The Singing Nun, a forgotten 60s icon
She had a destiny that was both exceptional and tragic, sealed by a curse. Jeanine Deckers was born in Brussels on 17 October 1933 to an authoritarian and conservative mother and a father dominated by his wife. After unsuccessfully trying to become an art teacher, in 1959, Jeanine Deckers joined the Dominican Sisters at the Fichermont convent in Waterloo, with her guitar. Blessed with a beautiful voice, she decided to sing as a way of bringing young people closer to God.
On 24 October 1961, she walked through the studio doors of the major record company Philips in Brussels, to record her first single. In early 1962, the record was released and met with immediate and considerable success. The song Dominique would remain at number one for four weeks and spent ten weeks at the top of the albums chart! It was also internationally successful; the song was one of the top ten singles in the charts in Norway (2nd), Ireland (4th), Denmark (4th), the Netherlands (6th), Germany (7th) and the United Kingdom (7th) in 1963. This European success led Philips to release her single and album in the United States. The single “Dominique” was number 1 in America for 4 weeks in December 1963, while her album The Singing Nun was number 1 in the album charts (Billboard 200) for 10 weeks from December 1963 to February 1964. On 5 January 1964, The Singing Nun appeared on the leading music show on American television, “The Ed Sullivan Show”. The presenter, Ed Sullivan himself, travelled to the Fichermont convent with his team to meet the sister. In 1966, an American film, Dominique (The Singing Nun), told her story with Debbie Reynolds in the title role. In the film, the sister’s songs are performed as English translations. The hit Dominique met with equivalent success in other countries in the English-speaking world, becoming the number 1 single in Canada, New Zealand and Australia and reaching number 5 in the charts in South Africa.
In early 1964, the single's release in Latin America generated great excitement among the public, and it reached number 1 in Mexico and number 2 in Argentina and Uruguay. This global success should have set the artist up for the rest of her life but, in July 1966, Jeanine Deckers signed a series of documents which would cause great problems for the singing nun because in them she renounced the name of 'Sœur Sourire' and the 'Singing Nun' which increased ambiguity surrounding the collection of rights for her songs.
On 21 March 1967, Jeanine Deckers decided to leave the convent and focus on her musical career, which did not take off. In the meantime, she shared her life with her friend Annie Pécher. In 1974, the ex-nun ran into problems with the tax authorities, who demanded taxes on the fortune that the song “Dominique” should have generated for her. However, according to the contract signed, the profits were collected by her convent. In 1982, her centre for autistic children, which she founded with Annie Pécher, was declared bankrupt. She then tried to relaunch her music career by recording a remixed version of “Dominique” which did not meet with the hoped-for success. Growing increasingly depressed, Jeanine Deckers and her partner Annie Pécher committed suicide together on 29 March 1985. They are buried in a shared grave in the cemetery in Wavre.