Yesterday I was watching a U.S. Open tennis match between Dominic Thiem of Austria and Alex de Minaur of Australia when a totally random thought entered my head that eventually took me down a path to this little piece of history:
On April 1, 1985, in the city of Wavre, Belgium, the bodies of two women were found in an apartment at 144 Chaussee de Bruxelles. One of the women was Jeanne-Paule Marie “Jeanine“ Deckers, age 52. The other was Annie Pécher, 41. Their bodies were discovered by local police officers, who had been alerted that the two women had not been seen or heard from in days. After a brief investigation, it was determined that Jeanine and Annie had died of a suicide pact on March 29, having both ingested lethal doses of barbiturates and alcohol.
Their deaths made headlines in Belgium, but most of the rest of the world reported the news and quickly moved on. It was only later, when bits and pieces of the story began to emerge, that lengthier articles on their deaths delved into matters such as faith, sexuality, politics, pop culture, money, and the power of the church. That’s where I picked it all up, 35 years after the fact.
One of the deceased, Jeanine Deckers, had earned international fame two decades earlier as the “The Singing Nun,” the unlikely voice behind a huge hit single that topped the charts around the world. That single was “Dominique,” sung entirely in French. It was written in honor of Saint Dominic, a 13th century Spanish priest who later founded the Dominican Order in France. “Dominique” was eventually recorded in several different languages and served as an inspiration to hundreds of millions of believers worldwide. It sold enough copies to knock the Beatles off the top of the charts in some countries, and “Louie Louie” off the top in the U.S.
Jeanine, also known as Sister Luc-Gabrielle and Sœur Sourire (“Sister Smile”), was a member of the Dominican order, having taken up residence at the Missionary Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of Fichermont, headquartered in the Belgian city of Waterloo. While there, she began writing, singing and recording her own songs. “Dominique” was included on an album recorded in 1961 to help raise money for a mission in the Congo.
The song spent the next few years rising up various pop music charts, while the album sold more than 2 million copies. Jeanine became a big enough star to land on the Ed Sullivan Show in January of 1964. She remains the only Belgian artist to ever have a No. 1 hit in the U.S. An English-language version of “Dominique” was recorded by Mary Ford, better known as one-half of the husband-and-wife musical team Les Paul and Mary Ford. A movie loosely based on Jeanine’s life appeared in 1966 and starred Debbie Reynolds, an A-lister then but later best known as the mother of Princess Leia*. Jeanine referred to the movie as a “work of fiction.”
I was 5 years old when “Dominique” reached the States, and remember it well. It seemed to be on the radio every 20 minutes, and is one of only three radio hits I actually have a memory of from those very early years (the others were “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”). It wasn’t until 1965 or so that I began forming more permanent memories of the music I heard on the radio. I also remember Jeanine performing the song on television, wearing glasses and full nun’s habit.
“Dominique” is a simple song, just acoustic guitar and vocals, with catchy harmonies and a melody that sticks in your brain and stays there. If you’re not familiar with it, or simply forgot, give it a listen here. I don’t know any of the words, not being fluent in French. But here are some sample lyrics in English, courtesy of the Songfacts website:
Dominique, nique, nique, over the land he plods
And sings a little song
Never asking for reward
He just talks about the Lord
He just talks about the Lord
At a time when Johnny Lackland
Over England was the King
Dominique was in the backland
Fighting sin like anything
I can’t attest to the accuracy of the translation. A “Google Translate” search came up with a slightly different and more, um, interesting version, which you can check out at the bottom of this blog**.
I’m not sure exactly why this song bounced into my head while watching a tennis match. I can only assume it was because one of the players was named Dominic, so one thing led to another. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t thought about the song “Dominique” in at least five decades. But having thought about it now, I had to give it a listen, so I took a trip to YouTube. I actually kind of dig it. Very catchy tune in its own way.
Next, I decided to do a search for The Singing Nun, just so I could find out what she was up to these days. I figured her to be in her late 80s or early 90s by now, and didn’t doubt she would still be alive, given the life expectancy of both nuns and Western Europeans.
That’s when I learned about the suicide pact and Jeanine’s longtime companion, Annie. I also learned about Jeanine’s falling out with the Catholic Church, her money problems, her addiction to certain medications, and her sad final days.
It was all very shocking material – especially when your lone memory was of a gentle looking, bespectacled woman with a nun’s habit and an acoustic guitar. I would have assumed that Jeanine went back to her quiet life of faith after her musical stardom faded. I certainly wouldn’t have pegged her for a suicide pact with a longtime friend who might also have been a lover.
Somehow, the news of their suicides escaped my notice for 35 years. I don’t remember hearing about it in 1985. The only thing I remember about April 1, 1985 – the day the bodies were discovered – is that Sports Illustrated published its infamous Sidd Finch “April Fool’s” story***, written by George Plimpton.
I won’t go into all the details of what happened to Jeanine in the years following the release of “Dominique.” There’s some decent background info on the Geezer Music Club, Back2Stonewall, Portable Press and UDiscoverMusic websites if you’d like to take a deeper dive. But I can provide an abbreviated version.
Although “Dominique” made Jeanine famous, it didn’t make her rich. She barely realized a penny from all those record sales because just about all of the royalties either went to the record producer or the convent. She had made a vow of poverty when she joined the convent, so she couldn’t very well argue for a bigger piece of the pie, and probably wasn’t inclined to, anyway. She did release a follow-up album that sold poorly. “Dominique” turned out to be her only hit, which put Jeanine into the same club as other one-hit wonders like Zager & Evans, Dexys Midnight Runners, Right Said Fred and the Baha Men.
However, the song “Dominique” did make a rather bizarre return appearance 40 years later, which you can also read about at the bottom****.
With Jeanine’s singing career on the wane, the convent sent her to a school for secondary theology training. It was here that she crossed paths with Annie Pécher, who has been described as either an old childhood acquaintance or someone Jeanine had once mentored as a youth counselor. Annie was 11 years Jeanine’s junior, but the two struck up a deep and lifelong friendship. Rumors spread that they were more than friends, though Jeanine long insisted that the relationship was platonic. For what it’s worth, the conventional wisdom is that they were lovers.
In 1966, Jeanine and Annie went to Africa to do missionary work. At around the same time, Jeanine and the Catholic Church parted ways. Whose decision that was is up for interpretation. What’s known is that Jeanine and the church disagreed on many things, including feminism and contraception. Jeanine was a proponent of birth control, and even recorded a song called “Glory Be to God For the Golden Pill” (which didn’t rise up the charts). Meanwhile, whispers of her relationship with Annie probably didn’t go over well with church authorities.
According to one version of the story, Jeanine left the church to pursue a life as a lay Dominican. But other versions say she was forced out and didn’t leave of her own free will. She remained a woman of faith, however, praying several times a day, maintaining a humble lifestyle and devoting much of her time to charitable work.
The next decade-and-a-half are a little fuzzy. In the early 70s Jeanine reportedly became involved with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which combines elements of Catholicism and charismatic faiths but is not officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church. She released another album in 1979 as “Sister Smile,” but it didn’t make much commercial headway.
Jeanine’s life took a dark turn in the early 1980s when Belgium’s Federal Public Service Finance authority began hounding her over taxes. According to one source, she was told to pay $63,000 in back taxes for royalties from her record sales. She argued that since the royalties went to her convent instead of her, she didn’t owe anything. The convent and the Catholic Church apparently sat on their hands, not offering to intervene or help out. The ensuing legal battle eventually led to deep financial problems, which Jeanine tried to solve by returning to the recording studio. She even put out a synth-disco version of “Dominique” that went nowhere.
Meanwhile, Jeanine had developed an addiction to medication she took to deal with anxiety. As her legal and financial problems mounted, she became depressed and even more dependent on tranquilizers and alcohol. Things hit rock bottom when an autism center for children she started with Annie in 1983 had to close two years later due to financial difficulties. That’s when they made the suicide pact.
Annie left a note saying that the closing of the school, coupled with their escalating debt, were the main reasons behind the double suicide. The note also said she and Jeanine had not lost their faith, and would like a church funeral. The two were buried together in the Cheremont Cemetery in Wavre.
Their tomb carries this inscription: J’ai vu voler son ame/A travers les nuages. It’s a line from Jeanine’s song, “Sister Smile is Dead.” In English it means, “I saw her soul fly across the clouds.”
So, that’s the story. I might never have known about it if I hadn’t been watching Dominic Thiem play tennis yesterday (he won in straight sets, BTW). I still find it hard to believe, and more than a little sad, that The Singing Nun from my early childhood wound up like this. There’s nothing I can add to make her story more poignant or enlightening. I don’t have much biting wisdom to share about the life and death of Jeanine Deckers.
Well, I suppose there’s one thing.
In 2020, the Catholic Church remains one of the richest and most powerful organizations in the world, with more than 1 billion followers, a financial worth estimated well into the tens of billions of dollars, and worldwide land holdings estimated as high as 177 million acres.
Jeanine Deckers, once one of the Catholic Church’s most famous ambassadors, died broke, tormented and depressed in a little apartment in Belgium, her body forever stilled by pills and booze.
Note: The title of this blog comes from the French version of “Dominique.” It’s the most oft-repeated phrase in the song and in English means “He speaks only of the good God.”
*Princess Leia, of course, is the Star Wars character played by Carrie Fisher, the daughter of Debbie Reynolds.
** I copied the French version of “Dominique” into the Google Translate site to get the English version, starting with “Dominique, nique, nique.” What I learned is that “nique,” in French, roughly translates into a physical activity between two people that usually involves taking your clothes off and moving your hips a lot. Here’s what Google Translate spat back at me:
Dominica, f**k, f**k
Poor and singing road
In all roads, in all places,
He only speaks of the good Lord
He only speaks of the good Lord
*** Sidd Finch was a fictional character created by George Plimpton for an article in the 1985 Baseball Preview edition of Sports Illustrated, dated April 1. The article was meant to be read as a true story. Finch was a mysterious rookie pitcher for the New York Mets who wore only one shoe (a hiker’s boot), was an expert at the French Horn, practiced yoga, and had never played baseball before. A Mets scout saw him throwing one day and found out he could hurl a fastball 168 mph – much faster than any pitcher had ever thrown a fastball before. The subhead of the article read: “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd’s deciding about yoga — and his future in baseball.” The first letters of each word before the dash spelled out “Happy April Fools’ Day.” And that’s what it was – an April Fool’s joke, a complete fabrication that fooled millions of readers, including me.
****While looking up YouTube versions of “Dominique,” I ran across a video tied to the “American Horror Story” FX series. I’ve never seen the series, but apparently each of its seasons has its own individual trailer. The second season, entitled “Asylum,” is set in 1964 and follows patients and staff members at the church-owned Briarcliff Manor. One of its characters is “the stern Sister Jude,” a nun played by Jessica Lange. Other stars include Joseph Fiennes, Zachary Quinto, Chloe Sevigny and James Cromwell. “Dominique” was the song selected for the trailer, which is truly bizarre, creepy and fascinating. You can see it here.
Note 2: The photo here is copyrighted Days of Love, so I assume that’s who gets the credit.