I remember hearing this song when I was about ten or eleven years old, and I definitely remember seeing the Hollywood version of The Singing Nun with Debbie Reynolds.. here is some of the story behind this one hit wonder. I also have another connection to the singer, as she was a nun at a convent in Waterloo in Belgium where I lived from 1996 to 1998.
Jeanne-Paule Maire “Jeannine” Deckers was born in 1933 in Belgium and was to become famous as the singing nun Sœur Sourire (“Sister Smile”). Her Belgian French song ‘Dominique’ topped the Billboard Hot 100 and other charts in 1963, the only Belgian song to make it to #1 in the USA to this day.
She was educated in a Catholic school in Brussels and was an avid Girl Guide. She bought her first guitar to play at Guide evening events. After high school she obtained a diploma for teaching sculpture which she did between 1954 and 1959. During this time she considered becoming a nun, and at age 26 she entered the Missionary Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of Fichermont and became ‘Sister Luc-Gabrielle’.
While at the convent, She would write and sing and perform her songs for her fellow nuns and visitors and the mother superior encouraged her to record an album that visitors and those who attended the covent on retreat could buy. It was recorded by Philips records in Brussels and the single ‘Dominique’ was released and became an international hit. Her album also sold nearly 2 million copies.
Live performances were requested and taking the stage name of Sœur Sourire (“Sister Smile”), she gave several live concerts and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.
Behind the scenes however, Sister Luc-Gabrielle found it difficult to maintain the public persona, and when her songs reflected this, her mother superior would censor the lyrics. She was sent to the University of Louvain to take theology courses and more cracks appeared in her religious commitment.
This was compounded by the fact her second album ‘Her Joys’ failed to chart and most of her earnings from the first album were taken by Philips and her producer and the rest was automatically went to her religious order.
Resorting back to her original name of Deckers, she left the convent in 1966 but still followed the disciplines of the convent, maintaining a simple lifestyle. The record company required that she give up her professional names including the one most had known her by, ‘The Singing Nun’.
She tried to continue her career under the new ‘Luc Dominique’ and also began to write more critical songs regarding the Catholic church lack of progress in some areas, including contraception. This led to the Catholic superiors in Montreal cancelling her concert, which was followed by several other major venues, leading to the decimation of her tour.
She went on to release the album ‘I Am Not a Star in Heaven’ and developed religious songs and songs for children. With her musical career failing she began teaching disabled children in Wavre, eventually opening her own school for autistic children. Her mental health deteriorated and eventually she suffered a nervous breakdown.
In 1973 she became involved with a more progressive arm of the church and enjoyed a brief resurgence of her career, writing songs for the movement and a return to the stage in Pittsburgh. She released another album in 1979 but unfortunately the tax office in Belgium came after her for thousands in back taxes on the royalties paid to Philips records and her former convent. An agreement was reached with the convent who provided her with funds provided she did not disparage them in public.. She received nothing from the record label who had received the bulk of the proceeds.
By 1982 the school for autistic children, run in partnership with Annie Pecher failed and she tried to make a living giving music and religious lessons to children.
Sadly, as life became more financially difficult, she and Annie commited suicide in March 1985, requesting that they be buried together, which they were in Brabant where they had 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”).
Such a shame as “Jeannine” Deckers was clearly a talented singer/songwriter and I hope that on some level she took pride in the song that so many enjoyed.
Thank you for dropping in and I hope you will tune in again next week for William Price King and Herbie Hancock.