When you think of pop music in 1963, maybe you think The Beatles. Maybe The Ronettes, Jan and Dean, or The Four Seasons – all had big hits that year. But in December of 1963, while the nation was still reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy, for three weeks the number one slot on the pop charts was occupied by the unlikeliest of one-hit wonders, a singing nun from Belgium called Soeur Sourire, “Sister Smile.” Her life came to a tragic end 26 years ago today.
Born Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers, she was encouraged by her parents to take over the family bakery in Brussels, but instead briefly enrolled in a Paris art school. She then shocked her family by dropping out and joining the Dominican Fichermont Convent in Waterloo, Belgium, and becoming Sister Luc-Gabrielle. While there, she would entertain her fellow sisters by playing songs on her guitar (like B.B. King’s ‘Lucille’ or Eric Clapton’s ‘Blackie,’ her instrument also had its own name – Sister Adele). She chafed against the discipline of cloistered life, but was encouraged by her superiors to record some of her songs, as they believed the simple, airy tunes would be useful in missionary work.
Jeanine Deckers performing as Sister Luc Gabrielle in 1964 (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Deckers entered the Philips Recording Studio in Brussels in October of 1961, and, pleased with the results, the higher-ups at Fichermont agreed to press 1,000 copies of her record. A Philips executive happened to hear the recording, and convinced the order to allow them to commercially market the recording. None could have forseen what would happen next.
The single “Dominique” became an instant hit in Europe. The record didn’t make its American debut until late 1963, but in many ways, given the tumult the country was experiencing, an innocuous ditty dedicated to a 13th Century saint proved a perfectly timed release. In the wake of President Kennedy’s death, many were seeking softer fare on the radio dial, eschewing songs like The Surfaris’ “Wipe Out” for more soothing, less chaotic sounds. The song would top the U.S. Billboard charts for four weeks in row. With more versions recorded in Dutch, German, Hebrew and Japanese, the song charted in eleven countries between 1963 and 1964.
But its success created problems. The Mother Superior objected to Deckers appearing, via tape, on the Ed Sullivan Show. MGM produced The Singing Nun, a Debbie Reynolds vehicle that saw the titular character riding around on a moped and pining over Chad Everett. Deckers dismissed the work as “a fiction” but it was at least somewhat accurate in its depiction of a woman struggling to balance the demands of monastic life with the challenges of sudden celebrity.
By the time of the movie’s release in 1966, Deckers had withdrawn from public life, but in many ways, there was no going back. She was by this time beginning to question some of the Church’s teachings, and in 1967 she decided to leave the order to pursue her music career full-time.
There was only one problem. The rights to the stage name ‘Sister Smile’ were owned by Philips Recording and the Fichermont convent. Rebranding herself as Luc Dominique, she tried to relaunch her career with an album titled I Am Not A Star in Heaven, an effort that must have come as a slap in the face to her previous employers (and many of her Catholic fans) with songs like “Sister Smile is Dead” and the pro-birth control paean “Glory Be To God for the Golden Pill.” Whether it was the material itself, a lack of name recognition or neat marketing hook — or simply that the musical landscape of 1967 had shifted too far from Deckers brand of pop simplicity — the album landed with a resounding thud.
She managed to book a tour in Canada, but it was soon derailed when a Quebec audience was offended by her new anti-Catholic songs and several major venues subsequently cancelled. Deckers put aside her musical aspirations and in 1968 turned to publishing, penning a book of inspirational verse. It failed to gain an audience.
Withdrawing once more from public life, Deckers co-founded a school for autistic children. Assisting in this venture was Annie Pécher, a friend from her youth who would be her companion for the next ten years.
The two might have lived out their lives in quiet solitude were it not for Deckers’ earlier success. Belgian tax authorities claimed she owed $63,000 in back taxes. Deckers, having taken a vow of poverty during her years at Fichermont, said she’d given all money she earned as Soeur Sourire to the convent. She hadn’t thought at the time to ask for receipts. Perhaps Deckers had too thoroughly burned her bridges to the Dominicans back in 1967, for the convent offered no aid, legal or financial, despite all the money her hit record had generated for their coffers.
Mounting financial pressure added to the struggles Deckers was then undergoing with alcohol and medication prescribed to treat her anxiety. Pécher described Deckers having “nervous breakdown after nervous breakdown.” In 1982, she lost her final court case against the Belgian tax authorities. Needing a quick injection of cash, Deckers sought the limelight once more, emerging to record a new, updated version of “Dominique.”
Adorned with cheesy synthesizers and the trendy production excesses of the worst 80s Euro-pop, it now stands as a sad coda to her musical career. One wonders what producers could have thought the record buying public – which is to say, largely, teenagers – were supposed to make of the promotional video, which featured an uninspired looking white-haired woman trudging around a ruined abbey with an acoustic guitar. As it was, they didn’t make much of it at all. The record bombed.
With back taxes still owed, legal fees mounting and her mental state deteriorating, Deckers still managed to struggle on for a couple more years. But when it looked certain her financial problems would mean losing the school she and Pécher had founded, it proved too much. In March of 1985, Jeanine Deckers and Annie Pécher enacted a suicide pact, ending their lives with a lethal dose of barbiturates and alcohol.
In the years since, Jeanine Deckers’ story has been covered by biographers in Europe and America, and she has been the subject of novels and plays on both sides of the Atlantic. A feature biopic about her premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.
"We go to eternity in peace,” wrote Annie Pécher in the note they left behind. “We trust God will forgive us. He saw us both suffer and he won't let us down. It would please Jeanine not to die for the world. She had a hard time on earth. She deserves to live in the minds of people."
Twenty-six years later, she still does.