40 years later, archdiocese offers condolences to fire victims

Forty years after a horrific fire at the Upstairs Lounge killed 32 people, most of them gay men, the Archdiocese of New Orleans issued an apology for not expressing condolences to the victims previously.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond said Monday that in response to an inquiry made by Time, he was unable to locate any public statement or offer of assistance made by the archdiocese to victims of the fire.

“In retrospect, if we did not release a statement, we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families. The church does not condone violence and if we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize,” Aymond wrote in an email to Time.

The lack of a contemporaneous public outcry about the fire — the deadliest blaze in New Orleans’ history, which appeared to be the work of an arsonist — is viewed by many as evidence of the pervasive homophobia that gripped New Orleans at the time.

Neither then-Mayor Moon Landrieu or Gov. Edwin Edwards issued statements about the fire.

When the Rev. William P. Richardson, of St. George’s Episcopal Church, held a prayer service for the victims, he received a spate of hate mail.

Aymond acknowledged a public memorial by the archdiocese might have provoked a similar response.

He said while the Catholic Church’s official position on homosexuality, that sex is a privilege to be enjoyed only by married, heterosexual couples, hasn’t changed over time, he would undoubtedly issue condolences, both publicly and privately, if such an event occurred today.

“When people die in such a tragedy, the reason for the death or the circumstance of the death are far less important than the extension of spiritual support and condolences,” Aymond said.

Whether the archdiocese responded at the time, and to what degree, is a matter of debate among those who have studied the fire.

While some have claimed the Catholic Church outwardly refused to assist the victims, others have characterized their reaction as simple indifference.

Royd Anderson, a historian and documentary filmmaker who recently released his film, “The Upstairs Lounge Fire,” said he found no evidence of any consoling comments made by then-Archbishop Philip Hannan.

Nor did he find any evidence of the church refusing assistance to the victims.

“I didn’t find anything, but who knows, he might have said something at a Mass,” Anderson said, adding the apology was an important step in creating more public awareness around the tragedy.

On Monday, close to 200 mourners weaved through the French Quarter as part of a jazz funeral memorializing the victims of the fire.

Flocks of tourists snapped photos of the procession, which included a hearse, a trolley, and a trio of mourners with white-painted faces dressed in drag.

The funeral, which concluded at Chartres and Iberville streets, the former site of the Upstairs Lounge, where a small plaque with the victims’ names adorns the sidewalk, was capped by a public blessing by Rev. Bill Terry, of St. Anna’s Episcopal Church.

“Forty years later, we stand out of the closet and into the streets to say, ‘We love you,’ ” Terry said.

Wayne Self, a composer, whose musical “Upstairs” was premiering later that evening at Cafe Istanbul, shed tears as the names of the deceased were read aloud.

“It feels like we’ve finally made it to the finish line,” Self said, adding he’d received an outpouring of support from the local community.

Self called the apology from the archdiocese “truly meaningful” and said he believed the church’s indifference was an unfortunate product of the mores of the time.

“Sometimes it takes our big religious institutions, which we love, a long time to apologize,” Self said, adding, “It took 40 years, but that’s not bad. It took Galileo over 100.”