By Sister Aura Fister
Once upon a nuncheon a particularly earnest and considerate nunling suggested that we might embark upon a pilgrimage far to the East of our territories in order to view a most holy relic. Postulant Niche Whimsy explained how in an exhibit at the Museum of Croydon there lay several objects of local queer significance and that a friend was creating a piece about how visitors react to these items.
He thoroughly sold us on the idea that among such objects as a copy of the Wolfenden Report there is an encased handbag used by a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence in the 90s, along with its contents. He informed us that he and his friend Mark would like to record and document our encounter with the blessed artefact.
We were very excited because with the London Sisters having been virtually lost to us, there is an inate desire to better understand and relate to those who trolled the troll before us. The chance to gaze upon such a wonder and compare it to our own tools of shame-fighting and joy-spreading was too good to pass up. Our spirits soared when we learned later that we could actually meet with the Sister himself.
A few weeks later schedules aligned and we set off for Croydon. Getting up early is one of the ways we tend to differ from more orthodox nuns, but needs must and so after some minor difficulty we hit the road. Several hours and a panicked search for parking later, we arrived fashionably late and were met by staff from the Museum and Ray, aka Mother Molly as well as the lovely Mark Goldby.
Mark is an artist in residence at the Museum for a showcase entitled Bold, which seeks to re-examine the LGBTQ exhibits in fresh light, not just as historical notations but to look at how queer people encounter them and to record those experiences, with our little meeting as part of the narrative. There was such a juxtaposition between that title, Bold, and Mark himself, whose presence was that of a quiet facilitator, a chronicler of our meeting and a warm, unobtrusive photographer. His gentle presence throughout, guiding but never forceful, was very reassuring for a plucky band of queer drag clown nuns out of their comfort zone.
We sat together nestled on sofas in a quiet corner of an extensive archival room while Niche set up his microphone. Plain brown boxes with neatly scripted explanations of their contents surrounded us.
We spoke of the role of Sisters, the challenges and inequalities within our community and Ray spoke of his own journey and experiences not only within Sisters but as part of Pride as well. The experience was somewhere between meeting long-lost relatives and a really good visit from Corporate, where common ground and shared values were in plentiful supply. As kindred spirits we talked about the need to protect and support our trans and non-binary community as well as queer migrants.
The time came for us to manifest (with a polite but firm request that we not unleash a tsunami of glitter as this was part of the archives). Of course the London Sisters would always be mish faced, that being without makeup or at least no whiteface. This is due to the tradition of Sisters coming to the UK via Australia back in the 80s. Since Bristol and the South West Sisters have a shared lineage from Edinburgh, where whiteface became established as the standard about a decade ago, this was one of the differences we chatted about.
Ray was very complimentary about our flamboyant modern nun garb, also showing his own traditional habit and dress. Another difference between us that actually didn’t divide but sparked curiosity and appreciation. It was easy to feel like amateurs in comparison, though he never once made us feel less than.
At one point I realised Ray was not manifesting alongside us, which I had assumed would have been part of the proceedings. After offering his stunning lace-trimmed scapular to Sister Naomi Shambles, he quietly and neatly packed the remainder of his old habit and carefully wrapped it in a rainbow flag.
Always one to put my foot directly in my fat piehole, i half-joked “it’s like she’s being laid in state”. Ray simply looked at me and the penny dropped. Here was this 84 year old elder nun, without a current group of his peers, who had found kinship and perhaps some Sisters in whom he could have confidence to take up the fight. This was his chance to say goodbye to someone he had been, among a group who could most closely understand what that meant.
He handed out print-outs of Amazing Pride, which we sang as we processed through the back passages (you didn’t think this would be free of double entendres, did you?) and on a short lift journey with a very confused porter, until we reached the main exhibit. There Ray set the vestiges of Mother Molly atop the perspex case where her handbag sat, with (by now) vintage white satin gloves, condoms and information on services perhaps no longer in existence.
A Queer Elder is a rare and stunning creature to behold. Funny how Ray’s handshake when we met immediately reminded me of another retired Sister from Edinburgh, Athletica de la Bain, whom I have known for almost 2 decades, whose vice-like grip on an arm as they deliver a story about people long gone is legendary. The same strength, necessity and yearning for connection, the grip of a survivor. Take Ray as an example, born a few years before WWII, a teenager in the early 50s, a young gay man long before partial decriminalisation, when our kind were not tolerated, were still entrapped by police, chemically castrated, who in middle age watched the queer community he had found be decimated by the great plague, saw beautiful vibrant gay men like him and a generation younger just waste away and disappear. Against the odds this octogenarian has survived and maintained his courage and dignity and sought to enrich the lives of others through his work as a Sister and as a founding member of Croydon Pride.
His story is the antithesis of the corporate Pride narrative we see playing out in big cities. It is the story of individual queer resilience. His tales of lost loves, of catty queeny feuds, community firsts and insights into the heart of who we are should be collated, collected and shared. The exhibit includes some of his badges from activist groups and marches, the old Switchboard badge (of which i have the recreated enamel pin version of on my wall), mementos of a million steps taken as part of his, of our, community. Badges are strong symbols of queerness through time. Bold clever slogans and tribal identities proudly displayed but which could also be unpinned, boxed and hidden away in closets, physical and metaphorical, as an act of personal safety.
How does my story differ, born 40 years later? What will my legacy be? Who will want to hear my tales of lost loves, of names no longer spoken, of delightful sexual romps? I also think of the my two gay great uncles whom i only learned about this year. Men of Ray’s generation or a little older, unconnected other than through my perspective. I am lacking in the knowledge or opportunity to speak of them or to them, but i honour them in my queer heart.
I think of one of my cultural queer elders, Harry Hay and how he spoke of a Brotherhood of Loving Companions, of queer tribe, of belonging and determining our words for ourselves. And i acknowledge the problematic aspects of that elder as I see the words I have uttered in haste and ignorance before, as I hear the words of those younger than me and i have to unroll my eyes from the back of my head. Because we are all just trying to make it through, to reach out and be part of this life and we make mistakes as we go along.
Forgive my digression. The words above are few compared to the emotions, memories and ideas as Mother Molly was laid to rest by the man who created and carried her since 1991 when he joined the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
After a few moments the ennui lifted and we made time for a few portrait shots with Mark (Sisters do so adore having their pictures taken) and to flirt with boys asking for signatures for Extinction Rebellion petitions (with Ray forlornly saying he wouldn’t be around for the changes they hoped to bring about).
Eventually we said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch. Ray handed Sister Sadie his old auxillary back-up handbag and quietly said “this is for you dear” along with a proposition that she might become Mother Sadie. We left with smiles all round, glad to have made the 8 hour round trip, to have met and felt part of our wider Sistory.
We have a tradition in Sisters of exchanging gifts, trinkets, “mindings” as my mother (and i guess I) would call them. Vials of glitter, handbags, badges and brooches, secondhand frocks. It helps us feel like part of us goes with the others, our energy and love is carried away on the tide, honoured by them in the works they do. We are part of a vast network of love and joy, even when we cannot see or feel it.
There has been a poignancy to this experience and that’s ok. Sacred clowning sometimes makes us examine our own fears, in this case fears of losing connections, of difference leading to isolation, of the cost of surviving.
But through the vulnerability of being in that state, empathy is discovered, which is one of the most vital tools for a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence (it’s right up there alongside a rubber chicken). Empathy helps us to keep reaching out, finding each other in an increasingly divisive world. Through empathy we find healing and just past healing sits love, patiently waiting.
May the Great Queer Spirit hold you close and gently.
Sister Aura Fister of the Blessed Rosebud, Summer Solstice 2019