The Singing Nun
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|Birth name||Jeanne-Paule-Marie Deckers|
|Also known as||Sœur Sourire
Sister Luc-Gabrielle, O.P.
17 October 1933|
Laeken, Brussels, Belgium
|Died||29 March 1985
Wavre, Brabant, Belgium
Jeanne Deckers (17 October 1933 – 29 March 1985), aka Jeannine Deckers, better known as Sœur Sourire ("Sister Smile", often credited as The Singing Nun in English-speaking countries), was a Belgian singer-songwriter and initially a member of the Dominican Order in Belgium as Sister Luc-Gabrielle. She acquired world fame in 1963 with the release of the French-language song "Dominique", which topped the U.S. Billboard and other charts.
She was born Jeanne Paule Deckers in Laeken in 1933, the daughter of a pâtisserie shop owner, and was educated in a Catholic school in Brussels. She was a keen Girl Guide who bought her first guitar to play at Guide evening events. Though she was thinking about becoming a nun even as a young woman, she trained and then worked as a teacher.
While in the convent, Deckers wrote, sang and performed her own songs, which were so well received by her fellow nuns and visitors that her religious superiors encouraged her to record an album, which visitors and retreatants at the convent would be able to purchase.
In 1961, the album was recorded in Brussels at Philips; the single "Dominique" became an international hit, and in 1962 her album sold nearly two million copies. The Dominican Sister became an international celebrity, with the stage name of Sœur Sourire ("Sister Smile"). She gave concerts and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on 5 January 1964. "Dominique" was the first, and remains the only, Belgian song to be a number one hit single in the United States.
Deckers found it difficult having to live up to her publicity as "a true girl scout", always happy and in a good mood. "I was never allowed to be depressed", Deckers remembered in 1979. "The mother superior used to censor my songs and take out any verses I wrote when I was feeling sad."
In 1963 she was sent by her order to take theology courses at the University of Louvain. She liked the student life, if not her courses. She reconnected with a friend from her youth, Annie Pécher, with whom she slowly developed a very close relationship.
Effects of fame and further musical career
Deckers did not gain much from this international fame, and her second album, Her Joys, Her Songs, did not receive much attention and disappeared almost as soon as it was released. Most of her earnings were in fact taken away by Philips and her producer, while the rest automatically went to her religious congregation, which made at least $100,000 in royalties.
Pulled between two worlds and increasingly in disagreement with the Catholic Church, she left the convent in 1966, to pursue a life as a lay Dominican of the order. She later reported that her departure resulted from a personality clash with her superiors, that she had been forced out of the convent and did not leave of her own free will. She still considered herself a nun, praying several times daily, and maintaining a simple and chaste lifestyle.
After she left the convent, her recording company required her to give up her initial professional names of "Sœur Sourire" and "The Singing Nun". She attempted to continue her musical career under the name "Luc Dominique" and pursued social work.
Increasingly frustrated at what she perceived to be the Catholic's Church failure to fully implement the reforms of the Second Vatican Council she released a song in 1967 defending the use of contraception called "Glory be to God for the Golden Pill" This led to an intervention by the Catholic hierarchy in Montreal, Canada, which resulted in one of her concerts being cancelled.
Deckers released an album entitled I Am Not a Star in Heaven. Her repertoire consisted of religious songs and songs for children. Despite her renewed musical emphasis, Deckers' career failed to prosper. She blamed lack of success of the album on not being able to use the names by which she had become known, saying that "nobody knew who it was". She suffered a nervous breakdown followed by two years of psychotherapy.
Relationship with Annie Pécher
She moved in with Annie Pécher (1944-1985), whom she had first met when she worked as a counsellor in a seaside camp in her youth. Annie, who was eleven years younger than Deckers, became warmly attached to her, a sentiment that Deckers did not reciprocate at the time. Nevertheless, Pécher visited Deckers regularly in her convent, went to live near where Deckers stayed when sent to study at Leuven, and even fell into a deep depression and tried to kill herself when it seemed Deckers was about to be sent to a mission country.
After leaving the convent, Deckers and Pécher began to share an apartment; Deckers alleged she told the 22-year-old Annie that she did not want a sexual relationship with her. Saying she wanted them to live together simply as friends. However, Decker's diaries indicate that, although she resisted her growing feeling of closeness to the younger woman, they fell in love and a lesbian relationship between them arose some years after they began to live together.
In 1973, Deckers became involved with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Cardinal Suenens requested that she write songs for the movement, and this led to a brief but successful return to the stage, including a visit to Pittsburgh, where she sang before several thousand people. Under the name "Sister Smile", she released another album in 1979, which she described as containing "honest, religious songs" and commented that the album would help listeners to "know who I really am."
In the late 1970s, the Belgian government claimed that she owed $63,000 in back taxes. Deckers countered that the royalties from her recording were given to the convent and therefore she was not liable for payment of any personal income taxes. As her former congregation denied responsibility for the debt, claiming both that they no longer had any responsibility for her and that they did not have the funds, Deckers ran into heavy financial problems. In 1982, she tried, once again as Sœur Sourire, to score a hit with a disco synthesizer version of "Dominique", but this last attempt to resume her singing career failed. In addition to the other financial worries, an autism centre for children started by Annie Pécher had to close its doors for financial reasons in 1982. After this Decker tried to make a living by giving lessons in music and religion.
Citing their financial difficulties in a note, she and Annie Pécher died by suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol on 29 March 1985. In their suicide note, Decker and Pécher stated they had not given up their faith and wished to be buried together after a church funeral. They were buried together on 4 April 1985 in Cheremont Cemetery in Wavre, Walloon Brabant, the town where they died. The inscription on their tombstone reads "J'ai vu voler son âme/ A travers les nuages" (English: "I saw her soul fly through the clouds").
In 1996, The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun premiered Off-Broadway at the Grove Street Playhouse. The play, which was written and directed by Blair Fell, was loosely based on the events in Deckers' life. The production featured several musical numbers and followed the renamed character Jeanine Fou's life from her entry into the convent until her death with Pécher. The New York Times review stated the play "milks much of its comic mileage from the incongruous, and willfully tasteless, pairing of its holy setting and its trashy, Jacqueline Susann-style dialogue ... In dressing up despair in barbed frivolity, Mr. Fell provides his own skewed equivalent of tragic catharsis." The Catholic League spoke out publicly against the production.
In 2006, a musical version of Fell's play was staged during the New York Musical Theater Festival, produced by George DeMarco and David Gerard, both of whom produced the 1996 production. The musical featured music and lyrics by Andy Monroe and a book by Fell (who also contributed additional lyrics); it was directed by Michael Schiralli.
The Singing Nun is a 1966 American semi-biographical film about the life of Deckers. It stars Debbie Reynolds in the title role. The film also stars Ricardo Montalbán, Katharine Ross, Chad Everett, and Ed Sullivan as himself.
In the TV series American Horror Story, the song "Dominique" is frequently played throughout season 2, which is set in the early 1960s in a Catholic-run insane asylum featuring a tragic lesbian subplot.
The song "Dominique" is topically heard early in episode 10 of season 3 of Mad Men, set in 1963.
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- Florence Delaporte: Sœur Sourire: Brûlée aux feux de la rampe (1996), ISBN 978-2259184120
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