EDITOR'S NOTE: Following this week's cover story about the 1973 fire at the Up Stairs Lounge, Father Richard Easterling of St. George's Episcopal Church contacted Gambit and asked if he could write an essay with further details about the church's role in the aftermath of the fire. That essay is below.
St. George's will say a memorial Mass marking the 40th anniversary of the fire on Sat., June 22 at 2 p.m.
Forty years ago this month, a flame was kindled in the stairwell of the Upstairs Lounge on Chartres Street. Emergency services were summoned and, on arrival, found themselves witnesses to a horrifying scene of chaos, fire, and mortality. Some patrons, through heroic intervention, managed to escape with their lives but by the time the fire was quelled 29 were overcome and three more lay dying in what has since been described as the worst mass murder of gays in the history of this nation.
It was with this news that the rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church was awoken by telephone at 3 a.m. that Monday morning.
Father Bill Richardson was no stranger to this community and his personal notes confirm his intention of making St. George’s a more welcoming place of worship for the gay community of New Orleans. For some time, the Metropolitan Community Church had used St. George’s chapel for their regular services and Bill had come to know the MCC Pastor, Bill Larsen, and his assistant, Duane Mitchell, whom he counted as friends. Both Larsen and Mitchell were victims of the fire as were a number of their parishioners. Though the congregation had since relocated, Fr. Bill reached out to the survivors and offered them use of St. George’s Church as a fitting spot for a memorial.
If you ask folks around here today what they remember about Fr. Richardson, the first thing is usually that he was a little man, never more than five and a half feet tall. But what they also recall is a feisty, unyielding stubbornness of temperament, especially in matters related to the Gospel of Christ and the Church’s mission to the world. His offer of hospitality and consolation led to a memorial service (the first to treat the victims and survivors of the fire) which was held at St. George’s the next day with some eighty people in attendance. Within hours Bill was censured by the Rt. Rev. Iveson Noland, the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, who himself received scores of telephone calls disparaging Bill, St. George’s, and the entire Episcopal Church. Bill described the fallout in these words:
Bishop Iveson B. Noland, who was later killed in a plane crash in New York, phoned me early the next morning. He said, "Bill, this is the Bishop. Have you read the morning paper?" I said, "Yes, Bishop, I have." "Is it true that the service was at St. George's Episcopal Church?" "Yes, Bishop, it was." "Why didn't they have it in their own church?" he asked. I replied, "For the simple reason their own small church holds about 18 persons. Without any publicity we had over 80 present." "What am I to say when people call my office?" I replied, "You can say anything you wish, Bishop, but do you think Jesus would have kept these people out of His church?" I heard later the Bishop had a hundred calls, and I got hate calls and letters. Only one member of our vestry supported me. Later, I was stopped on the street by many persons thanking me for doing such a Christian thing.
As we approach the 40th anniversary of these things, I cannot help but marvel at how very far we’ve come. Nationally, folks often look to Stonewall as the beginning of the gay liberation movement, but I would offer, as I have heard in the past, that with fire comes change. I believe that this event, this fire and its aftermath have shaped us, and this city, and this Church. We bear its indelible scars and amid its soot and ashes we find new growth.
While we at St. George’s will observe this solemn occasion with a Requiem Mass for those who perished, such a bitter anniversary is also cause for thanksgiving for the priest whose courage and strength of convictions challenged us to become the Church we are today. May Christ grant us all such virtue to declare his Gospel in our own generation.