She became internationally famous in 1963 with her smash hit Dominique, and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in early January of the next year. I happened to be attending a Catholic grade school at the time and still remember “The Singing Nun.”
She was known in her native Belgium as Soeur Sourire, “Sister Smile.” Wearing her full flowing nun’s habit strumming her acoustic guitar, she represented well the innocent early sixties. Little did any of us know when the song came out that those days would soon end forever. Until then, we were idealistic and sheltered, and the Singing Nun added to that mystique in the short time she was famous. She was certainly a hit with Catholics, and at my school in particular.
It was a good song, I guess, though we had no idea what she was singing about. The foreign flavor of her accent was not necessarily a new thing to us Catholic kids, since we were taught by heavily-accented Irish nuns who still used words like “Ye.” (I remember one kid asking, “Who’s Ye?”) I had forgotten about the song until something reminded me a few weeks ago, and the catchy tune came back to me very clearly, almost fifty years later. Today, on a whim, I decided to see if there was a video of the song retrievable on the net and was surprised at what I found. I listened once again and did a little research into her life.
Her real name was Jeanine Deckers. I discovered that the profits of the song she wrote were divvied up between her convent and the record producer, who retained the rights. She was an international star but received nothing since her life was dedicated to her order. A movie was made starring Debbie Reynolds, which Jeanine claimed was pure fiction. She eventually left her order and the Catholic Church entirely. Her worldview changed. She tried hard to make it as a singer but was forever a one-hit wonder. Though she had a very promising start and continued in charitable causes, life later dealt her a very bad hand.
There is no doubt that she had grown very disillusioned early on. The song was rightfully hers and maintaining at least some of the control and profits could have substantially changed her life. In 1982, in an effort to pay off substantial debts, the former Singing Nun created a video using a heavily synthesized version of the song. I laughed out loud when I heard it, but that was before I knew the circumstances. I then realized the setting was eerily fitting.
Three years later, at 51 years of age, she committed suicide.
© 2011 by RJ Dawson. All Rights Reserved.