Nuns ‘N’ Roses: The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at 40

Ahead of the Hunky Jesus contest on April 21, the Sisters get set to celebrate a big anniversary, having perfected the habit of charitable works and hilarious controversies.

Courtesy Jose Guzman Colon

This year’s Hunky Jesus Contest returns to Dolores Park after its five-year detour to Golden Gate Park’s Hellman Hollow. But the annual Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence‘s Easter Sunday party marks an even more important milestone — the 40-year anniversary of the flamboyant drag-charity organization that dons Catholic nun outfits to delight San Francisco (and enrage homophobes elsewhere around the world).

The Sisters’ 40th anniversary is next Sunday, April 21, but the celebrations are already underway. (A Hunky Jesus beer had its release party last night.) Technically, the Sisters’ anniversary date is April 15, a date that Strut in the Castro will honor Monday night with a raging reception. Elsewhere, pub crawls, art exhibitions, and happy hours damn-near every night until Easter will lionize the Sisters’ 40 years of raising millions for charity, creating controversy, and fucking shit up in fabulous apparel.

“The Sisters were always fearless,” says Sister Roma, the self-described “Most Photographed Nun in the World,” who joined back in 1987, before the Sisters spread to more than 70 different orders on four continents.

But the group started here in San Francisco, back on Easter Sunday 1979. This was an era when church contingents would send right-wing protesters to shout at the immoral homosexuals in known gay neighborhoods, and three drag queens decided to clap back while dressed in full nun regalia.

“When they went out to harass the community on that first fateful Sunday in 1979, they did not wear makeup,” Roma tells SF Weekly. “They were just men with facial hair in these nuns habits, and they went around the Castro, all through Polk Street, and to the gay beach to just sort of screw with people.”

Founding member Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch dabbled in the clownish white theatrical makeup popularized by performance troupes like the Cockettes and Radical Faeries, evolving into the Sisters’ trademark colorful appearance with garish, giant eyelashes. The Sisters did their first charity fundraiser in October 1980, a bingo-disco event that benefited gay Cuban refugees — which was a spectacular success thanks to a shout-out in Herb Caen’s column.

These charitable efforts couldn’t have arrived at a better time, but for a reason that couldn’t have been worse. A devastating pandemic known as the “gay cancer” was only beginning to hit San Francisco.

“People around us were sick and dying, and no one knew why,” Roma recalls. “People were losing their homes, their jobs, their family, and their friends, and everyone was basically afraid to touch them.

“You would walk into the Castro and you would see emaciated people covered in Kaposi’s [sarcoma] or they’d be sitting at the end of the bar, isolated, alone, and afraid. And the Sisters would walk in and be the first ones to sit down and strike up a conversation. Sometimes, all those people needed was a hug. And the Sisters were always there to give a hug.”

They gave more than hugs, distributing the first safer sex pamphlet to address what we now call AIDS. Pride flag creator Gilbert Baker joined the order in 1981 as Sister Chanel 2001, and a queen named Sister Boom Boom nearly won a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1982. Bobby Campbell, known as Sister Florence Nightmare, appeared on a 1983 cover of Newsweek in one of the first examples of sympathetic coverage of HIV victims.

The Sisters were becoming something of a national media sensation, mostly drawing charges of blasphemy from outraged Catholics. Their images were used to fan Republican resentment of “San Francisco liberals” at the 1984 Democratic Convention, and their antics protesting Pope John Paul II’s 1987 visit here officially landed the Sisters on the Papal List of Heretics.

But the greatest disruption to the Pope’s visit was one they didn’t even plan. The office of the Archdiocese that handled the Pope’s visit accidentally listed a 415 number, instead of its real 408 area code. Hilariously, it belonged to a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence who was involved in coordinating papal protests.

“The number that they listed was Sister Blanche de Roote,” Roma laughs. “So she started getting phone calls to her answering machine asking for information about the Pope’s visit.

Sister Blanche changed her answering machine recording to say, ‘This message is to inform you that the Pope’s visit to America has been aborted. I believe he was struck by lightning.’ ”

But the Sisters may be best known today for their annual Easter Sunday anniversary extravaganzas, highlighted by the Hunky Jesus Contest. They would not begin throwing anniversary parties until 1989, the first of which was a nighttime bar affair at the old Club Townsend (tragically, now a Subway sandwich shop).

“Our 10-year anniversary, we had a big celebration, because it was the same time that we got our 501(c)(3) [nonprofit] status,” Roma says.

The 1990s saw the Sisters hold their annual Easter anniversaries at a small Castro park now known as Rikki Streicher Field, and the free, popular party kept growing. The Hunky Jesus Contest was added at some point in the mid-1990s, but it is unclear which year. (“I feel like I have been the emcee at every one of them,” Roma claims.) Eventually, a Foxy Mary component followed.

San Francisco was a different place back then. Catholics across the city demanded that the city stop permitting this satirical blasphemy on the holiest day of the Christian calendar. Hell, SF Weekly even ran a lengthy 1999 diatribe against the Sisters’ anniversary party, not realizing how good the Sisters were at capitalizing on “bad” publicity.

“For our 20th anniversary, we wanted to close Castro Street and have a bigger celebration,” Roma remembers.

City Hall tried to rescind the permit after negative national attention from the Catholic Church and conservative talk radio, but then-supervisors Mark Leno and Tom Ammiano fought for the Sisters’ right to party.

“The publicity we got for that, we could have never paid for. It was headline news everywhere,” she says. “As a result, we had 20,000 people in the Castro for our 20th anniversary.”

Their Easter shenanigans have drawn similar-sized crowds ever since, except on the occasional rainy year. The event moved to Dolores Park in 2001 to accommodate the bonneted masses, and then to Golden Gate Park in 2014 due to Dolores Park’s renovation. This year’s party will feel like a homecoming.

“San Francisco and Easter and the Sisters have become such a highly anticipated and cherished annual event,” Roma says. “People are really happy to see us return to Dolores Park.”

The unconventional nunsense of these DayGlo drag queens conceals a deeper purpose. “Many of us feel that we are nuns,” Roma tells SF Weekly. “We minister to our community, we serve the sick, we feed the hungry, we do all the things that many Catholic charities and nuns do.

“The Sisters have been filled with amazing, colorful characters, but also really important, passionate, and smart people who’ve made the world a better place,” she adds.

Current board president Sister Selma Soul estimates the order has raised between $100,000 to $200,000 for charity every year since 1999, and close to $3 million over the course of their existence. Their works have touched millions of people, and pissed off millions more, but the remarkable legacy of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is second to nun.

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