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Some queens take drag beyond the bouffant and the bustier to play a critical role in their communities. Just ask Chad Morrell, who has reached beyond the salon and into the sacristy (well, sort of).
Under the name Chad Fabulous, Morrell owns and operates Grand Finale Salon in Gurnee, Ill., and Black Butterfly Salon, its sister facility in Sacramento, Calif. But the cosmetologist’s true calling comes through in his role as Sister Truly Fierce, abbess and co-founder of the Abbey of the Brew City Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in Milwaukee.
Call it a gay nun order – not affiliated with the Catholic Church, of course – whose members devote their lives to serving the LGBT community. They arrive at events dressed in habits, wimples and, in the case of the Brew City Sisters, the ubiquitous Wisconsin cheeseheads. Their faces are painted white, but with highly decorative touches applied to their makeup and wardrobe.
“We’re more than drag queens in white face paint,” Morrell says. “Our global mission is to expiate stigmatic guilt, and promulgate omni-versal joy. We are nuns of the 21st century who just happen to love glitter and all that sparkles, especially the sparkle of the soul of all whom we meet, bless and touch.”
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence traces its roots back to San Francisco in 1979 as a street performance group that used Catholic imagery to call attention to sexual intolerance and social conflicts. The mission has remained the same over the past 32 years. Most chapters work to raise attention about safe-sex practices and support social causes in their communities.
Morrell’s “nun-ification” came on the heels of his experience as a drag performer in Kansas City, Mo., where he had studied at the Paris II Academy of Cosmetology. Performing as Chantal “The One-Name Sensation,” Morrell found himself increasingly appearing at local HIV/AIDS fundraisers and he started gaining an increased awareness of related issues.
“I realized that it is up to our community to support and strengthen all of us,” Morrell says. “Through social action we can make changes for positive results. My calling to the sisterhood had begun, and I knew there was no sign of stopping.”
In 2000, Morell moved to southeastern Wisconsin/northeastern Illinois and opened his first salon in Gurnee. In 2002, living in Kenosha, he met Carlos Peneranda, aka Sister Rhoda Kill of the Los Angeles abbey, and got his first introduction to the order. In 2007, he became Sister Truly Fierce, the first drag nun in Wisconsin. In 2009, Morrell and several other co-founders began the Brew City Sisters.
The Milwaukee abbey, like the other 35 around the world, operates with a quasi-Catholic doctrine and lifetime commitment, but acts with more decorative flair. Applicants first become Aspirants, an expression of interest in the order, then move on to become Postulants, a category that allows them to wear gray robes and white scapulars. Postulants also may start wearing white makeup on the eyes and cheeks, but not the mouth, because they’re not allowed to speak for the order, Morrell says.
The next step is that of Novice members, who are assigned big sisters, a guard (we’ll get to that in a minute). They’re allowed to choose their nun names. Once the order has been impressed with the Novice’s commitment and character, he is elevated to the status of Fully Professed Member, a process that takes at least a year.
The various orders also have guards, male personas who maintain order, protect the sisters and tend to the logistics of visits and activities. “It’s a combination of holding purses and herding cats,” Morrell explains. “They are our personal superheroes.”
In addition to Morrell, the Brew City Abbey includes cofounder Charles Pratt (Sister Anita-Nuther Cocktail), cofounder Sue Westover (Sister Gimm E Summ), Ron Nelson (Sister Bea Fore-Warned), Julio Villareal (Sister Sexy Angel) and honorary member Jeff Kingsley (Sister Dali Domystique) of the Los Angeles chapter. The roster of guards includes Dave Westover (Guard Faux-Mo), Paul Carbonneau (Guard War Games) and Ursus Torrente (Guard Rex Uranus). The postulants are Brad Reisterer and Steven Turchin and the aspirants are Josh Schumaker and Joel Kretschmer.
Morell says participant ages range from the early 20s to the mid-40s, and there is no gender or race requirement for participation.
The Abbey of the Brew City Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, which became a fully professed order this past May, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing information to at-risk individuals and youth regarding critical health and community issues, according to its founder.
“Through outreach, education, community fund-raising and entertainment, we provide funding and assistance to organizations in need of financial elevation and public acknowledgement throughout the state of Wisconsin,” Morrell says. “We strive to make our state a better, safer and more equal place to live.”
And they also dress like nuns in white face.