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Jeannine Deckers: The Singing Nun

the Singing nun

Observant readers may remember that in my Waterloo Battlefield Walking Tour I stood outside a convent that once had a famous occupant. It’s a story I couldn’t resist. A Catholic nun with a no.1 hit single. Great riches yet great poverty too. A loss of faith and a personal tragedy. This is the story of The Singing Nun.

Who was The Singing Nun?

She was Jeanne-Paule Marie “Jeannine” Deckers, who was born on 17th October 1933 in Laeken. Educated in a Catholic school in Brussels, at the age of 15 she had a premonition that she would become a nun. She was an enthusiastic girl guide, a skilled guitarist and singer, and obtained a diploma that enabled her to teach sculpture. She did this until she was 26, when she left the teaching profession and entered the Fichermont Dominican Sisters Convent (the one I stood outside on the Battlefield of Waterloo). Here she took the religious name Sister Luc Gabriel.

A talented musician

In the convent, Sister Luc Gabriel’s talents as a singer-songwriter came to the fore. She wrote, sang, and performed her own songs for fellow nuns and visitors. Her religious superiors suggested she record an album, which visitors to the convent would then be able to purchase. She agreed, and an album of her songs was recorded at the Philips studio in Brussels in 1961.

Fame and fortune

The album proved to be incredibly popular. In 1962 it sold nearly two million copies. One of the tracks — Dominique — became an international hit. Sister Luc Gabriel was in great demand. She changed her name once more, with her stage name being Soeur Sourire (Sister Smile). She gave concerts, and on 5 January 1964 appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on US TV.

The song “Dominique”

Dominique’s success cannot be over-stated. It was huge. It topped the American chart for a staggering four weeks, becoming the US Christmas No. 1 of 1963. Moreover, for the first time in American chart history, The Singing Nun had a simultaneous No. 1 single and No. 1 album, both of which sold over a million copies. The song Dominique won a Grammy Award for Best Gospel or Religious Song.

It was also internationally successful. It was the number 1 single in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and one of the top ten singles in the charts in Norway (2nd), Ireland (4th), Denmark (4th), the Netherlands (6th), Germany (7th) and the UK (7th) in 1963.

In 1966, the movie The Singing Nun was made, featuring Debbie Reynolds as Sister Luc Gabriel and singing Dominique in English.

And if you’re wondering what the lyrics might be in your own language, maybe you’ll find them here:

Conflict in the convent

Sister Luc Gabriel had one foot in the deeply religious world of the convent, and the other in the highly secular pop world. It was a tension that could not be held for long. Her convent superiors began to describe her as a “bad influence” and prevented her from being in close contact with the other nuns. She left the convent in 1966.

Frustrated by the lack of reform in the Catholic church, in 1967 she released a song defending contraception, entitled “Glory be to God for the Golden Pill.” Unfortunately she had not reckoned on the influence of the church. One of her concerts was cancelled, and other venues would not accept her.

Now operating under her real name, Jeannine Deckers released an album entitled “I Am Not a Star in Heaven.” It bombed, as did a subsequent single “Sister Smile Is Dead.” She began teaching disabled youngsters in Wavre, eventually opening her own school for autistic children. Unfortunately she suffered a nervous breakdown which required two years of psychotherapy.

Financial struggles

Most (apparently 95%) of Jeannine Deckers’ earnings went to Philips and her producer. The rest headed to her religious affiliation, which earned at least $100,000 in royalties. Deckers’ personal income was therefore minimal. However, in 1970, the Belgian tax authorities saw things differently and sent her a bill for $63,000 in back taxes for her earnings.

Jeannine was beset with financial difficulties for the next decade or more. In 1982, she tried to resurrect her musical career as Sister Smile with a disco synthesizer version of Dominique, but this failed too. That same year, the autism school had to close, also for financial reasons.

A friend to cherish

For much of her life, Jeannine was in a close relationship with her friend Annie Pécher. They met as teenagers. The two shared an apartment and Annie was involved closely with Jeannine’s business deals. In 1968, Jeannine said that she and Annie were categorically not in a lesbian relationship. A biography suggests otherwise.

The tragic end of The Singing Nun

On 29 March 1985, Jeannine Deckers and Annie Pécher took an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol. A note they left stated, “We are going together to meet God our Father. He alone can save us from this financial disaster.” They also wrote that they had not given up their faith and wished to be buried together with the funeral rite of the Catholic Church.

On 4 April 1985 Jeannine Deckers and Annie Pécher were buried together in Cheremont Cemetery in Wavre. The inscription on their tombstone reads, “J’ai vu voler son âme / A travers les nuages” (“I saw her soul fly through the clouds”), a line taken from one of her songs.

The tombstone of the Singing Nun, Soeur Sourire, in Wavre Belgium

Do you remember her?

Do you have any memories of The Singing Nun? Did you watch her on TV or go to one of her concerts? Did you listen to the song Dominique or perhaps even buy the record? Do you have her album? If you’re Belgian, what do you recall of her? I’d be interested to find out, so feel free to share your thoughts and memories below.

56 thoughts on “Jeannine Deckers: The Singing Nun”

  1. I loved that song and still remember repeats of her television appearance (possibly on Ed Sullivan). I mostly remember her thick glasses and white habit . Thanks for the rest of the story.

    1. Thanks for your memories Pat. I guess part of her popularity was indeed her appearance, so “un-pop-like” and therefore I guess quite unique in the music world. Yet only a couple of years later we had The Sound of Music and lots of singing nuns!

      1. True. The Nun’s Story (movie and book) was also popular about that same time. We’ve moved from nun to none–no civility, no respect, precious little compassion for anyone that does not look, act, or think like us (each of us as an individual). Too much pack mentality.

        1. Yes, but The Nun’s Story was nun-fiction! 🙂 Actually, looking up that movie, it’s also based on the real life story of a Belgian nun! I feel a series coming on …!

  2. Yes, I do remember her very well! My older sisters played guitar and sang ‘Dominique’ often. I’m sure I must have seen her on Ed Sullivan, which we watched every Sunday night. It is a shame that she had such a rough go of it after finding worldwide acclaim.

    1. Ah, the first person who remembers someone else playing the song! Thanks Eliza. It’s a memorable song isn’t it? Once it’s in your brain it’s very difficult to dislodge it!

  3. As a child, I too remember watching Sister Luc Gabriel perform on Ed Sullivan’s TV show. How truly sad that her personal life had such a tragic ending. I wonder if her superiors at Fichermont Dominican Sisters Convent ever regretted the decision to encourage her to make that original album?

    1. Good question Henry. My own opinion would be that they probably didn’t. She raised a lot of money which went into overseas missions so I suspect they might have thought it worthwhile encouraging her. But maybe I’m being too cynical. However, what I didn’t come across in my research was any kind of pastoral counselling for the poor girl.

  4. I grew up in the Midwest US in the 60s and 70s and listened to her album repeatedly. The movie was on TV frequently and was a favorite. It makes me so sad that her life ended the way it did after she only wanted to do good.

    1. Great, thanks for joining the conversation Caroline. You’re the first person I know who had her album. And has seen the movie! I agree, it’s tragic that her life ended as it did. Especially, as you mention, that she wanted to bring light and goodness into the world through her songs.

  5. Thank you Denzil for this lovely, albeit very sad story. As a very amateur folk singer/guitarist I knew the number well and for me it has retained all its power and quality – at least her version of it. I never knew she was buried in Wavre. That’s two people I need to visit in our local cemetery. The other is the one Welsh Guard who was killed during the liberation of Wavre 75 years ago. Alan Anderson.

      1. Inspired by you Denzil I visited the Wavre cemetery which at this time of year is a riot of colour. The grave of soeur sourire is well bedecked. There is a small section managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Along with the sole Welsh Guard it includes the 5-main crew of what was presumably an RAF bomber. There are three soldiers killed in May 1940. I hadn’t realised there was any combat at that time. Thank you again for encouraging this remembrance.

        1. That’s lovely that you spent time visiting this cemetery Alan, and thanks for reporting on the good state of the final resting place of the Singing Nun and her beloved friend. It’s good to know that there are many who still remember her and visit her grave.

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  7. The song describes the life of Dominicus Guzman (1170-1221), the Spanish founder of the Dominican order. On behalf of the pope, Guzman went to France, among other places, to confront the Cathars, a Christian movement that opposed the Roman Catholic Church. Dominicus and his “preachers” roamed like beggars, just as Soeur Sourire sings:

    French lyrics:
    English lyrics:

  8. I do remember her and her song – I’d have been six in 1963, so I’m not sure I’m remembering her from that time or from later broadcasts of the song. Probably the latter. However, I didn’t know her story beyond the hit record, and it’s absolutely shocking. I think a lot of artists were / are ripped off and see little of what their work earns, but for a church to be involved is disgraceful.

    1. Yes, I guess it’s a fairly common story, certainly in the 60s, and the church would probably have felt totally out of their depth dealing with a popstar from their own folk. But considering that it was the church that encouraged her to make the album in the first place, it would seem they are partly responsible for what happened.

  9. The song “Dominique” was also a hit in my native land, Guyana. I watched the movie “The Singing Nun” with Debbie Reynolds. I had no idea that her life ended so tragically. The Catholic Church’s hierarchy is very powerful and can be very destructive towards those in a position to threaten its teachings.

    1. To be honest Rosaliene, I read that the church did set her up in an apartment, but I don’t see anything about helping her with the tax bill. Considering the wealth of the church, that is a shame.

  10. Fascinating story Denzil. The album and movie were long before my time, but somehow “the singing nun” definitely rings a bell, I have no idea where I would’ve heard that phrase.
    it’s sad that she was brought to a breakdown and treated so shabbily.
    I will listen to some of her music this evening. but what an interesting story thank you

    1. Thanks Robert. A word of warning: “Dominique” is the kind of song that once it’s in your brain, the chorus is there for hours/days and refuses to become dislodged! 🙂

    1. Indeed Andrea, very sad. Any suicide is distressing, but when it’s a nun or someone with deep faith with (hopefully) the support of like-minded people, I find that even more so.

  11. What a fascinating story, Denzil! Tragic as well. It is hard to imagine how a woman with such talent, faith, success, and influence would have to take her own life due to financial issues. So unfair!

    I wasn’t born when she was a successful singer, but I’m curious to find out whether my parents remember her, especially since my mom likes Francophone songs.

      1. Yes, my parents loved her, especially the song, Dominque. My mom was actually “appalled” I didn’t remember any of it, so I assume I must have heard and listened to Dominque as well, growing up.

    1. It seems there is a lot of mismanagement and lack of personal care and support in this story, Carol, for sure. I find it horrific when anyone takes their life, but for it to be linked somehow, if only indirectly, to a religious organisation, is even more appalling.

  12. What a sad end. When I was little, I loved listening to my parents’ record. Didn’t she sing with lots of children? No too long ago I read about an American nun who was quite an artist — screenprinting — & it was not easy for her in the same way…

    1. I don’t know whether she sang with children, Daal, although she probably did; it would make a good marketing ploy. Fame always seems to come with its challenges, doesn’t it.

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  15. Reblogged this on Happiness Between Tails by da-AL and commented:

    Guest Blog Post: Happy International Women’s Day Pt. 2 of 2 by Denzil

    Happy International Women’s Day!!!
    All days merit celebrating — for the opportunity to find ourselves still players in the game of life. Each of us is of value — if it was up to me, we’d all begin our mornings with a smile, saying, “happy me, happy you, happy us in this big beautiful world!”

  16. Pingback: Guest Blog Post: Happy International Women’s Day Pt. 2 of 2 by Denzil | Happiness Between Tails by da-AL

  17. I grew up listening to that song. It was one of my favorites! I had the album. I wish I still did! I am so sad to hear of her tragic end. May God have mercy on her and her friend’s souls.

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