have become some of the most popular components of the Sunday event, which this year also commemorates Earth Day. People prepare for the Easter Bonnet contest for weeks, Roma said.
"It's jaw-dropping," the San Francisco resident said. "People start planning their bonnets for weeks and they are stunning, beautiful hats."
Pets are also allowed to participate in the bonnet wearing, Roma added. The Foxy Mary contest includes a sexy version of the Mother Mary, who is oftentimes "pregnant" and has a taste for alcohol.
The Hunky Jesus competition may be the most popular of all. It has been part of Easter in the Park for years. The contestants sign up just hours before, though most contestants come prepared with outfits. In the past there has been a cheerleader Jesus, baby Jesus complete with a bottle, and last year, a political-themed hunky Jesus.
"Every year I never cease to be amazed at the creativity and ingenuity of the San Francisco community," Roma said. "Every year something surprises me. It's clever, shocking, and beautiful."
Rolando Sanchez, 30, of Oakland, was the winner last year, and said he decided to do it because, "I saw it as an outlet of communication as a way of doing some type of political message." Last year was the first year Sanchez had come to the United States. He was displaced after his hometown was hit by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
He was a Puerto Rican refugee Jesus complete with a Puerto Rican flag and 16 toilet paper rolls to represent "all the U.S. has done to Puerto Rico. Exploiting the island and no hurricane relief. I was paying it forward to the United States," he said, adding that he will return to the event this year, but will not compete again. He also said that the Sisters were among the most welcoming community he had ever met.
"They made me feel like a family. They put out their welcoming arms to say hi to me and ask how things are going," he said, adding that he admires all the work the Sisters do in the community.
The event has also historically brought a lot of business to the Castro district. Outgoing Castro Merchants President Daniel Bergerac said he was looking forward to the event returning.
"It certainly helps drive people to the Castro neighborhood," Bergerac said. "We love the Sisters and love all the good work they do. They are a tremendous asset to the city of San Francisco and to the queer community."
The evolution and history of the Sisters is something cherished by those in the group. Roma talked about how the Sisters began first as simply a way to break conformity, express individuality, and stir things up a bit, but when the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit the community the Sisters truly found their calling.
"HIV and AIDS ravaged our community," Roma said. "That's when the Sisters really found their purpose."
She also recalled that on Halloween night in 1989, two weeks after the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake, she and some of the other Sisters got buckets and bullhorns and took to the streets. By the end of the night they had raised $10,000 for earthquake relief. This was the beginning of the Sisters' annual Halloween block party.
The Sisters managed the Halloween street party for many years, but in 2006 nine people were wounded when a shooter opened fire at the celebration. Halloween in the Castro was canceled the following year.
Through its grant program, the Sisters have donated tens of thousands of dollars to smaller, local nonprofits.
Abbi added that she looks forward to the continued evolution of the Sisters in its next 40 years. Something the organization is focusing on now, Abbi said, is the issue of limited housing for many San Franciscans, adding that the Sisters change with the needs of the day.
To Roma, the 40th anniversary represents the importance of the Sisters.
"It signifies to me that the sisters are authentic and important and really striking a cord in the communities we serve all over the world," Roma said. "To know a Sister is born every minute is a heartwarming and encouraging thing."
For more information on the event, visit https://www.thesisters.org/events.