On this day in Addiction Is History, a musical aberration occurred as the “Singing Nun’s” version of “Dominique” hit number 1 on the US pop charts. It was top of the charts in 11 countries worldwide. The singer was a Belgian nun who just enjoyed playing her guitar that she called “Sister Adele” and writing songs. Sister Jeanne-Paule “Jeannine” Deckers would leave the convent, have her faith tested, and ultimately commit suicide by drug and alcohol overdose with her companion of many years after feeling unable to cope with the crushing weight of a tax debt and the closing of a school she and her partner opened to work with children with autism. The “Singing Nun” or, as she was also known “Soeur Sourire” or “Sister Smile”, ended her life with a mixture of tranquilizers and alcohol. Some now have been reintroduced to the song through its use on American Horror Story: Asylum, but its singer-songwriter led a life worthy of any horror story on television and all while bearing the unlikely name of “Sister Smile”.
Jeannine was a lonely girl who enjoyed playing guitar, writing and singing songs, and being outdoors. She met her later partner, Anne Pechner, when Jeannine was a counselor at the camp Anne attended one summer. Anne was 11 years younger than Jeannine and appears to have been smitten from the start as she moved nearby Jeannine and even visited her after Jeannine became a nun. When it appeared that Jeannine might be posted as a missionary in the Congo, Anne attempted suicide. Jeannine stated she wasn’t in love with Anne at this point in her life but did return her friendship.
Jeannine’s talent in songwriting and singing wasn’t lost on the nuns who encouraged Jeannine to sing for people visiting the convent and later to record an album to be sold to support the Congo mission. This album included the soon to be famous “Dominique” as well as other religious songs of her composition. In 1963, just before the British pop invasion took hold, Sister Sourire was big – international in fact. Her superiors were happy with the money but not with the fame and touring that followed. A movie starring Debbie Reynolds as the “Singing Nun” only pushed the affair to farcical proportions.
Eventually Jeannine left the convent but without her name or her royalties which belonged to the convent and the Catholic church. Jeannine tried to recast the magic but she was an unknown singing eventually as “Luc Dominique”. She even tried a disco version of her popular song in the 1970s, not in an attempt to regain fame which she eschewed, but to cover her debt. While the church kept her royalties, the Belgian government assessed they were owed $63,000 in taxes from royalties of “Dominique” and her songs. Jeannine fought paying the taxes as she never had the money but the paper trail was thin and the convent refused responsibility for Jeannine or the taxes.
Jeannine and Anne lived together as roommates and eventually as lovers after Jeannine left the convent. They attempted to manage the tax debt and even opened a boarding school for children with autism but nothing worked and they slipped further into debt. Jeannine was relying more and more on the barbiturates she was prescribed for her anxiety and drinking alcohol heavily as her mental health deteriorated. The smile had faded.
On March 29, 1985, Jeannine and Anne committed suicide together with a mixture of alcohol and tranquilizers. Anne left a note explaining the taxes and other debts were crushing them and they were despondent.Jeannine had become dependent on barbiturates and alcohol and Anne reported Jeannine was suffering bouts of debilitating depression.
“We have reached the end, spiritually and financially and now we go to God… We go to eternity in peace. We trust that God will forgive us. He saw us both suffer and he wont let us down. It would please Jeanine not to die from the world. She had a hard time on earth. She deserves to live in the minds of the people.”
They asked in the note left behind to receive a church funeral and be buried together. Anne and Jeannine are laid to rest together under a joint stone that reads, “J’ai vu voler son ame/A travers les nuages” or “I saw her soul fly across the clouds”, a line from Jeannine’s song “Sister Smile Is Dead”. Hopefully, Anne and Jeannine have found some peace now.