Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Soeur Sourire: The Movie

Any Catholic alive during the 1960s remembers the Belgian woman -- then a nun -- known as "Soeur Sourire". To Americans, Jeanine Deckers was "The Singing Nun" and her song about her order's founder St. Dominic de Guzman, "Dominique", was on everybody's lips and on top of the Billboard Magazine music charts, beating out even The Beatles. A sunny, fictionalized version of her life, The Singing Nun, came out in 1966 starring Debbie Reynolds.

Deckers' real story was much different and belied her "Sister Smile" moniker. A new film, starring Cécile de France, has just come out that shows the woman behind the singing nun legend. In spite of her temporary musical fame, Deckers did not gain much. Most of her earnings were taken away by Philips, her producer, while the rest went to the Dominican Fichermont Convent. The production company even owned the rights to the name "Soeur Sourire", a marketing concept that Deckers never liked and that she called "fiction".

After the Debbie Reynolds' film came out in 1966, Deckers resumed her studies and tried to develop an interest in theology, taking classes at Louvain but that summer, convinced that she did not have a vocation and that religious life was an anachronism, she left her convent.

In 1967, she tried to resume her musical career under the name Luc Dominique. She released an album called "Je Ne Suis Pas Une Vedette" (I am not a star) and another called "La Pilule d'Or" (The Golden Pill), an ode to the birth control pill which was opposed by the Catholic Church, and finally "Dominicaine" (Dominican). A complete discography is available here.

In her final years, Deckers opened a school for autistic children in Belgium with the help of her lover, Annie Pécher. In the late 1970s, the Belgian government claimed that she owed around $63,000 in back taxes from her "earnings" as Soeur Sourire even though, as was said earlier, most of the profits went to the record company and the convent. She appealed to Phillips and to her former convent for help. The company gave her nothing but the convent helped her out a little by buying her an apartment in Wavre on the condition that she would stop bad-mouthing them and sign a document saying that they no longer owed her anything.

In 1982 she tried, once again as Soeur Sourire, to score a hit with a disco version of "Dominique", but this last attempt to resume her singing career failed.

Finally, Deckers and Pécher, overcome by their financial difficulties, depression and substance abuse, committed suicide by an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol on March 29, 1985. Deckers was 51. The couple are buried in a common tomb in Wavre.

In this video, we hear Deckers singing "Luc Dominique" and laying her "Soeur Sourire" persona to rest:

A prayer/song by Jeanine Deckers:


Donne-moi, mon Dieu,
Un coeur vide, un coeur pauvre,
Coeur de mendiant,
Qui t'accueille en chantant.
Ton esprit, amour de feu
Viendra graver ta sainteté.
Donnes-moi seulement,
D'être pauvre, simplement.

Creuse en mon coeur le silence
La soif de ta transcendance
Creuse en mon coeur le désert
Pour l'abreuvoir de lumière

En ma pauvreté paisible,
A l'écoute de ta voix,
Réalise l'impossible,
Renonciation de ta joie.

Ta présence, foi et mystère
Me recrée, toute entière.
Pour être l'humble ostensoir,
Où l'on puisse t'entrevoir.

Web sites:

  • Soeur Sourire: The Belgian Singing Nun -- "fan" page set up by D. A. Chadwick, co-author with Florence Delaporte of Music from the Soul: The Singing Nun Story
  • Wikipedia: English / French -- the French entry is more complete for those who can read that language.

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