Among the demonstrators were several young men who had seen the San Francisco Sisters in action and knew the time was right to bring their unique blend of activism, joy and spirituality to Canada in the second official mission outside of San Francisco (the first mission had formed in Sydney weeks before). The Toronto founders were Sister Appassionata della Bawdy House, Sister Opiate of the Masses, Sister Robbed at Birth, Sister Florida Naranja, Sister Intelligentsia, Sister Exposia, Sister Rosa Relentless and Sister Hair Apparent. While Sister Mary Media was on a visit back home in Toronto, she met with the new Canadian Sisters had happiy took word back to San Francisco of heir good works.
For a continuing and more detailed Sistory of the San Francisco house, please visit their website by clicking below:
Labour Day weekend of that year saw The Spiritual Conference for Radical Fairies take place at the Sri Ram Ashram near Benson, Arizona. Rejecting hetero-imitation, the Radical Faerie Foundation began during the 1970s sexual revolution among gay men in the United States as a counter-cultural movement seeking to redefine queer consciousness through spirituality. Sometimes deemed a form of contemporary Paganism, it adopts elements from anarchism and environmentalism. Organized as a "call to gay brothers" by early gay rights advocates Harry Hay, John Burnside, Don Kilhefner, and Mitch Walker, the Labour Day weekend conference attracted over 200 men. Amongst them were Kenneth, Fred, Edmund Garron, Bill Graham and Canadian expat Cass Brayton who discussed finding a way to bring the joy they found at the gathering to people outside on a regular basis. The nun idea came forth and shortly after they convened again with other friends to discuss the idea. The name "The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence" was chosen and a mission statement to "promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt." Edmund became Sister Hysterectoria, Cass became Sister Mary Media, Bill became Reverend Mother and the order was created.
THE FIRST CANADIAN HOUSE 1981 - 1986
On February 5 1981, following a 6 month undercover operation called "Operation Soap," Toronto police officers rampaged through 4 gay bathhouses armed with guns, crowbars and sledgehammers. They smashed doors and walls, destroyed the legally operating businesses and hurled homophobic epithets at the citizens they were rounding up. The resulting booking of more than 300 men on "bawdy-house" charges was at the time the largest mass arrest in Canada. The following night over 3,000 protestors stage a mass demonstration against the raids, blocking traffic at several major intersections. On February 29, 4,000 protestors march from the Ontario Legislative Buildings in Queen's Park to the 52 Division Headquarters of the Toronto Police. Most charges connected to the incident were eventually dropped or discharged. These demonstrations marked a turning point for the community – the beginning of a nation-wide LGBT rights movement that was inspired by previous civil-rights and liberation movements. It has since become known as "Canada's Stonewall".
In 1976, an Iowa convent of Roman Catholic lent some retired habits to performance group called The Sugar Plum Fairies who were performing their own version of The Sound of Music. A year later, one of the performers named Kenneth Bunch moved to San Francisco bringing the habits along with him. On Easter Weekend in 1979, during the time of the "Castro Clone," Kenneth took those habits out of mothballs. Being extremely bored with the conformist atmosphere, he and two friends (Fred Brungard and Baruch Golden) donned the full, traditional habits and set off through the streets of San Francisco and down to the nude beach. Kenneth painted his face white from his performance artists roots while Baruch and the delightfully bearded Fred left their faces natural. They were met with shock and amazement, but captured everyone's interest. As Kenneth later recalled "there were psychological car crashes" wherever they went. Kenneth took the name Sister Adhanarisvara, honoring the roots in meditative practice of a number or the original Sisters, and Fred became known as Sister Missionary Position. Kenneth subsequently changed is name to Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch, empowering himself with an epithet hurled at him during one particularly fractious meeting at the convent.
IN THE BEGINING: SAN FRANCISCO 1976 - 1980
The Sisters began to manifest and grow, becoming well known for their community and fundraising events such a tea parties, bingos, skating on the ice rink at Nathan Philips Square, as well as attending many prominent queer events through the years. As the eighties progressed and the AIDS crisis spread, they replicated San Francisco's "Play Fair!" pamphlet about preventing STDs with their own entitled "Cum Clean". They worked with the Hassle Free Clinic encouraging gay men to test regularly for STDs and began visiting and comforting AIDS patients in the hospitals and at their homes.
In 1980, Sister Hysterectoria designing the first habits after a Flemish 14th century ladies-in-waiting and French cloister's wimple, and through a city grant, commissioned the first set of habits including the now famous "Ear Brassieres." Sister Succuba, a calligrapher, created the logo and the original banner under which the Sisters made their first public appearance. During the Three Mile Island Protest in March, The Sisters performed their "Rosary in Time of Nuclear Peril," including the ever-popular pompon routine. This small group hit big, making every paper and gossip channel immediately. By August they were front page in gay newspapers, chasing hate-mongering Christians out of the Castro and the Polk neighborhoods. In October the city saw its first fundraiser with Sisterly flair: a bingo/disco benefit for gay Cuban refugees at Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). So many people turned out for the event that a second seating had to be thrown together to accommodate all of the bingo players. After four cards had been played, everything was moved to one side and the disco ball began to spin. This marked one of the largest fundraisers by a small community organization: over $1,500 was raised in one evening.
The Toronto Order of Perpetual Indulgence first manifested publicly on June 28 that year at "Lesbian & Gay Pride Day" which many consider to be Toronto's first Pride event (though public gay gatherings inspired by Stonewall had been occurring sporadically since the early 1970's, usually in August). The date was chosen to be closer to that of International pride events than previous Toronto events - most notably closer to New York's Stonewall. Held in Grange Park directly behind the Art Gallery of Ontario, the six-hour event was advertised as “an afternoon of fun and frolic.” 1,000 people showed up for music and dancing. The accompanying march, led by the Amazon Motorcycle Club, drew 500 people. During a brief pause in front of 52 Division, the new Sisters performed an exorcism on the station, refering to the police as "Porcine Demons" and drawing looks of disbelief from the guards.
The order wore traditional nuns habits as the founding San Francisco Sisters did, but not the white face makeup Sister Vicious PHB began.( Since then, plain-faced Sisters are said to be in Mish Face after Sister Missionary, now known as Sister Soami or Gramma Mish and Sisters wearing clown white are said to be in Vish Face after Sister Vicious now known as Sister Vishnu or Gramma Vish). The practice of each mission or new house having its own distinctive coronet/wimple design had not yet come into being. The Toronto sisters wore a standard wimple, guimpe, and coronet. Known as Toronto the Good since the strict moral code in the 19th century (a term was coined by former mayor William Howland (1886-87,) who, in the words of the Toronto Star, was "an anti-vice, anti-gambling, anti-liquor, Bible-thump[er].") the city was often seen as uptight and chaste. The Sisters found themselves waging as uphill battle fighting not only the hyper-heteronormative establishment and religious communities who found the drag satire of the Catholic Church immoral, but also many prominent queer figureheads and activists who found their gender-bending and irreverent, camp antics "too gay."
Click on an image below to see more of the original Toronto Sisters
As the Sisters popularity increased, so did resistance to them. Then Mayor Art Eggleton, a Catholic who was not known for supporting the lesbian and gay community, referred to the group as “crude and disgusting.” A Roman Catholic alderman called them “the filthiest piece of garbage I have seen in a long time.” Some lesbians and members of women’s rights groups opposed them mistakenly thinking they made fun of women. Several City Councillors threatened to pull city funding or block location permits for Pride if the Sisters were involved. Even the openly gay Reverend Brent Hawkes - a vocal and passionate supporter for queer rights who had staged a hunger strike against the bathhouse raids, was opposed to the Sisters presence in Toronto, finding their brand of activism marred by what he saw as a disrespectful treatment of religion (it should be noted that Rev Hawkes now sees the Sisters in a different light and indeed is a cherished friend of the Order).
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence wish to announce that, as of October 1st, 1986, the order of Perpetual indulgence (Toronto Chapter) will disband.
The Sisters are very proud of their accomplishments and feel that needs still exist within our community. However, it seems as if our message has been overshadowed by our appearance. Our image has blinded many to the work we were doing.
What were the Sisters attempting to do?
The Sisters were dedicated to the following precepts:
1) The replacement of the concept of “sin” with a moral code based upon respect for the freedoms and rights of the individual. Within these boundaries, we wanted to encourage and support the diversity of human behaviour in all of its amazing richness.
2) The cultivation of a sense of “pride” and “self-worth” in lesbians and gay men while combatting the insidious process of “invisibilization” of our community.
3) The promulgation of “eternal joy” through the development of the ability to recognize and utilize the elements of “fun” or “light-heartedness” that are to be found in most situations.
4) The eradication of “stigmatic guilt” and the crippling sense of shame that such guilt engenders.
5) The dedication to fight against any group or individuals who seek to limit the rights and freedoms of our community by imposing their standards of morality and behaviour on us.
How did the plebiscite figure in our decision?
While most responses were very positive and affirmed the work the Sisters were doing, we were challenged by some of the ideas and comments contained in the letters. One writer observed: “I am aware the onlookers respond only at their own level of awareness.” This zeroed in on the main problem– “How people were perceiving us.” Whether or not any single perception coincides with the image we were attempting to project is irrelevant! The fact that the perception exists validates itself. We now recognize that just by “being nuns” we are preventing the fulfillment of our goals. Therefore, it would defeat the purpose to continue.
We Sisters felt that we made a difference by our presence here. We are very proud of the contributions we have made to the community.
MISSIONARY MERRY PETER 1987 - 1999
In 1987, a young gay man named Brad was in the L'arche community and doing his Masters at Regis College at the University of Toronto. He had a deep vocation and had thought about ordination, but there was the problem of homosexuals not being accepted by the church. He was working with ActUp and delving deep into the queer community and theory movements with lots of friends in the drag community who took him in. While cataloging clippings for the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives (CGLA) and going through old editions of the Body Politic, he first read about SPI, but nobody seemed to know anything about what had happened to them in Toronto and she wondered just how one would "join" if nobody was doing it. That summer, some Radical Faerie friends suggested Brad go to Short Mountain Sanctuary in Tennessee for a rest. Fred (Sister Missionary Position) had emigrated there from San Francisco in the mid-eighties helping to form a Faerie commune. When they met, Brad had no idea who Fred was in relation to SPI, but as they talked it became clear the young man's interest in queer service and Fred's previous work as Sister Missionary were bound together. Recognizing a new and powerful Canuck nun, Sister Missionary veiled Brad on June 21, 1987 (the solstice) and sent her back to Toronto to rebuild the mission as Sister Merry Peter.
TORONTO IV: A NEW HOPE 2015 - PRESENT
Having gathered a number of individuals interested in starting afresh, Sister Twisted began to create social media accounts including Facebook and Twitter as well as a new website. Through January of 2014, more members were added including individuals who had shown a strong interest in the now silent Divine Wood as aspirants, friends and postulants but had not heard from Divine Wood since November. On February 19, 2014 with 7 members confirmed, Aspirancy for the new Toronto Aspirant group was declared to the CoMoms who announced it to the UNPC. March 6 saw the first officia Business Meeting held and the name “The Toronto Sisters of JOY – the Jubilant Order of York” was officially adopted by unanimous vote. A few weeks later on March 21, 2015 - The Toronto Sisters of JOY manifest for the first time spreading cheer at Spearhead's 35th Anniversary Dinner. A joyous first Street Ministry followed.
Carrying on as an Aspirant group and unable to use the moniker Perpetual Indulgence™, the remaining members of the Abbey of Divine Wood met and discussed how to proceed. The Co-MoMs had suggested the Abbey take some time off to reconsider their work and callings. The Toronto Sisters at first pledged to continue on and regain status, but it became clear soon after that the drive just wasn't there. A Christmas event they had been planning became a marker for this when responsibilities spread over the members were left uncompleted and the venue pulled out at the last minute. Frustrated with the continuing apathy she felt the membership was setting for, the acting Reverend Mother Sister Twisted Fister resigned on December 3 and with the Co-MoMs encouragement, began to independently gather a new flock in an effort to try again with a clean slate. This new group would eventually become the Toronto Sisters of JOY.
THE ABBEY OF THE DIVINE WOOD 2011 - 2014
A Toronto screening of Bad Habits in October 2011 inspired a new Toronto group led by Sister Squeal Loud and Proud as the Reverend Mother and Sister Twisted Fister as the Mistress of the Novices. Named The Abbey of the Divine Wood, the group struggled through several challenges and membership changes, finally achieving Mission Status in fall of 2013. By November of 2014 however, membership had shrunk to an all time low and most of the remaining Sisters were finding it difficult to devote the time needed to continue doing their work in the community. The Co-Mistresses of Missions (Co-Moms) who report to the UNPC (United Nuns Privy Council - a group comprised of representatives from every mission and house in North America) who mentor and train new groups hoping to use the now trademarked name of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence™ recognized that with the dwindling numbers and commitment issues Divine Wood group was facing, they could no longer be considered a true Mission.
After struggling for 5 years, the Toronto Sisters decided to call it quits. Portions of the statement printed in Issue 132 of the Body Politic are below (full text in the image to the left):
THE NEW TESTAMENT: VANCOUVER 2010 - 2012
In February of 2010, a new Canadian group sprung up in British Coumbia when Sister Merry Q. Contrary and Sister Ethica Slüt performed an initiatory ritual in Stanley Park to firmly ground The Abbey of the Long Cedar Canoe and their work in Vancouver. On August 4, 2012, after 2 1/2 years of finding glitter in all sorts of fun and unusual places, the Abbey of the Long Cedar Canoe became a Fully Professed House of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence -- the first in Canada in over 25 years. Their journey was recorded in the film Bad Habits – the Return of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence an original ichannel documentary by award-winning writer/director Kevin O’Keefe.
The Sisters debuted as an official Mission during Toronto Pride 2015, meeting and posing for photos with many queer community leaders, religious and political figures including Member of Provincial Parliament the Rev. Cheri DiNovo, 51 Division Police Superintendent Elizabeth Byrnes, the Rev. Dr. John Joseph Mastandrea of Metropolitan United Church, Toronto Mayor John Tory, and Toronto Police Chief Marc Saunders. They formed a joyous waking contingent in the Pride Parade bedecked in flowery headresses and carrying on despite the cold showers that day. The celebration is capped off by a photo of the Sisters appearing on the front page of Canada's largest newspaper.- the Toronto Star.
The group maintained a busy manifest schedule appearing regularly in the Village and building strong ties with various groups and figureheads. Relationships were rebuilt with community groups and businesses that had been damaged by the inactivity of the previous house and new ones forged as the groups vision of love, joy and service quickly spread. On May 28, 2015, an application for Mission Status was sent to the Co-Moms including a list of members, dates, habit and coronet design (similar to a design Twisted had proposed to Divine Wood in the last couple of months before they faded), a list of manifests and link to social media and web pages featuring many photos of the group in action. Having reviewed the submission, The Co-Moms forward the materials to the UNPC for consideration. June 15, 2015 saw the UNPC vote unanimously in favour of the application and the Toronto Sisters of JOY were formally made a Mission of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence™. Sister Ophelia was named as a mentor.
TORONTO SISTORY 101
Everyone loves a good origin story and below you can read ours. Like any franchise, it's full of sequels, false starts, reboots, disappointments and triumphs. Grab some popcorn and Maltesers and delve in!
Click on a button below to be taken to the time period you are interested in
LINKS TO THE CANADIAN HOUSES
Cick on the links below to visit other Canadian Houses, Missions and Aspirant groups
The Toronto Sisters continue to work through changes, discoveries, joys and sorrows as they make their way to Fully Professed status. It has been an unusually long gestation period but as the Co-MoMs are fond of saying - there is no rush to the veil (though Sister Unity and Sister Faegala are also fond of saying "get your magic glitter pickles going and get your paperwork done, Toronto!") The Sisters hope to have the requirements for elevation completed no later than February 2017 including By-Laws, Policies and Procedures and proof of application for charitable status with the Provincial and Federal Governments. Along the way they continue to do street ministry, individual ministries, organize events, appear at community gatherings and promulgate universal joy wherever they appear.
Merry Peters first manifestation in Toronto followed shortly after. She walked Church and Maitland giving out safe sex kits and chatting with the hustler kids on Maitland and Alexander. They were the ones that bought her a coffee at the Second Cup on Church Street (where Ginger is now) and congregated around her on the infamous steps out front that was a meeting place for the community. The next thing she knew she was taking confessions, networking and sharing safe sex information all around the Village. After that it was street-level health access, bar bingo, protest, blessings, and Agape Queer Youth Retreats with the Triangle Programme. She used "contract nuns" who took 24 hour vows that expired at midnight to help with things like Bingo at Bar 501, hooker health class on Maitland and Alexander and Bath House Condom ministry. She also organized queer outward bound retreat experiences for LGBTQ Youth from the Triangle Programme. It is interesting to note that the tradition of glitter blessing and mixing of sister faerie dust is a Canadian tradition she initiated which is now used by Sisters world-wide
Despite her great heart and firm dedication, a new mission was not to be and Merry Peter's time in Toronto ended on Victoria Day 1999 when she moved to San Francisco where she still serves the order in dazzling fashion. It would be 10 years before a Sister presence would return to Canada.