The Upstairs Lounge Fire


Richardson Recalls Memorial Service Backlash

To the Editor:

Thank you for the spring 1991 issue.  It is excellent.

I have a some additional information for you concerning your article, “Closeted Gay Bishop Dies of AIDS.” In 1971 I attended a summer seminar at General Theological Seminary on “Homosexuality, Women’s Liberation and Communal Living.” I returned home to St. George’s Church in New Orleans where I was rector, determined to do all in my power to support lesbians and gay men.

The local Metropolitan Community Church met in our chapel for some months. Then they found their own small church. From time to time I attended their afternoon service, and I came to know their minister, Rev. Bill Larsen, quite well. He often came to see me regarding their scrambled liturgy and what to do about it.

The night of June 24, 1971 some 30 or more members of the MCC group and friends were at an upstairs bar.  A man who was drunk fire-bombed the stairs.  The windows had iron bars over them.  As a result, nearly all those there were burned to death. My phone rang at 3 a.m. telling me of this. I was grieve greatly, for included among those who burned to death was Bill Larsen, my friend.

The next morning a member of the MCC called to see if they could have a memorial service that evening at St. George’s.  I agreed, providing they would not make a big splash over it. The Rev. Troy Perry flew in that evening and assisted with the service.  Some 80-90 persons attended.  I warned the TV people not to take pictures, and asked the reporters to play it low-key. They did.

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 at their own church?” he asked. I replied, “For the simple reason their small church holds about 18 persons. Without any publicity we have 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 by many people on the street for doing such a Christian thing.

Later that week I was asked if we could have another memorial service the next Sunday afternoon at St. George’s. I had to decline for I was just leaving for a month’s trip to India to visit friends, and I knew I would have to be present for such a service. It was then that the late Bishop Finis Crutchfield offered the Rampart St. Methodist Church for that service.

I am still very active in lesbian/gay affairs, though our Integrity group eventually folded. I have spoken several times before our City Council and before our Diocesan Convention regarding lesbian/gay issues, but to little avail. But I’m not giving up!


(The Rev.) William P. Richardson, Jr.

New Orleans, LA     

Richardson writes a 1991 letter to the Voice of Integrity, newsletter of the national LGBT Episcopal group, telling the story of the June 25th memorial service and its aftermath.
Source: The Voice of Integrity, Volume 1, Number 2 Summer 1991.
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