Get to know the not so Bad Habits of Vancouver's Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

When life's a drag, who doesn't want some joy from some fun-loving nuns? Well, in the past, unfortunately, not everybody did. But these Sisters are doing it for themselves and everyone else.

A group of gay men launched the first Order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco over 30 years ago with the intent of using their theatrical, entertaining sense of humour to spread joy to all of humanity. Whee! But don't write them off as fluffy. Their silly side fronts a devotion to serious causes, including human rights and health issues.

There are now over 30 Orders and Missions around the world, in countries as varied as Australia, Colombia, France, Germany, Scotland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay.

Canada's first chapter was launched in Toronto in 1981 but folded in 1986.

However, the Sisters made a Canadian comeback when Sisters Merry Q. Contrary and Ethica Slüt started the Abbey of the Long Cedar Canoe here in little ol' Vancouver in 2010.

Sister Merry told the Straight by phone that their flamboyant appearance in actuality helps people to see something else beyond the surface.

"One of the things that I thought the Sisters could bring to Vancouver was an ability to make it more okay to be different," she said. "We don't always treat our people who are different very well…. We look very different—whiteface, dimples, and veils—so it gives people an opportunity to see someone who looks different or as some people say, 'look like a freak' but are doing really good charitable work."

Vancouver's chapter is focussing on HIV/AIDS, conducting outreach to LGBT communities (with a focus on safe sex), and homelessness (including handing out sleeping bags on the Downtown Eastside).

Director Kevin O'Keefe captured the sisterhood's reestablishment in Canada in his documentary Bad Habits: The Return of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

"It explores the tension between traditional religious orders and the Sisters and whether or not the Sisters are really nuns," Sister Merry said. "It even has a Catholic nun saying, 'In my view, these Sisters are nuns.' "

The film will have its Vancouver premiere at the Junction (1138 Davie Street) tonight (March 29) at 7 p.m. In line with the Sisters' dedication to social causes, fundraiser for the volunteer-driven A Loving Spoonful (which provides free meals to people with HIV/AIDS).

(You can also make it a full night out devoted to supporting important causes by participating in Dining Out for Life, which is also held in Vancouver today, before the screening.)

While the film documents the work that they're doing and the glorious fun they're having, it also provides history of the Sisters and the controversies and opposition the sisterhood faced in Canada from religious critics who perceived them as blasphemous and didn't find them a laughing matter.

"My sense in Toronto, they were a little ahead of their time," Sister Merry said. "And they at one point asked the community for permission to exist. And the community said, 'Well, you can, but are people seeing the right thing when they see you?' And our approach has been to say, 'We're here, how do we best serve you as a community?' "

Sister Merry's biggest hope is that people come out to their event and get to know more about the breadth of work that they do.

"Most people, especially in the gay, lesbian, bi, and trans communities know us as street performance, and bar ministry, and distributing condoms…but we also support other communities groups through grants and fundraising," she said. "And the Sisters have long been fairly outspoken advocates for people that the rest of our society tends to leave behind. And so a lot of the work that we're doing now is around transgender issues because gender seems to be the next issue in our society to wrestle with."

Here's a video featuring Sister Merry talking about Vancouver's Sisters (supporting AIDS Vancouver's Red Ribbon Month in 2010) and providing more insight about them.

You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig. You can also follow the Straight's LGBT coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/StraightLGBT.

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