The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, that beneficent troupe of drag nuns, announced last week that their annual Easter in the Park celebration would be virtual for the second year running. The Hunky Jesus and Foxy Mary contests, an irreverent tradition at Dolores or Hellman Hollow, will be on Zoom.
But this week, the Sisters unveiled a new evangel for the faithful: They worked with the street artist fnnch to install one of his signature honeybear murals in the form of a 15-foot-high nun on the side of the Powerhouse, long the raunchiest queer bar in SoMa. She doesn’t have a name, but she’s got a habit — along white kabuki makeup, purple eyeshadow, big eyelashes, and the standard quizzical-cute expression of fnnch’s other totems of wuvable good cheer. This sister is also symbolically important in that she presides over the intersection of Dore and Folsom streets, home to the city’s kinky summer street fairs for which the Sisters traditionally work the gates.
Fnnch has been doing online collaborations with various nonprofits for the past year, raising nearly $300,000 in the process. It’s primarily for that reason, says Sister Celine Dionysus, that they chose to work with him.
“He’s selling a Sister honeybear through his gallery during Easter,” she says, adding that people can soon buy one of a run of 50 paintings and 130 prints. Regarding the 15-foot version, Sister Celine says the order will do a “huge blessing around that” this Saturday, April 3.
“We’re going to be blessing not only the art, but also the intersection, and send a prayer out for the recovery of businesses and our community,” she says. “I’ve really been inspired by the Easter story in terms of the circle of life: birth, death, the turning of the wheel. The city opening up now is a reminder to reflect on what is lost and what can begin again.”
COVID erased a lot of the Sisters’ opportunities to raise money for queer and trans folks, low-income people, and youth, as they’ve been doing since 1979. At times, this has proven a little awkward. Last year, as part of her novice process on the way to become a full nun, Sister Celine was in charge of the Children’s Easter — and wound up saddled with 5,000 plastic eggs in her apartment. (They’re in storage now.)
But the pandemic also “changed the face of how Sistering is possible,” says Sister Celine, who joined in November 2018. A counselor by day, she then took on the task of redesigning the “Joy” page of the Sisters’ website to provide resources for all possible situations, with an emphasis on pandemic-born anxieties.
“This is going to be a huge dividing line in terms of the history of our population,” she adds. “We are changed on a molecular level, taking a year and burrowing.”
She has since become the first Sister ever to be elevated over Zoom, having been guided through the process by the Mistress of Novices, along with half a dozen others.
“It was completely social-distanced, all the tiny faces smiling at me” she says of that rite. “I’m by myself in my living room, fully dressed as a nun. You get presented by the Mistress of Novices that then moves to an executive session where all the nuns are allowed to question you on any subject they want. Then you get removed from the room, booted from Zoom while a vote happens.”
Two hours later, she got the good news, knelt, and recited her vows. Had it been in person, her Mother and big Sisters would have symbolically switched out her white veil for a black one and then they would “go to the Stud and get hammered, but the meeting just ended.”
Anticlimactic though that may have been, Sister Celine immediately took on the role of arts patroness in the mode of Gertrude Stein or Peggy Guggenhein.
“I’m not naturally gifted as an artist, but it gave me an understanding of what my role is within that group dynamic: I can elevate the people who do know how to do this,” she says. “I’d been noticing fnnch through the news was raising money on behalf of nonprofits, and as somebody who is now collecting art, I tried to purchase his prints — but his gallery sales are so quick, if you don’t pull the trigger right away, you’re done. He has very strict rules about edition sizes.”
Contacting fnnch through Sister Roma, probably San Francisco’s most famous nun, led to a collab.
“He has been the most generous, thrilling collaborator of my life, open and sunny and warm and really passionate,” Sister Celine says. “The research he did on the Sisters and how they presented themselves over the years informed his decision on the bear. It’s an ‘everynun,’ that’s evocative of all of us but not specific to any one nun.”
“When you think of what makes the culture of San Francisco so cool, the Sisters come to mind,” fnnch says. “They are emblematic of the spirit of the city. I love living somewhere where you can see a drag nun walking down the street. It was an honor to work with them.”
Throughout the pandemic, the sight of fnnch’s honeybears has become a familiar visual trope around San Francisco, often found in the windows of homes that also tape up that multicolored secular credo that begins, “In this house, we believe …” Stir-crazy kids have been encouraged to hunt for them, and fnnch sells a kit to that effect.
As with virtually everything, they’ve also become a flashpoint in San Francisco’s war with itself, drawing accusations of gentrification. When the LGBT Center commissioned fnnch to put up three honeybears on a side of the building that faces Octavia Boulevard and Market Street — painted in the colors of the Progress, Bisexual, and Trans Pride flags — some people questioned the rationale behind centering the work of cis, straight, white male in that highly visible spot.
From there, these squeezable ursines have become bound up in occasionally overblown debates about who actually belongs here, such that when you wake up one morning to find one on the mailbox on your corner, it might be shredded within 48 hours. The critique that fnnch long ago lost all street cred by catering to the affluent white bourgeoisie is fair, but it’s all too often marred by misogynistic rhetoric about “housewives” and that tedious brand of nativism that always seems to lie just beneath the surface of everything.
For Sister Celine Dionysus, a honeynun was a natural extension of the Sisters’ mission. Going down a “Tumblr rabbit hole” about the charges of displacement and violating queer spaces, she concluded that a lot of the objections to fnnch were “just gatekeeping.”
“None of the Sisters were natives,” she observes. “They came here from Iowa! It seems a very territorial point-of-view, and it also saddens me because this point-of-view leads to people being obsessed with borders. Historically, that has not done us good. The Sisters’ mission is to expiate guilt and propagate universal joy, and I find the honeybear a symbol of joy. It’s so in line with what the Sisters are doing, it’s not even funny.”
Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Blessing of the Honeybear Nun, Saturday, April 3, 3-4 p.m., at the Powerhouse, 1347 Folsom St.
Rising Up with the Sisters (incl. Hunky Jesus and Foxy Mary contests), Sunday, April 4, 1-3 p.m. on Twitch.