Church holds memorial mass for 40th anniversary of Up Stairs Lounge fire

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wwltv.com

Posted on June 23, 2013 at 7:34 AM

Updated Sunday, Jun 23 at 7:41 AM

Jaclyn Kelley / Eyewitness News
Email: jkelley@wwltv.com | Twitter: @jkelleyWWL

NEW ORLEANS -- It has been dubbed the 'Stonewall of New Orleans'. 40 years ago an arson attack at Up Stairs Lounge in the French Quarter claimed the lives of 32 people. It is considered deadliest mass murder of gays in U.S. history.

Monday will mark 40 years since someone set fire to the stairwell leading to the Up Stairs Lounge, which trapped and killed 32 people inside the club at the time. 

"To see such a horrific act of violence and an unexpected death happen within the life of the city and for it not to change us, I think, was very upsetting to the gay and lesbian community of New Orleans," said Father Richard Easterling of St. George's Episcopal Church. 

St. George's Episcopal Church in Uptown was the first church to hold a memorial mass for the victims of the fire. At the time, it was a controversial move that lead to the censure of then priest William Richardson.
 
"I think in a lot of ways, him sticking his neck out and doing the thing that was right for these folks helped in a small way to push new Orleans a little bit forward," said Father Easterling. 
 
"At the time the laws and the culture was such that gay people were really hidden," said Mark Vaughn the vice moderator for Metropolitan Community Church of New Orleans. "So much so that a lot of the parents and families did not even want to claim some of the victims in the fire."
 
Saturday the church once again opened its doors to remember the victims in honor of the 40th anniversary. Those in attendance called the memorial mass a symbol of how far society has come in accepting the gay community.
  
"There are still people who will be prejudice about something, they always looking for something, but I think it has been a big help," said St. George's parishioner Claudia Braud.
  
The message of the service was one of acceptance and inclusion. It is a milestone for the gay community, who says this tragedy helped lessen the divide between them and the church. 
 
"I think that the whole country and actually around the world people are beginning to understand that because you are gay does not mean you are not Christian," said Vaughn.
 
Monday, June 24, New Orleans Pride will hold its own memorial service to remember the victims who died in the 1973 arson attack. City leaders, along with witnesses and family members of the victims, will speak at the ceremony. The memorial will be held from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Chartres Street and Iberville in front of the vacant and still visibly damaged Up Stairs Lounge.

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