The life of Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers didn't proceed as anyone expected, even Deckers herself. This strong-willed Belgian nun certainly had a mind of her own; her songwriting, singing and guitar playing charmed everyone around her, including the head nuns at the Missionary Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of Fichermont, located in Waterloo, a short distance south of Brussels in Belgium's French-speaking Walloon region. Later, when she became a chart-topping recording artist throughout most of the world, things got really complicated.

An art student and music fan during her youth, she was raised Catholic and found a great deal of comfort in the church. She joined the convent at age 26, in 1959, taking Sister Luc-Gabrielle as her name. Once word got out about her musical talent, she signed a contract with the Netherlands-based Philips Records, a huge company with affiliated labels in nearly every country. Shortly after making her first recordings in 1962, her superiors enrolled her at the University of Louvain in Brussels, where she ran into a childhood friend, eleven years her junior, named Annie Pecher. Early eight-song albums under her professional name Soeur Sourire (pronounced sare sue-reer, which translates from French as "Sister Smile") were strictly Dutch releases and a number of her original songs were included on Dominicaine Missionnaire au Monastère de Fichermont, a 12-song collection intended for wider release. One song was a catchy midtempo tune about Saint Dominic of Calaruega, Spain, a priest of the 12th and 13th centuries who founded the Dominican Order.

"Dominique" was written by Soeur Sourire as a biography of the Saint of more than 700 years earlier, briefly telling the story of his struggles and good deeds, closing with a verse of faith not unlike a prayer (translated): 'Dominique, my good father, keep us simple and announce to our brothers life and truth.' The song's real hook, though, was the chorus (by four fellow habit-wearers from the convent) and its repetitive 'Domini-que, ni-que, ni-que...' Philips' U.S. execs devised a more generic-sounding artist credit that gave listeners little doubt as to who, or what, she was: The Singing Nun. The single broke big in America in early November, before any other part of the world. Both single and album (retitled The Singing Nun Soeur Sourire) took high upward moves on respective charts the week following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, moving into the number one positions the first week in December (and staying there into early January).

While the records were headed for the top in many other countries, "Dominique" was a no-show in the Belgian top ten. In an odd twist, Trini Lopez's English-language "America" was number one in French-speaking Belgium at the same time the all-French "Dominique" topped North America's charts. But the cat was out of the bag; Sister Smile had become the singing sensation who gently bridged the gap between the shock of JFK's death and the arrival of The Beatles two months later. She performed her hit (the only Belgian recording to go to number one in the U.S.) in a taped segment on the January 5 telecast of CBS's Ed Sullivan Show. The Grammy Awards nominated her in its top categories (Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Best Vocal Performance, Female) and she won in the category Best Gospel or Other Religious Recording at the industry event's May 12, 1964 ceremony.

The Singing Nun (Soeur Sourire)

A follow-up single, "Tous Les Chemins (All The Roads)" (more a song about our planet's natural beauty than a religious work), received a smattering of radio play and a follow-up album, Her Joy Her Songs (both albums' packaging included sketches and watercolor prints of artwork by Jeanne from when she was a novice at Fichermont), sold respectably in the spring. But by the time several months passed, the public had moved on to new trends in music. Then the phenomenon happened all over again, two years later, on the big screen: Debbie Reynolds starred in MGM Studios' The Singing Nun, released in theaters in April 1966. Playing the fictional "Sister Ann," Debbie performed several Singing Nun originals, including an English-language version of "Dominique" with lyrics by Noël Regney that changed the entire meaning of the song (while keeping it positive). Soeur Sourire was not pleased with Reynolds' "Hollywood" depiction of her, yet the film made millions at the box office (how could it miss, what with Julie Andrews and her crew of Sound of Music sisters setting all-time box office records the previous year?).

Around that time, Jeanne Deckers left the church over disagreements in philosophy with her superiors, though she continued living according to biblical and convent guidelines. Record label lawyers insisted she could no longer use her famous names (since she was no longer a nun), so she became Luc Dominique on her final Philips efforts in 1967 and '68, which included a song called "La Pilule D'or" ("The Golden Pill"), a bouncy, brass-heavy number taking a favorable stance towards birth control, at odds with Pope Paul VI's ruling against contraception. As the '60s drew to a close, Jeanne and longtime friend Annie began sharing an apartment together; the younger woman was deeply enamored, but Deckers made it clear she took her vows, which included celibacy, seriously. Despite living near the poverty level (the church had received all the royalty money from her recordings), the two became very close over the next 25 years. The Belgian government imposed a heavy tax debt on Jeanne's music royalties and her explanation that the church received all the money failed to sway tax collectors.

You might figure a nun having a major hit record would be a once-in-a-century thing, but it actually took much less time than that for lightning to strike twice. In 1974, Sister Janet Mead of Adelaide, South Australia, had success with a million-selling version of "The Lord's Prayer," hitting the U.S. top ten along the way. Soeur Sourire, on the other hand, made her living giving guitar lessons. There were a few attempts at a comeback including a 1982 dance/disco version of her famous hit. As for her personal life, she staunchly denied having any lesbian feelings, though public evidence of a relationship seemed more likely as time went by. The pressures of a difficult life took its toll; in March 1985, Annie Pecher and singing nun Jeanne Deckers overdosed on pills and alcohol in a deliberate double suicide. They were buried in a dual plot near their home in Wavre, the capital city of Belgium's Walloon region.

- Michael Jack Kirby