October 24, 1933 – Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers:
”Simple truths are never platitudes; they only become commonplace because we fail to live them profoundly.”
She was famously known as ”The Singing Nun”. Born in Belgium, her parents owned a bakery in Brussels and hoped that their daughter would one day take over the family business. Instead, she enrolled in art school in Paris.
In 1959, when she turned 26 years old, Deckers dropped out of art school and joined the Dominican Convent near Waterloo. She took a vow of poverty and took the name Sister Luc-Gabrielle. For the first time, Deckers, who had had described having a loveless childhood, felt like she was part of a family. She had written songs from an early age and the Dominicans allowed keep her beloved guitar which she had named ”Sister Adele”.
At the convent, she wrote and sang folk songs about Catholic saints. Her fellow nuns were so impressed with her talents, they encouraged her to make an album which could be sold at religious retreats and to visitors of the convent to raise money for the order’s mission in the Congo.
In October of 1961, with the support of convent leaders, Deckers recorded her first album in Brussels. An executive at the studio heard her songs and convinced the Dominicans to let them have a commercial distribution of the recording. Deckers signed a contract with Philips Recording under, ”Soeur Sourire”, a stage name chosen by the church. The name translates as ”Sister Smile”.
In 1963, a song by Deckers about the 13th century founder of the Dominican order was released as a single. To everyone’s surprise, the single, Dominique became a Number One hit in Belgium. You may remember as the song played repeatedly in Ryan Murphy‘s American Horror Story: Asylum (2017).
The song went to Number One everywhere in Europe, even in countries where French was not the predominant language. By Christmas season 1961 Dominique-mania hit the USA where the single by The Singing Nun stayed at Number One on the charts for three weeks. Deckers remains the only Belgian to have a Number One single in the USA. Between 1963-1964 the song was on the charts in eleven different countries and was ranked higher than songs released by The Beatles and Elvis Presley.
The song was re-recorded in Dutch, German, Japanese and Hebrew. Deckers went on a world tour as “Soeur Sourire” and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show despite disapproval from her Mother Superior.
Deckers’ album Her Joy, Her Songs sold more than two million copies. Having taken a vow of poverty when she joined the Dominican order, all the profits went directly to the convent.
The Singing Nun (1966), a highly fictionalized film about Deckers’s life and career starring Debbie Reynolds was also a hit. It features Ricardo Montalbán, Greer Garson, Katharine Ross, Chad Everett, and Ed Sullivan as himself. It was directed by Jewish Harry Koster who was responsible for the Christian-themed The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Come To The Stable (1949), and The Robe (1953).
The score by Jewish Harry Sukman was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Score. The film features nine songs by Deckers, of which five had English verses translated by Randy Sparks of the The New Christy Minstrels, who also wrote two original songs and a third “inspired by” song.
By this time, Deckers had already retreated from the public eye and began to question many of the Catholic church’s teachings. Deckers thought The Singing Nun was an ”absolutely idiotic movie”, and she deeply resented the attention.
She began to receive thousands of letters and gifts from admirers which she found to be inappropriate. After being given an award for the great success of Dominique, she told the press that she might as well have been handed a bomb. Poor Deckers, she had always been painfully shy, and she suffered from crippling anxiety. The attention was too much for her. After the popularity of Dominique popularity began to ebb and the album stopped selling, the convent sent Deckers to receive additional theology training. During that time, she began to question many of the Catholic church’s teachings, and she rebelled by wearing lipstick and smoking cigarettes. She also became reacquainted with Annie Pecher, also a nun and a fellow theology student.
They had first met while working as camp counselors when they were young. Pecher was a decade younger than Deckers, and while attending camp, she became infatuated with Deckers. Pecher made a point to live near Deckers and would often visit her at her convent. When it seemed likely that Deckers was to be sent to Africa on missionary work, Pecher attempted to commit suicide.
In 1968, Deckers released a new album and planned a tour of North America. This album, in contrast to Her Joy, Her Songs, expressed Decker’s anti-Catholic views and included a song titled Sister Smile Is Dead, and an ode to birth control, Glory Be To God For The Golden Pill.
Decker’s feminist views were contrary the Catholic church, and the album caused a lot of controversy. The tour was cancelled.
Rumors that the two nuns were lovers caused them to be ousted from the Catholic church. The couple moved into an apartment together.
Pecher was extremely possessive of Deckers, who felt she had less freedom during their relationship than she did while living at the convent. In 1970, Decker said in an interview that she owed $63,000 in back taxes from her record sales. Having donated all the money directly to the church, she asked her former convent that had profited off her talents to pay the taxes she owed the Belgian government. The Dominicans refused to pay, claiming the small convent was financially strapped. Deckers had a lengthy legal battle with Belgian tax authorities, and unfortunately, there was no paper trail to prove her earnings had been donated to the Dominican order. To pay back the debt, Deckers tried to restart her musical career.
She released an album of secular children’s songs titled I Am Not A Star In Heaven under the name ”Luc-Dominiqu” because the church owned the rights to the name ”Soeur Sourire”. In 1982, Deckers lost her final case against the Belgian tax authorities and was ordered to pay the $63,000 in back taxes. Later that year she recorded a Disco version of Dominique with an accompanying music video to try and raise the $63,000 she owed. This drove her further into debt.
Over the years, Deckers became addicted to the medication prescribed for her anxiety. She sunk into a severe depression and became dependent on tranquilizers and alcohol.
In 1983, Deckers and Pecher opened a small boarding school for Autistic children in Belgium which brought both great happiness at last. Sadly, they were forced to close the school in 1985. After that, Deckers and Pecher decided on a suicide pact. In a spring day in 1985 the couple killed themselves in the apartment they shared in by taking a large dose of barbiturates washed down with booze.
Their bodies were discovered a week later. Pescher left a suicide note explaining that the closing of the school and their massive debt were the reasons behind the double suicide. She stated in the note that she and Deckers had not lost their faith, but still wished to have a church funeral. They also asked to be buried together. In the note, Pecher wrote:
”We have reached the end, spiritually and financially and now we go to God. We go to eternity in peace. We trust that God will forgive us. He saw us both suffer, and he will not let us down. It would please Jeanine not to die from the world. She had a hard time on earth. She deserves to live in the minds of the people. ”
Deckers and Pescher are buried together in the Cheremont Cemetery in Wavre, Belgium. An inscription on their tomb reads: ”J’ai vu voler son ame/A travers les nuages”, a line from the song Sister Smile is Dead. In English it translates to:
”I saw her soul fly across the clouds.’
A film starring Belgian actor Cécile de France stuck closer to the real story than the earlier Hollywood effort; Soeur Sourire (2009). I like to think that Deckers would have found it less objectionable than the Debbie Reynolds version.