A Sister Is a Person You Can Trust

Sister Mary Read SPI, photo: Mikołaj Malczyk

She appears as a letter “W” in a pseudo-documentary film “Inwazja” (Invasion) produced by Telewizja Polska, a Polish state television. We hear: “This person functions in his environment as sister Mary Read, a member of an organization called The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. She is a particularly active proponent of sexual health and societal progress. – Today I distributed a whole basket of condoms, I only have some gels left. – So gels too? What for? – asks the reporter.  – Gels are very important when using a condom. Paweł Ziemba lives and works in Poznań, and this is where we meet, in the Municipal Gallery Arsenał, under the pretext of talking about the Sisters’ activities and HIV prevention in Poland.”1

"Inwazja," TVP 2019

Jacek Zwierzyński: In 2019 the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were celebrating their 40th anniversary, how did it all begin?

Sister Mary Read / Paweł Ziemba: On Holy Saturday in 1979 in San Francisco. The Castro District, abandoned by a large part of white inhabitants, has become a settlement area for hippies, gays and all non-heteronormative persons since the end of the 1960s. In the 1970s it became a centre of the fight for gays’ rights. Probably in 1972 the city welcomed Harvey Milk, who opened a photographic studio in the Castro. Milk was the first gay city councillor in the United Sates, murdered in 1978. His death caused violent riots in the Castro. The Sisters, in fact, went out for the first time, on Holy Saturday, to calm people down. It was a march of four sisters, the fifth joined on the same day. Such were the beginnings. On the 40th anniversary of the order in 2019 we walked in a white procession, taking the same route, to celebrate this event.

Where did nuns’ habits come from?

The history of habits is quite random, the sisters had some old habits, which they borrowed never to return from a monastery in Iowa – under the guise of putting on a play based on The Sound of Music. They used them in drag shows once and decided to put them on this time as well. One of the sisters used to paint her face white before, taking inspiration from the Master of Ceremonies character in the Cabaret movie, which made quite a dramatic impression. Still in 1979, the order accepted new members and the name Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence was adopted.

The sisters started to work for the community, branches in Australia and Great Britain were created. They took up charitable activities, e.g. in 1980 they organized a session of bingo to collect money for LGBT refugees from Cuba. Bingo is a popular game in the US, it is often organized for the retirees in churches. The sister went to one of such churches to organize the event, the order wasn’t known back then and the church agreed. It was the first as well as the last time because it was revealed what type of sister they were, but the amount of money collected was quite big.

Currently, sisters are primarily concerned with activism related to HIV and AIDS and promoting safer sex, but at the moment of the Order’s foundation HIV has not been recognized yet.

When you work for a certain community, and this community starts to die out, you have to change your activity profile. In 1982 people started dying of an unknown disease, and it was later discovered that they were dying of AIDS. After the epidemic outbreak, the sisters were collecting money for the infected persons, organizing protests, fighting with the stigmatization of people living with HIV, publicly exorcising homophobic politicians who demanded, for example, isolation of the sick. They were often taking care of people dying of AIDS who were abandoned by their families. Since that time, sisters have been dealing with AIDS and painting their faces white because white colour can also symbolize death.

The sisters started promoting safer sex very early. In 1982, they published a pamphlet concerning STDs prevention. It was the first such brochure in the world. It didn’t include HIV and AIDS, but it covered Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia, recognized as diseases potentially sexually transmitted – today they are considered diseases indicating AIDS. What is important, guilt was also mentioned among the STDs.

"Play Fair!," a fragment of a pamphlet, 1982

Did they recommend the use of condoms in that brochure? In Poland, until recently, it was not condoms, that was officially recommended as a method of HIV prevention – just not to have sex.

Condoms were recommended, the sisters were distributing them already then. There is a story related to this situation. In 1987 John Paul II was visiting the United States, he visited San Francisco, among other cities. The sisters organized a big protest then, and this was one of the first big protests against our – so to say – pope. The reason was the pope’s visit to Africa two years earlier (where he visited Togo, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Zaire, Kenya and Morocco), where he said that using condoms is a sin, which contributed to AIDS epidemic in Africa. The sisters considered the pope as the chief enemy of HIV prevention.

There is this anecdote, John Paul II stayed at the Mission Dolores during his visit to San Francisco, and the sisters’ residence was literally two blocks away. Before the pope’s arrival someone confused the addresses and the sisters received the pope’s correspondence. Of course, it was clarified later.

When did sisters start to work in Poland?

In 2014, the first sister in Poland was sister Bernadetta, here in Poznań. In 2015 sister Bernadetta was accused of offending the religious feelings. She was in touch with the Berlin’s House, but also directly with sisters in the US. She wrote a short note to them, informing them about her resignation, since she was accused pursuant to Article 196 of the Criminal Code. Sisters in the US were really concerned and translated the Article themselves: “Who offends other person’s religious feelings, by defiling an object of religious adoration or a place of public worship, shall be sentenced to a fine, restriction of personal freedom or imprisonment for up to 2 years,” and concluded that sister Bernadetta went to prison, and this is why she was unreachable. They tried to find her, but to no avail – it’s a pity, I tried a few times to convince her to come back. Melissa Wilcox, a professor in Religious Studies at UC Riverside, involved in researching the sisters’ activity worldwide,2 even came to Poznań. She wanted to talk to sister Bernadetta and find out what was going on, but unfortunately sister couldn’t be convinced. Anyway, probably no one was ever sentenced to prison on the basis of this Article. Fine and restriction of personal freedom – yes, but not prison…

(In 2015, 59 proceedings for offending religious feelings were initiated, 32 criminal offences were recognized.)

Kraków Mission, currently not active, was established later, the sisters in Kraków called themselves “Siostry Nieustającego Pobłażania,” which is closer to the English name: Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Warsaw Mission is still active, there are three novices and one postulant.

What is required to join the Order? It all seems very complicated.

When I attended the 40th anniversary of the order in San Francisco we had a whole week of trainings, one of which was about how to cooperate with postulants and novices. I myself was in touch only with my superior, sister Daphne from Berlin, and I was familiar with only one model of cooperation. In the US they have much more experience, in San Francisco alone there are about 70 active new sisters. It is very hard to become a sister there, before the postulancy there is a candidacy period, which approximately 120 candidates are currently going through. The sisters decided to accept only 2–3 postulants from this group.

During the postulancy, the sisters paint their lips white, which symbolizes the fact that they cannot speak on behalf of the order yet. This period is for them to learn about the history and principles of action. In the US, to be accepted as a novice, you have to pass a knowledge examination. At the beginning of the novitiate, the sisters are given a white veil, thus the expression white veiling. The postulants are not allowed to wear cornets or veils, only common white scarfs.

Then, during the novitiate, you have to prove you can work as a sister. Every sister can choose her path of fulfilment, for example my superior is very good at singing and performing drag. A novice must show initiative and fulfil the task she herself came up with, and these are very different things – it can be an environmental or charitable event. After the novitiate you take vows and receive a black veil during black veiling, but from this moment you can wear a veil of any colour, so many sisters wears black for the first and the last time at this ceremony.

Sister Mary Read SPI, photo: Mikołaj Malczyk

Why do you wear bras on your heads?

Every house in any place in the world can have its own model of cornet, so that you can say where a given sister comes from. The first sisters in San Francisco used bras because they were fascinated with medieval Flemish headdresses with hair pinned up in two scrolls on both sides. The sisters decided they would do that, but since they had no hair, they had to find something else. To obtain a similar shape, the easiest thing was to use bras, which, when stuffed, looked like earmuffs. They do it to this day. Sisters in France have these wings on the sides, in Germany bras, but stiff and pinned up higher. In Poznań, we represent the Berlin’s House Mission, we don’t have our own house in Poland – to create one at least five full sisters are required – and this is why we have the same cornet as German sisters. If we were to open a house in Poland, it would be good to change it and choose a cornet model that could be associated with Poland. For example, I really like the type of hat Stańczyk, a Polish court jester, used to wear. But it probably wouldn’t be widely recognizable as a typical Polish hat. The sisters in the US said that Polish hussars’ wings would be better, as they can be clearly associated with Polishness, but we would have to find out how to put a veil on them. But we still have a lot of time for that.

I remember a discussion under your picture on Facebook: why such appearance, it’s harmful to the community. It’s not time for such silliness and dressing up, it’s time for fighting for our rights, so we have to look neat and normal.

A very harmful thing, often more harmful than homophobia, is homonormativity, deciding how LGBT persons should look and behave, which often does more harm in the community – it’s also a strange expression to me, so maybe: among LGBT persons – than external homophobia. “Let’s look in this way because otherwise no one will accept us.” It is a dead end. Similarly, you can consider drag queens to be some kind of weirdos – in any case, many people think so. But we have to remember that it was drag queens and trans people who started the Stonewall revolution, for example Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans person and a drag queen. And now it turns out that a gay should be only white, normal, neat, and masculine. We lose all of our history in this way. There is, obviously, a difference between a drag queen and a drag nun, I perform as a drug nun. This is a mission for us, we can’t earn money as sisters.

(On another occasion, Paweł said that because he felt uncomfortable having accepted a reward for taking part in a meeting on World AIDS Day, 1.12.2018, in the Arsenał, he used the whole amount to buy condoms to be later distributed to those in need.)

What in fact is the role of your costume? It can’t possibly be considered an expression of your identity.

On one hand, its purpose is to draw attention, on the other – to create some kind of anonymity. Painting my face is like putting on a mask. I’m not performing as I, as a person, as Paweł Ziemba, but as sister Mary Read, I’m in a completely different role. Before I became a sister, I often worked in clubs as an outreach worker. I distributed condoms and talked to people about safer sex. But there were occasions when no one would want to talk to me, I just sat there, it didn’t make any sense. I felt really burnt out and decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. However, when I worked as a sister for the first time – I had my own corner at the after-party of the Equality March in Toruń – it was an entirely different experience. I assumed I would be on duty from 10pm until midnight and that’s it, but I finished around 4am, completely hoarse, people were queuing to talk to me, everyone wanted to talk to a sister. It is, in fact, easier to talk to sister about such issues, it was the same in HAH, a gay club in Poznań. People approached me and talked about their problems voluntarily.

I was surprised by this in the US: at one of the parties I sat somewhere in a corner to relax when I was approached by a girl and a boy who told me they would leave their wallet and documents with me and go have fun. It is known that a sister is a person you can trust.

Sister Mary Read SPI, photo: Mikołaj Malczyk

Are sisters primarily involved in HIV prevention?

Sisters all around the world are trying to be active in locally problematic areas. In Poland, it is mainly prevention, but once someone is in the care of a specialist, the care provided is usually of high quality. But the very availability of testing is already a problem. Consultation and Diagnostic Point (Punkt Konsultacyjno-Diagnostyczny) in Poznań, the only one such place in the whole Greater Poland Voivodeship, is open only three days a week from 4pm to 8pm, and only four consultants work there. There are no funds for quick tests in clubs. And we must remember that, according to various estimates, in Poland up to 50% of the infected might not know about it. On the one hand, of course, there is a higher risk of HIV infection among men who have sex with men, but on the other hand – the majority of people diagnosed at late stage is heterosexual. It is possible that they make up the majority of people not aware of their infection. HIV tests should be recommended by a prenatal care provider. But it is often the other way around – I’ve heard about a case of a pregnant woman asking for HIV test being told by her doctor: “you don’t seem to be one of those.” This is why Poland is the only country in the European Union where children with HIV are born.

Another problem is the fact that among people aware of their infection only about 60% is in the anti-retroviral therapy, which is a fundamental method of prevention of the new infections. I haven’t heard of a single case in the world of HIV transmission to a sexual partner by a person with an undetectable viral load. Undetectable = Untransmittable.

So, paradoxically, only with an HIV-infected person who is in an effective therapy you can be absolutely sure of not getting infected with HIV, because every healthy person is potentially sick.

There is also PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), which provides a very high efficiency of protection, up to 97%. As a sister, I try to encourage the use of PrEP by distributing vouchers of PrEP Centre in Poznań (Poznańskie Centrum PrEP), with which I cooperate. This is often the case that PrEP is taken primarily by people who take care of their health anyway, who have check-ups, etc., and this is an additional form of protection for them. It is especially visible in Warsaw, where taking PrEP is kind of an extravagance for rich people, particularly as a part of them do not have active sex lives. Of course there is nothing wrong with that. However, it is a problem, no matter the location, that people who actually should take PrEP, do not take it for various reasons. As a sister, I strive to reach out to these people, but unfortunately, with our current government, it is practically impossible for PrEP to be refundable, even though such solution is common in many counties for purely economic reasons.

But anyway, protection through therapy is fundamental. The UNAIDS organization (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS) developed a 90-90-90 Programme, according to which if 90% of people in the world know about their infection, 90% of them are in therapy, and 90% of those in therapy reach an undetectable viral load, the epidemic will disappear on its own, regardless of all other activities. This goal was expected to be reached by 2020, but unfortunately, the statistics for Poland look completely different. Within the Fast Track Cities network – because big cities and their governments are considered the most important in the area of HIV prevention – this goal was successfully reached already in a few cities in the world, for example in London and Amsterdam, tens of other cities joined the initiative, but in Poland only Warsaw came forward to cooperate. No one from the Health Department of the City Hall of Poznań has indicated their interest in the subject so far.



1 A publicly-founded, dramatised pseudo-documentary Invasion depicts Polish LGBT organisations as foreign-financed and a threat to Polish identity and sovereignty. The quote has been modified with a subversive intent, while the film itself is sensationalist and blatantly homophobic: (in Polish only; 26.01.2020).

2 A book by Melissa M. Wilcox Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody was published by New York University Press in 2018.


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