Forgotten Gay History: The Tragic Life and Death of Jeanne Deckers, The Real Life Singing Nun


Originally published on Back2Stonewall and re-published here with their permission.

Jeanne Deckers, better known as Sœur Sourire (“Sister Smile,” often credited as The Singing Nun), was a Belgian singer-songwriter and initially a member of the Dominican Order in Belgium known as Sister Luc-Gabrielle. She acquired world fame in 1963 with the release of the French-language song “Dominique,” which topped the U.S. Billboard and other charts.

Jeanne Deckers performing as Sœur Sourire.

In September 1959, Jeanne Deckers entered the Missionary Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of Fichermont, headquartered in the city of Waterloo, where she took the name Sister Luc-Gabrielle. While in the convent, Deckers wrote, sang and performed her own songs, which were so well received by her fellow nuns and visitors that her religious superiors encouraged her to record an album, which visitors and at the convent would be able to purchase.

In 1961, she recorded  the single “Dominique” became an international hit, and in 1962 her album sold nearly two million copies.[The Dominican Sister became an international celebrity, with the stage name of Sœur Sourire (“Sister Smile”). She gave concerts and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show  in 1964.”Dominique” was the first, and remains the only, Belgian song to be a number one hit single in the United States.

Deckers found it difficult having to live up to her publicity as “a true girl scout.”

“I was never allowed to be depressed,”  Deckers said in 1979. “The mother superior used to censor my songs and take out any verses I wrote when I was feeling sad.”

In 1963 she was sent by her order to take theology courses at the University of Louvain. She liked the student life, if not her courses. She reconnected with a friend from her youth, Annie Pécher, with whom she slowly developed a very close relationship; the younger Pécher relocated to be closer to Deckers while she attended the university.

In 1965, the movie The Singing Nun was released starring Debbie Reynolds, which was billed as a biographical film based on Deckers.  Jeanne Deckers publicly  rejected the film as “fiction.” In addition most of her earnings were in fact taken away by  her producer, while the rest automatically went to her religious congregation, which made at least $100,000 in royalties; in 1960s’ dollars this was a huge amount.

Pulled between two worlds and increasingly in disagreement with the Catholic Church, she left the convent in 1966, She later reported that her departure resulted from a personality clash with her superiors, that she had been forced out of the convent and did not leave of her own free will. She still considered herself a nun, praying several times daily, and maintaining a simple and chaste lifestyle.

After she left the convent, her recording company required her to give up her initial professional names of “Sœur Sourire” and “The Singing Nun.” She attempted to continue her musical career under the name “Luc Dominique” and became so frustrated at what she perceived to be the Catholic’s Church failure to fully implement the reforms of the Second Vatican Council that she released a song in 1967 defending the use of contraception called “Glory be to God for the Golden Pill.”  This led to an intervention by the Catholic hierarchy in Montreal, Canada, which resulted in one of her concerts being cancelled

Not long after  Jeanne Deckers suffered a nervous breakdown followed by two years of psychotherapy.

Deckers then moved in with Annie Pécher whom she had first met when she worked as a counselor in a seaside camp in her youth and  Annie was one of the girls in her charge.  Annie, who was eleven years younger than Deckers, became warmly attached to her, a sentiment that Deckers at the time did not reciprocate. Pécher visited Deckers regularly in the convent, went to live near where Deckers stayed when sent to study at Leuven, and later fell into a deep depression and tried to kill herself when it seemed Deckers was about to be sent to a mission country.

When they began to live together in the apartment, Deckers made it clear to the by then 22-year-old Annie that she did not want to have a sexual relationship with her. Determined to remain true to the vow of chastity she had taken as a nun, she wanted them to live together simply as friends. However, her diaries indicate that, although she long resisted her growing feeling of closeness to the younger woman, a lesbian relationship between them arose in about 1980, some 14 years after they began to live together

Jeanne Deckers and Annie Pécher on holiday.

In the years that followed, the Belgian government claimed that she owed $63,000 in back taxes from the royalties of her music. Deckers countered that they  were given to the convent and therefore she was not liable for payment of any personal income taxes. Her former congregation refused to take any responsibility for the debt, claiming both that they no longer had any responsibility for her and that they did not have the funds, and Deckers ran into heavy financial problems. In 1982, she tried, once again as Sœur Sourire, to score a hit with a disco version of “Dominique,” but this last attempt to resume her singing career failed miserably. In addition to the other financial worries, that same year, an autism center for children started by Annie Pécher had to close its doors because of bad debts.

On 29 March 1985, Jeanne Deckers and Annie Pécher committed suicide together by an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol.

In their suicide note, Decker and Pécher cited financial difficulties and stated they had not given up their faith and wished to be buried together after a church funeral.

They were buried together in Cheremont Cemetery in Wavre, Walloon Brabant, the town where they died.[The inscription on their tombstone reads “I saw her soul fly across the clouds,” a phrase from the refrain of Deckers’ song “Dominique.”

“Elle est morte Sœur Sourire/ Elle est morte il était temps/ J’ai vu voler son âme/ A travers les nuages/ Sur un tapis volant.”

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, writer, blogger and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Advocate, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, Raw Story, and The Huffington Post.



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