The Singing Nun

Had she lived, this Tuesday, October 17, would have been Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers’ 90th birthday. Deckers was a Belgian singer-songwriter who produced a hit single in 1963 that beat The Beatles to top the American pop music charts.

Deckers was known as “Soeur Sourire” (Sister Smile), Sister Luc Gabriel, and, more familiarly, “the Singing Nun.” We would say today that her hit, “Dominique,” went viral, selling millions of copies and earning Deckers a Grammy. She also appeared on the popular Ed Sullivan show in January, 1964, again edging out The Beatles by a little more than a month. In 1966, a biographical film came out entitled The Singing Nun, starring Debbie Reynolds in the title role. Reynolds sang the hit in its English version, unfortunately giving new meaning to the phrase, “lost in translation.”

“Dominique” tells the story of Saint Dominic de Guzman, the Spanish founder of the Order of Preachers in 1216, to which Deckers belonged. It recounts his wandering and preaching the Gospel to all he came across, including heretics and others who had lost their way. Dominic strove to create a better world through love and understanding. He suffered trials but persevered in faith and humility.

In the song, Deckers proclaims her devotion to a life of service like Dominic’s no matter the cost. There is a call to be a “mighty warrior” and “soldier of the Lord.” This reminds me of the old Rite of Confirmation in which the bishop slapped each confirmand to remind them of their role as soldiers of Christ. The idea was to arm oneself with faith and the Gospel, not actual weapons. For lyrics of “Dominique” in French and English on YouTube, click here.

It is interesting to note the year 1963, since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was well underway by then and promised a pastoral renewal in the church, which Pope John XXIII called an “aggiornamento” or modernization of the church. Such modernization did not come fast enough for Deckers, however, who left religious life by 1966 to pursue a recording career and move in with a former student and lover, Anne Pécher. She even wrote a song, “Glory Be to God for the Golden Pill” in praise of contraception and in an obvious swipe at Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical on contraception.

What some called modernization, others referred to as a revolution on a par with the French Revolution of 1789. The religious orders, nuns in particular, experienced some of the most radical changes in church discipline with a focus on transforming the world by being in it but not of it. Some accused the hierarchy of relativizing eternal truths in an effort to become relevant to the modern world and that a watered down faith would result, turning people away rather than attracting them to the institution.

Sadly, data collected over the decades since the council by the Pew Research Center and other organizations bear this out. The current “synod on synodality” follows the same line of thinking. The question at hand is whether truth can be arrived at by consensus, even in matters of church discipline, which, after all, affect faith and morals. Certainly, Pope Paul VI, John XXIII’s successor, had doubts, lamenting that the “smoke of Satan” had entered the church.

It may have entered Deckers life as well. After an unsuccessful return to recording (see “Soeur Sourire is Dead“), she succumbed to alcohol and barbiturates even after trying to resurrect a life of service by opening a home for autistic children in 1983. In the end, financial and legal troubles drove her and Pécher to commit suicide in 1985. They are buried together in Wavre, Belgium.

The church Deckers dreamed of did not come about in her lifetime. Neither did it accept her or her lifestyle. Still, she remained devoted to her faith and commended herself and Pécher to God’s mercy. “We are going together to meet God our Father,” she wrote in the suicide note. “He alone can save us from this financial disaster.” May they both find the salvation they yearned for.

Image credits: feature by Priscila SherlynCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Dominican nuns from “Great songs: Singing Nun Jeanne Deckers’ Dominique,” The Australian; drawing by Zippanova, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Appreciation to Paul Zarowny for spotting an incorrect version of the song in a link in the original post on November 2, 2023.

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  1. I remember reading that The Singing Nun fell on hard times after she left the convent. In a way, I wasn’t too surprised since I’ve seen this happen a number of times.

    I spent seven years as a Catholic seminarian, before leaving to take a new direction in my life. Fortunately, I was successful in my professional and personal pursuits, and I certainly do not regret my time in the seminary. It gave me a perspective and friendships that have helped me along the way.

    But many others left in those turbulent late 60’s and early 70’s, and I was surprised at how many of them did not meet with much success. It was almost as if they were cast adrift once they left the structure of the religious life.

    I’m not sure I can draw any credible conclusion from this, but I think more than a few dependent personalities found it hard to thrive in a fiercely independent world.

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