Vale Fabian John LoSchiavo: a gentle satirist for queer acceptance

June 1, 2023
Left: Fabian LoSchiavo (left) with Jack Mundey; Bottom: Fabian (left) and Lex Watson at the Gay Rights Embassy in Woollahra in 1983. Photos: State Library NSW and SEARCH Foundation; Murray Addison

Malabar and Salina, the Eora and Dharawal lands and the world are much less interesting places after the unexpected death of Fabian LoSchiavo on May 11 at his home by the sea. Fabian, and his various Christian personas, became a very widely loved national treasure through his multiple contributions to queer culture and so many communities.

Fabian was born in 1949 and grew up in Eastwood, in a family of Irish and southern Italian heritage, near the Catholic church of St Anthony and the Vincentian fathers and the Daughters of Charity at Marsfield. He went to Catholic schools in Eastwood and Bathurst.

He had a vocation and spent a year with the Vincentians in Campbelltown after leaving school, then another two in the Vincentian novitiate in Perth. He then wanted to join an Order of Canons Regular, the Premonstratensians and went to seminary in St Norbert’s Abbey in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In addition to theology, Fabian studied Latin, classical Greek, Hebrew, Italian and French.

Facing contradictions about his sexuality and horrified by post Second Vatican Council modernisations in the abbey, he left and looked for alternatives in the US, coming back to Australia to live with his sister Victoria and Michael Keighery in Newtown in 1972.

Fabian went into Caritas in Darlinghurst for mental health interventions, and to Dr Neil McConachy for aversion therapy, which failed to "cure" his homosexuality.

He went to study at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), focusing on archives, and started to get involved in gay groups in 1973. He remained religious, and joined the Anglican Church — not the mainstream ultra-protestant Sydney Diocese, but a progressive congregation in the Anglo-Catholic tradition in Stanmore.

Fabian worked casually in gay bars in Kings Cross and put personal ads in the then-radical and queer-friendly Nation Review. His advert saying “Quaerite et invenietis” — “Seek and ye shall find” — attracted interest from gay men who shared his fascination with traditional religious vestments.

After graduating from UNSW, Fabian worked for many decades with the NSW State Archives until his retirement in 2012, when they relocated from The Rocks to Kingswood. Fabian was active in the Public Service Association, in family history and performed satirically as an archivist for state government celebrations.

In the mid-1970s, Fabian was a live-in caretaker at the Inner City Education Centre in Stanmore, a radical professional development centre associated with the NSW Teachers’ Federation. He later moved to an apartment nearby in Stanmore. He had become involved in St Luke’s Enmore, and he stayed active in that parish until his death.

Fabian was extremely socially and politically conservative in the early 1970s, but later became involved in the gay community and activism. By 1978, he was sewing flags and banners for protests and conferences. He came to the morning march on June 24, 1978, with a sign saying “Gay, Free and C of E”.

After the Mardi Gras arrests, he became active in the Gay Solidarity Group. Not long after, Fabian established AngGays with Prue Borthwick and others — the fourth lesbian and gay religious group in Sydney (after Acceptance, Metropolitan Community Church and Chutzpah).

After the first Mardi Gras in 1978, confrontational lesbian, gay and trans activism accelerated.

Fabian not only had a complex vocation as a monk/nun, but he was also a creative and satirical performer. In 1981, he helped found the Gay Liberation Quire and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (as Sr Mary Volupta, later as Mother Inferior, or Mother Abyss) and later he was a vocalist with the country gospel band, Eve and the Forbidden Fruits.

Fabian’s public religious personas multiplied. Mother had avatars including: Monsignor Porcamadonna, the Papal Nuncio to Sydney’s gay and lesbian community, playing “Volare” on accordion, the Pentecostal Rev Oral Riches (or Richards, in honour of American Oral Roberts, the main proponent of the Prosperity Gospel), Greek Orthodox Patriarch Sfichtokolos, Dean Sheraton Hilton, (a Sydney Anglican Diocese Festival of Light and real estate maven) and Father Terence Patrick Francis Zavier O’Flynn, a one-armed Catholic priest from Nyngan, fond of gambling and alcohol).

All were anarchic and satirical — cultural weapons in the struggle against heterosexism, hypocrisy, sexism, racism, war and capitalism.

Fabian was tireless in performing, not just for gay men and lesbians, but also for peace, international solidarity, left and union events and for sex workers, drug users and archivists.

Mother Inferior led many notorious politico-cultural interventions by the Sisters. He would come to Preterm and other abortion clinics to chat up (and scare away) the Catholic brothers trying to stop women accessing services.

Gay Solidarity and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence organised a demonstration of 400 at Ryde Civic Centre outside a prayer rally by American Moral Majority leader, Jerry Falwell, aborting his plans to expand to Australia in 1983.

Monsignor Porcamadonna and Mother officiated at exorcisms, raffles and dog shows at the three-week Gay Rights Embassy outside Premier Neville Wran’s home in Woollahra in 1983.

Outside the election launch of Jim Cameron, an upper house candidate for Fred Nile’s Call to Australia in 1984, Rev Oral Riches led a Pentecostal Revival meeting at Willoughby, with the gift or tongues and three evangelical Blood Hymns.

A ferry ride to Manly inspired the Sisters to begin “Animal Gaol” walks at Taronga and, in 1990, Mother Inferior, with Cardinal Robert French, began history walks in inner Sydney.

For Mardi Gras one year, Mother Inferior ran a tour of the Malabar sewerage works, a “fire temple” visible across the water from Mother’s convent at Malabar.

He wrote special hymns about treating sewerage, without ever using any direct words.

Fabian would often write and produce on an old typewriter, new witty lyrics to hymn songs, and would lead the congregation singing with his accordion, for example, the ever-popular versions of the Lourdes Hymn, “Ave Mardi Gras”.

Led by Mother Inferior, half a dozen gay male nuns narrowly escaped death outside the Sydney Film Festival in 1985. The Sisters were protesting the film by Jean-Luc Godard, Hail Mary, for the blasphemous portrayal of the Blessed Virgin as a Swiss heterosexual petrol pump attendant.

As the nuns chanted “The Queen of Heaven Don’t Pump Gas!”, 4000 Lebanese Phalangists arrived, violently threatening the nuns, the film festival and the arrival of Gough and Margaret Whitlam.

The petition demanding that all censorship powers be handed over to the Sisters as the only reliable guardians of public morals went unanswered.

Relations with police were not always warm. During the visit of conservative Pope John Paul II in 1986, the Sisters turned out for several motorcades, the Pope sometimes assuming from afar they were Eastern Rite priests. Mother Inferior, Sister Mary and Mary Quite Contrary were arrested at the University of Sydney for the slogan: “Anti-Woman, Anti-Gay, Fascist Pope Go Away!”

On the evening, in 1986, when Darlinghurst Police vacated the station where the first Mardi Gras arrestees in June 1978 had been held, and sometimes beaten, the Sisters held a ceremony at the front door with a pig’s head on a silver platter, reminiscent of Salome and John the Baptist. This was not Fabian’s usual style.

In 1989, the Sisters carried a vast papier mache head of Fred Nile on a platter in the Mardi Gras parade and later helped mobilise thousands to welcome Nile’s “Cleansing March” on Oxford Street.

Written by Phil Stevenson, the anthem “Thank You Lord for Gay Liberation” was transformed by the ecstatic preaching of Rev Oral, testifying to the “Four Square Gospel of Socialism, Feminism, Gay Liberation and Ethnic Pride”. Rev Oral with his hand in the air, like former PM Scott Morrison, would end the song with shouts of “I am Coming, Lord, I am Coming!”

Mother Inferior pioneered the Sisters providing pastoral care within and beyond the lesbian and gay communities, with multi-faith ceremonies for naming children, relationship and house blessings and memorial services.

In 1983, at the start of the AIDS crisis in Sydney, Sr Third Secret brought a small safe-sex publication from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco, which was one of the first AIDS prevention materials distributed in Australia.

Mother Inferior and the Sisters continued to play a role in safe sex education, for gay men, drug users and sex workers. Mother always used decent language, talking only of “relations” not sex, and “organs” and “feeling comfortable with one another”, as he had been with Sr Missionary Position, Sr Boom Boom, Sr Vicious Power Hungry Bitch, Sr Florence Nightmare, Sr Freeda Peoples, Sr Kay Sera, and Sadie Sadie the Rabbi Lady, when Mother visited the San Francisco Mother House.

At the 10th anniversary celebration of the foundation of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in 1991, the Order suffered a schism, with Mother refusing to go to the monthly collective decision-making nuncheons.

One group thoroughly horrified Fabian: the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Reform Movement. They implemented the Second Vatican Council reforms and adopted vestigial veils, mission brown pleated skirts, beige blouses and cream cardigans, abjuring all-natural fabrics.

Another group, the Big Sisters of Universal Joy, wearing white Cistercian habits, were more pagan and focused on pastoral care in response to the AIDS crisis.

Fabian paraded in Mardi Gras almost every year, in various comedic guises, usually clerical, and contributed to a range of gay groups, such as Enola Gay anti-nuclear group, GayWaves radio and Inside Out prisoners support network with Kendall Lovett.

In 1985, Encounters, an ABC religion department TV program featured Fabian’s life story and the contradictions of being a homosexual Christian.

Fabian moved to Malabar after the death of his aunt in the mid-1980s and started to transform the rooms, garden, sheds, attic and catacombs into a somewhat unascetic multi-faith chapel, museum and library, with surrounding fishponds, fruit trees and shrines.

Fabian went through a process with the Catholic Church to get restitution for the sexual abuse he faced while young, by priests.

Fabian visited his ancestral home in Salina, near Sicily, in the late 1980s, making friends in that community and, two decades ago, he began a legal case to ensure his part of the family could still access the houses in the harbour of Santa Marina.

During several visits to Rome, apart from seeking out incorrupt relics of saints hidden in obscure parts of basilicas and churches, Fabian played accordion for socialist events, and became a member of the far-left Partito della Rifundazione Comunista. He also travelled to Malaysia and Vietnam.

Mother Inferior became a member of the Socialist Alliance after its foundation in 2001, and was active for a time in environmental campaigns in the Randwick local council area.

After retiring, engaged with his local community in Malabar, Fabian stayed active in deploying his religious personas for politics, satire, humour and pastoral duties. He always went to mass at his church, St Luke’s in Enmore, for many years teaching Sunday school.

He began to teach ethics in primary schools, assisted in a Kletzmer band with Alex Kaufmann, and he kept sewing and riding his bike. He had a small boat he would take out in Long Bay. In recent years, he had reversed his aversion to dogs, and became a very loving dog minder, companion and walker.

Through international Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence connections, Fabian made friends with a bishop of the Holy Celtic Church, based in Switzerland, and took ordination as a priest in Apostolic Succession (via the Old Catholic Church in Netherlands), as Rev Dom Fabian.

So, he achieved his two vocations, as an abbess and as a priest.

Fabian was always close to his family and, in recent years, his sisters and brothers and their children.

His bravery, creativity, warm-heartedness and sense of humour will be long celebrated. His contributions to queer culture and liberation, and to global social justice, are immense. He has helped create and enliven our communities in Sydney and beyond. His gentle satirical presence and performances have played a vast role in winning queer dignity, acceptance, equality and freedom.

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