A more unlikely pop star is hard to imagine: a shy, bespectacled Belgian nun in full Dominican habit wearing cloddy but practical shoes. Yet Jeanine Deckers, known to the world as the Singing Nun, was the sensation of late 1963. Twenty-nine years ago this week, she held No. 1 on the pop charts, outselling Motown, Elvis, and surf music with ”Dominique,” her folksy tribute to the founder of her order, St. Dominic. With its lilting, repetitive chorus (”Dominique-a-nique-a-nique ”), her French-language song provided an upbeat antidote to a world rocked by the recent assassination of John F. Kennedy. Teens and adults around the globe bought more than a million copies of the single and of her Singing Nun album, which also held a top spot on the U.S. charts that December.
Born circa 1934 (the exact date is unknown), Deckers took the name Sister Luc-Gabrielle in 1959 when she entered Belgium’s Fichermont Convent, where she composed a dozen of her own songs, including ”Dominique.” While recording them for the convent’s private use, Philips Records executives, who dubbed Deckers ”Soeur Sourire” (Sister Smile), heard a hit in the making and convinced the nuns to release the songs commercially. Within two years, ”Dominique” made at least $100,000 in royalties for the convent.
The composer’s own life, however, did not fare as well as her first songs. In 1966, as Debbie Reynolds portrayed her in The Singing Nun (a dud Sister Smile reportedly dismissed as ”fiction”), Deckers hung up her habit to pursue a full-time singing career under her given name. But when two singles — the controversial birth control anthem ”Glory Be to God for the Golden Pill” and the prophetically titled ”Sister Smile Is Dead” — went nowhere, Deckers quietly turned to teaching handicapped youngsters in Wavre, Belgium, eventually opening her own school for autistic children.
Sadly, she seemed ill-prepared for life outside the convent. By 1985, then in her 50s, Deckers was overwhelmed by debt, with the Belgian government claiming she owed $63,000 in back taxes. Pushed to desperation when she thought she would lose her school, she swallowed a lethal amount of barbiturates with alcohol, and was joined by her companion of 10 years, Annie Pecher, a physiotherapist and a fellow former nun. Found near their bodies was a poignant note from both, asking for forgiveness and understanding: ”We hope God will welcome us. He saw us suffer, so He should show clemency.”
Time Capsule: December 20, 1963
The wacky Clampetts owned TV in the second season of The Beverly Hillbillies, and Mary McCarthy’s The Group was a must-read, while Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, and romantic Paris charmed moviegoers in Charade.