The Sad Tale Of Sister Luc Gabrielle, The Singing Nun

The sound of Sister Luc Gabrielle and a chorus of four nuns impressed Philips Records and, soon, the world.

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The Singing Nun
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Sister Luc Gabrielle, whose real name was Jeannine Deckers, born in 1928 in Belgium, joined a Dominican Convent at Fichermont near Waterloo, Belgium. For many years she wrote and sang songs to her own guitar accompaniment and in 1961 she approached Philips Records in Brussels. They eventually agreed to a small recording session with no real expectations, but the sound of Sister Luc Gabrielle and a chorus of four nuns impressed the record company and, soon, the world.

They released the album Sister Smile (Soeur Sourire), including the song “Dominique,” sung in French, which came out as a single. It went to No. 4 in the UK and, from 7 December, it topped the American chart for a staggering four weeks, becoming the US Christmas No. 1 of 1963. In so doing, it stopped the Kingsmen’s indelible “Louie Louie” from making the top spot. The Singing Nun also achieved the remarkable feat — the first in American chart history — of a simultaneous No. 1 single and No. 1 album, both of which sold over a million copies.

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“Dominique” won a Grammy Award for “Best Gospel or Religious Song,” but subsequent releases failed to repeat the success, making the Singing Nun one of the most classic one-hit wonders in chart history. Meanwhile, a share of royalties that she earned from her moment of fame were handed over to the Dominican Convent, who spent the money on foreign missions.

The life of Sister Luc Gabrielle inspired the feature film The Singing Nun, in which she was played by Debbie Reynolds. That marked another first: never before had one No. 1 artist starred in a biopic about another. The nun’s unimpressed reaction to the film described it as “fiction.”

As the movie came out, Sister Luc left the convent and resumed her former name, pursuing a full-time singing career. Two singles were released, one in celebration of birth control, “Glory Be To God For The Golden Pill” and the other the pointedly titled “Sister Smile Is Dead.” When they were unsuccessful, Deckers turned to teaching handicapped youngsters in Wavre, Belgium, and went on to open her own school for autistic children.

In April 1985, Deckers and her companion Annie Berchet were found dead in a flat at Waure near Brussels. Both had taken an overdose of barbiturates. The tragedy happened after the Belgian authorities demanded the tax from the monies earned during her fleeting 15 minutes of fame. The convent took a large share of the royalties from her success, as did her record company.

This apparently left the former nun in such a state of depression that she took her own life. In a joint suicide note, Deckers wrote: “We are going together to meet God our Father. He alone can save us from this financial disaster.”

“The
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10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. wendy vandermeer

    July 2, 2015 at 1:57 am

    What a tragic story. I have always Loved that movie but never new the story of her (their ) passing. Goverments are soooo greedy ,and never think about their actions, at any ” cost “. RIP beautiful Singing Nun ( and friend ) PS. Why did she leave the convent?

    • steve

      January 30, 2020 at 11:19 pm

      She was gay.

      • Random

        April 10, 2020 at 5:17 am

        She might have been gay but she was definitely disillusioned, with the convent and its leaders if not Catholicism in general (she apparently tried to lead a “Catholic” life even as a lay member.) It should be noted that she was in favor of birth control, and decided to commit suicide, both of which are considered mortal sins in Catholicism, so she had major doctrinal disagreements as well. Which is not to say she wasn’t a faithful Catholic til the end — her suicide note makes it clear that she was — just that she didn’t always agree with Catholic dogma.

      • Peggie Davis

        May 27, 2020 at 8:25 pm

        SO WHAT? HOW MANY FAMOUS PEOPLE WHO’VE CONTRIBUTED FAR MORE THAN YOU TO THE WORLD, are.
        Get over it Steve and while you’re at it? I suggest YOU try contributing to humanity!

        • Judy007

          August 20, 2020 at 12:26 pm

          Seriously, Steve did not put a judgement in his comment. Merely gave an answer to a question. So what? why do you read judgement into a statement of fact.

      • Deborah Olin

        July 2, 2020 at 10:20 am

        Surprise!
        Not really

  2. Phil Oravec

    December 7, 2017 at 11:01 am

    It is a tragic story but she is at home in heaven with God enjoying life and singing for all eternity. Enjoying her new Life with God new life up in Heaven.

  3. Jay

    May 4, 2018 at 6:32 pm

    Actually phillips took 95% of her earnings not the covenant. Please do you research next time.

  4. Watson98

    December 30, 2020 at 3:01 pm

    El Fisco belga solicitó a Deckers el pago de los impuestos por la canción, pero Phillips Records tuvo el 95% de las ganancias y el Convento el 5% restante, debido a que Deckers había hecho Voto de Pobreza. Es muy molesto que no aclare Ud. que el Convento sí contribuyó a pagar la deuda que el Fisco Belga cobraba a Deckers, pero Phillips Records, no.
    Otra cosa: cuando ella y su pareja se suicidaron, en el mismo día pero sin avisarles, sus amigos habían recaudado una cifra cinco veces mayor de lo que se le cobraba.

  5. Watson98

    December 30, 2020 at 3:03 pm

    The Belgian Treasury asked Deckers to pay the taxes for the song, but Phillips Records had 95% of the profits and the Convent the remaining 5%, because Deckers had taken Poverty Vote. It is very annoying that you do not clarify that the Convent did contribute to pay the debt that the Belgian Treasury charged Deckers, but Phillips Records did not.
    Another thing: when she and her partner committed suicide, on the same day but without notifying them, her friends had collected a figure five times greater than what they were charged.

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