Mother Inferior – Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

(Alter ego of Fabian LoSchiavo)

Mother Inferior of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

Mother Inferior of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence began in San Francisco in 1979 as a small group of gay men who protested against and drew attention to social problems (such as prejudice against gay people) by wearing nuns’ habits when protesting. In the 80s the order spread around the world and was enthusiastically taken up in Sydney, where the Sisters achieved significant media coverage through their humorous and highly entertaining presentations – which included singing satirical lyrics in Gregorian chant. Mother Inferior (his full title is The Most Wholly Irrelevant Mother Inferior) was an influential founding member of the order whose Sisterly contributions included sewing costumes, making props, writing songs and spiritedly playing her piano accordion in their performances.
What were you doing in the 1980s (your job/where you were living, etc)?
My job was as an archivist in government archives. I had completed my Diploma in Archives Admin in 1980 and started work in 1981.
What are your strongest impressions of the 1980s?
My strongest impression of the 1980s were of a time of big changes in my life, away from feeling vaguely guilty about being gay or apologetic at the least to a stance of being quite assertive and ‘out’. These were the years when I was on the Anglican Diocese of Sydney’s Synod, and being radicalised by the homophobia I saw there, and the moving away from being a well-behaved discreet homosexual to a public homosexual.

There was AngGays, the Anglican gay group, and then the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and the Gay Liberation Choir, and the Mardi Gras ….. all combining to push me away from invisibility.

Also the experience of being bashed up by homophobic thugs …. but matched to the extraordinary experience of being the focus of an ‘Encounters’ programme (like ‘Compass’ – ABC-TV religion dept) in 1985 .… And the focus if the ‘Monsignor Porcamadonna’ affair when Don Dunstan resigned after a book launch I attended ‘in persona’ – which was even reported in the European media.

Getting arrested for demonstrating against the visit of Pope John Paul II. Going to court and getting convicted. And the beginning of the Safe Sex teaching which the Sisters initiated in Sydney.

The 90s and after have been sleepy times indeed after all this 80s stuff!

*Video:mother inferior

Duration: 5 minutes
A longer video is available below.

What historical event of the 1980s has most resonance for you? Why?
Ordination of women in the Anglican Church and the first women bishops (it said so much about the Church moving towards inclusion and the future it would hold for the inclusion of gay people. And the decriminalisation and anti-discrimination legislation affecting gay people in 1985. The fall of the Iron Curtain. Lockerbie bombing and shooting down of KAL by Russians.

What was an event/party/pub session/nightclub of the 80s that stands out?
The rally against Jerry Falwell at Top Ryde in 1983.

Any memories (fond or foul) of what you were wearing in the 1980s?
Putting on the habit for the first time in public…that was THE clothing of the 80s for me!

What music/movies/TV engaged you in the 1980s and now?
E M Forster’s gay novel, ‘Maurice’, which he wouldn’t allow to be published until after his death. It was an early gay novel with a happy ending, and the film version was excellent!!! There was also a book, ‘The youngest director’, which was an 80s British book …. a coming out story with a HAPPY ending.

Fabian Lo Schiavo

Fabian Lo Schiavo

What were you listening to – and was it on a Walkman?
When not listening to myself singing in the parish choir, I was listening to gregorian chant and byzantine chant and bagpipes and country folk and ethnic. I was learning belly dance for three years in the 80s.

What did you do for entertainment/leisure then and now? (Did it include computer games or the Rubik’s Cube?)
I did a hell of a lot of sewing: banner, flags and habits.

What do you think are the main differences between the 80s and how the world and/or your life is today?
Now I don’t care to go out a lot…. I like to stay at home, sewing, reading, listening to music, watching TV. I will go to rallies and even go on my own to make a political statement…. like walking the whole length of Oxford Street and Elizabeth Street from Taylors Sq. to the Rocks at afternoon peak hour in my habit as Mother Inferior with a big sign ‘ANNOYING’ because the government was going to pass laws making it illegal to ‘annoy’ pilgrims to the World Youth Day…. that made me sooooo angry. I thought, ‘I can’t let THIS pass’. Otherwise I have a very quiet, anonymous, peaceful life now…. not like the 80s.

What was a prized object you owned then (and do you still have it)?
The pink triangle flag I was carrying when I was arrested at Sydney Uni for telling the Pope: ‘Anti woman, anti gay, fascist Pope go away’. It’s ripped, but the police gave it back to me in the court room.

In the following video, Mother Inferior and Fabian LoSchiavo reminisce the 1980s
(This is an extended version of the video above.)

*Video:mother inferior

Duration: 13 minutes 24 seconds

What event (personal or public) in the 1980s would you either revisit or undo if you could?
The first live safe sex demonstration at Ken’s Karate Klub at Kensington in 1985…. that was great fun for old Mother Inferior. Although the habit was hot inside the sauna, I felt very satisfied with my presentation and commentary (I don’t know about the two poor ‘performers’!!). I could revisit it with pleasure. I would like to undo some of the media coverage around the ‘Monsignor Porcamadonna’ affair, but I suppose even that had some good outcomes. It certainly put our poor parish on the map!! (whether they liked it or not). And it made sure the book ‘Being Different’ (an anthology of Australian gay men’s stories) was widely publicised and sold out its first edition!

My 1980s were a time of big change…. I think I had had enough of trying to convince the Diocese to be kinder to gays…. life was short enough, especially with people dropping dead from AIDS…. I would have liked to continue to irritate them (the homophobes in the churches) but.… well…. there is more to life!



9 Responses to “Mother Inferior – Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence”
  1. Marco Lo Schiavo says:

    This man is a lunatic. I doubt that he could even cook a proper meatball. His piano accordion is off-key, off-putting and just off. He should be allowed to sit quietly in a small darkened room to eat dry biscuits and read holy cards. The poor public, his public, are tired of hearing how hot it is inside that habit. What about the other poor nuns who wore it for so long without complaining. At least he can wear his shorts underneath. Or nothing. The lady nuns had to wear elaborate underfrocks with whalebone and devices for doing cruelty to their pupils. They had good reason to complain. I have been waiting for over three years for him to paint his own boat, while he makes frocks for his other relatives and a new habit for his niece. He doesn’t need a cardboard sign to carry through the streets, he IS ANNOYING. And he doesn’t answer his phone in the mornings, making his siblings believe that he may haver died in his sleep again. ANNOYING

  2. Ali Gordon says:

    Absolutely love the get-up. I hope Sunday goes well and am very sorry to miss it!
    Good luck!

  3. The Prof says:

    Mother Inferior, or Sister Venus De Lilo as I recall her, is a great human being. A friend to all who know her, a great role model for those unsure of their sexual identity and a great supporter of all manner of causes from safe sex education to indigenous rights. As well, she is an energetic archivist who fights against all that is pompous and fake.

  4. jeannie shephard says:

    oh the absoulate joy i have right now! i have found a very dear friend of mine how ican reminencse of me and fabian teaching sunday school way back in the 90′s. keep up the good work my friend and our fathers blessings be upon you.

  5. Joseph says:

    Fabulous, Fabian. Really captures the humour of the time.

  6. MMMSD says:

    I agree entirely with Marco Lo Schiavo: This man is a menace to society and we must thank the authorities for putting a stop to him. The incessant whining from MI about how hot it was under his habit! Please, if MI is anything under that habit, it certainly isn’t “hot”.

    Seriously, looking back on the SPI from my vantage here in my mid 40s, I realise we did fine things. I think we were the right people doing the right thing for the times.

    I was allowed to join the SPI at 15yo: This was highly controversial inside the Order. I was a precocious boy from a suburb demonised and condemned throughout Australia in the 1980s. But, the Sisters took seriously the concept of inclusion and acceptance. In a gay culture that treated young men as objects without integral value, where class ruled – a ghetto mentality reacting to societal rejection of gays – where “Westies” were marginalised, the SPI took me in and took my future seriously (although I didn’t).

    They guided me, mentored me, and were the most influential people in my young life. They made me (I have to blame someone!). Above all, they were genuine and demonstrative in their message: “The expiation of stigmatic guilt, and the promulgation of universal joy, through habitual perpetration and public manifestation”. I live with these values to this day.

    You did a great thing Fabian.

    The Ambivalently Vacillating Mother Maria Mouth Saint Druitt.

  7. MMMSD says:

    And BTW: his full title (and as gay male nuns we are referred to as “he” not “she”)…
    The Most Wholly Irrelevant Mother Inferior.

    Says it all really.

  8. irmah says:

    Many thanks for your comment – this was great to hear. I first witnessed SSI directly in the mid 80s when I was Publicist of the Sydney Film Festival. We were screening a film by Jean-Luc Godard called ‘Hail Mary’. There were protests against our screening of the film (we received death threats by phone and by mail) by people – none of whom, to my knowledge, had seen the film (most were outspoken in their refusal to see the film but similarly voluble in speaking against a film they had not seen). There were also violent protests outside the State Cinema where we were to screen the film; a friend of mine had her shirt ripped and her glasses knocked off her head. In support of the screening of the film to those who chose to see it were the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. They were singing, led by the marvellous accordion playing of Mother Inferior. I found them thrilling – am so impressed by those who have the ability to make a political/social statement using humour and art, music and theatricality. I only got to meet Mother Inferior – Fabian Lo Schiavo – through working on this project, and am grateful to have had that opportunity. I can imagine how much the SSI did for you, and am glad you had their support and guidance as a young man.

  9. irmah says:

    Thanks for letting me know – I’ve included the full title now (didn’t know that), and changed ‘she’ to ‘he’. Cheers.


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