The Holiday Grocery program at AIDS Vancouver on Seymour Street was already in full swing when four members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence hit the floor.
Draped in festive red dresses glittering with gold, with their white-painted faces, bright red lips, dark eyeliner and hornlike headdresses (their version of a nun’s wimple), the Sisters serenaded the 800 clients passing through to pick up donated groceries. “Joy to the queers,” they sang, “the nuns are here.”
The clients smiled. Some stopped to tap their feet, while the young women volunteering at the pasta-and-sauce table giggled, then clamoured to take pictures with Sisters Sweet Cheribum, Lois Price, Lucy Caboose and Tora Wholes.
“The Sisters do wonderful things in the community, and they do it without fanfare,” says Mark Mahl, AIDS Vancouver’s director of development and external relations. “Plus, they pretty up the place and add a nice flair.” Even before they carolled for the clients, Mahl says, the Sisters had donated $1,000 to the grocery program.
They’re not just a group of brightly painted, pretty drag faces, says Brian Chittock, AIDS Vancouver’s executive director. The Sisters work hard to help people living with HIV/AIDS and to alleviate poverty and homelessness, he says. “The way they dress draws attention, and people are taken aback when they first meet the Sisters until they hear their story.”
In Vancouver, the story starts with Sister Merry Q Contrary (known in civilian life as Michael Anhorn). A self-described introvert, she seems an unlikely candidate to assume the habit and public ministering of a sister. An administrator at a non-profit by profession, Merry Q says she always felt called to the ministry and studied theology for two years in the mid-1990s at Queen’s Theological College (now Queen’s School of Religion) in Kingston, Ontario.
But she just couldn’t “buy into the old dead white man theology.” So she left before being ordained but kept looking for other avenues for spirituality. She eventually found the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, but it was 15 years before she heeded their call to join the order of queer nuns.
“Their drive to feed the need for spirituality in the gay community — without shame and guilt around sexuality — and the fact that they were creating joy and raising money for groups doing work in the community” finally convinced the reticent Anhorn. Merry Q took her vows to “expiate stigmatic guilt, promote universal joy, and be of service to the community” and began to live the ordained life that she was meant to lead.
In February 2010, along with three other queer nuns, she founded a local chapter for the Sisters in Vancouver called the Abbey of the Long Cedar Canoe.
The abbey also owes its existence to another quartet of gay men, this time in San Francisco, who were looking for ways to pass the Easter weekend in 1979 and decided to dress up as nuns. Wearing costumes from a production of The Sound of Music that had been staged by one of the four men, they ventured into The Castro, San Francisco’s gay mecca. The “amazing reaction” to this and to subsequent outings where they ministered and took confessions “with a queer spin” (sending off those who sought solace to “go forth and sin some more”) led them to believe that they could be “a vehicle for advocacy and public justice,” Merry Q says.
Now, with more than 700 nuns in more than 65 abbeys in countries including France, Germany, Uruguay and Australia, the sisters rank with Catholic nuns in the US as the fastest growing order of nuns in the world, she says.
As fate would have it, the San Francisco Sisters were just a step ahead of the 1980s AIDS crisis. With thousands of gay men dying, they realized that they could be a force for the greater good. They were among the first to visit HIV/AIDS patients and organized themselves into a charitable organization to raise money for causes, “like real nuns,” Merry Q says.
The Vancouver chapter is also a registered charity, with 22 sisters, including Sister Alma Bitches, otherwise known as James Goranko, who joined the order in late 2010. Over the last five years the pace has been blistering, Alma says, with the Sisters participating in Pride events and numerous fundraisers for AIDS Vancouver, the Out in Schools program, the LOUD scholarship fund, Rain City Housing for queer youth and many more.
While it may seem all fun and games, the life of a queer nun is not for the faint of heart, Alma says. “It takes patience, persistence, commitment and time.”
Alma says that she has participated in up to eight functions some months, and each event can take six to eight hours, from applying and removing makeup, travelling to and from locations and participating. Some activities, like working the doors and coat checks at local bars and parties (sometimes from 8:30pm to 3 or 4am), can mean a commitment of up to 10 hours. “We donate all the tips — an average of $5,000 a year over the last two years — that we raise doing coat checks and working the doors to charity,” Alma notes.
The Sisters use their own money to buy makeup and clothing for the events they participate in. “I tell people that if we used the money we raise to buy makeup, we’d look a lot better,” she jokes. Alma, a burly, bearded guy who calls himself a “hard-nosed business type,” instead shares cost-cutting tips — like using olive oil to remove makeup — with new nuns just joining the order.
Being a Sister “is a way to give back,” says Alma, who at one time juggled working part-time with attending massage school full-time in New Westminster and commuting from Langley to Vancouver for the abbey’s events.
For Sister Sweet Cheribum, Justin Saint in everyday life, the path to becoming a Fully Professed (lifelong) Sister was lined with hours of ministering at charitable events (“too many to count”), pinching about $45 a month from lunch money to buy makeup, and wearing hand-me-down dresses. The once-shy Cheribum says it took her two years to complete the four-part process — from Aspirant to Postulant to Novice and finally to a Fully Professed Member. She notes, however, that the stages can be completed in as little as one year.
Raising money for charity is only part of the sense of accomplishment, she says. “You also get a sense of fulfillment when you hug someone who needs it and you know you’ve made their day. It’s like a Mother Teresa moment of caring.”
Sister Tora Wholes, also known as Gary Shergill, says she joined the order about three years ago to give back to the community. Looking back, she describes the hours poured into projects like creating and distributing condom packs with safer-sex and HIV-testing information as “a labour of love.”
Alma says the abbey is growing and now looking for projects of its own to fund, rather than contributing solely to the efforts of other organizations.
“It’s so thrilling to watch their growth. It gives me the warm fuzzies,” says community activist and media consultant Barb Snelgrove, who was granted Sainthood by the Sisters in 2012 for her countless hours serving the community. Other honorary saints include the late Jim Deva, a hero to many and a tireless defender of free speech and sex without shame, and artist John Ferrie.
Snelgrove cites a late December function, where some of the Sisters bagged groceries in a West End store to raise awareness for the abbey, as an indication that the group is reaching beyond its usual scope in the gay community. Novice Sister Lois Price organized the three-hour event, and shoppers responded by donating $420, even though the sisters were not soliciting donations. Such is the recognition of the work being done by the abbey, says Lois, whose name outside the nunnery is Tim O’Brien.
As the order has evolved so has its membership, which now includes lesbians, straight women, Muslims, Christians, wiccans, people who practise First Nations traditions and atheists. “And we range in age from 20s to 70,” Merry Q adds.
Some people, thinking the Sisters are mocking the Catholic Church, have resisted the nuns’ presence over the years. “But we take our vows seriously,” Merry Q says, “and like Catholic nuns, our philosophy is to be of service to the community. We don’t have to dress up to do good work, but doing so helps to open people’s minds and pushes them to let go assumptions.”
Snelgrove impatiently brushes aside any thought of disapproval. “The Sisters work to spread love and light. What’s not to love?”