On not ever giving up: unexpected inspiration from the tragic story of “The Singing Nun”

Some of you may be old enough to remember a singing nun from Belgium on the Ed Sullivan Show, performing her surprise hit “Dominique” that sat at the top of the US charts for four weeks and went on to win a Grammy Award. Her real name was Jeanne Deckers: she went by the stage name Soeur Sourire (literally, Sister Smile).

She was born to a master confectionary baker and his strict wife in the town of Laeken, where the Royal Palace stands. (According to some sources, her parents were strict Catholics, but according to an article in the French Catholic paper La Croix, she grew up with a secular humanist background and came to religion on her own.)

Always something of a tomboy, she was very active in the Belgian version of the Girl-scouts. Her parents’ wish was that she would get married and take over the family business, but she decided that life wasn’t for her and literally got herself to the nunnery.

The new novice was well liked, especially her singing —and as one of the few worldly possessions she was allowed to keep was a portable musical instrument, she got an acoustic guitar and learned to play it well enough to accompany herself. Her superiors actually encouraged her to perform, and somehow a tape of her got played to an A & R person at the Philips record label (a subsidiary of the electronics giant) .

They immediately latched upon this one catchy song, which most non-Catholics (myself included: this isn’t exactly my musical cup of tea) don’t realize is actually a paean to the eponymous founder of the Dominican Order (to which her monastery belonged).

That it became a hit in Belgium and France was not that much of a surprise: that a song in French would climb to the top of the charts in the USA definitely was. An American tour and a successful first album followed.[French Wikipedia claims the “Dominique-nique-nique” chorus was risqué, since in modern French slang “niquer” means “to scr*w” —- but I believe this became common colloquial French only long after she was dead, slipping in from Arabic via North African immigrants.]

Anyway, during Vatican II and its aftermath she became disillusioned with monastic life and with her church’s religious establishment more generally, and sought a new way that she thought would be more relevant to today’s world. Her song lyrics also took on a more provocative character, praising contraception and excoriating what she called “con-conservateurs” (conservative c**ts/*ssholes). To cut a long story short, confrontations with her order were inevitable and eventually she was voluntarily laicized.

And now her troubles truly began — not with her former religious superiors but with the Belgian tax authorities. They came after her for back taxes on “her” royalties — of which she had never seen a penny. After all, she had made vows of poverty, so the 5% or so that would have been hers were kept by her monastery, with Philips keeping the remainder for themselves. Her pleas fell on deaf ears with the tax authorities, and Philips argued that they had discharged their obligations according to the contract.

Her monastery bought or donated her an apartment in Wavre, in exchange for signing a document relinquishing all further claims and agreeing not to slander the order in public. She went to live there with a former classmate, a therapist working with autistic children named Annie Pecher. (It is pretty clear that the relationship between them was no ordinary friendship but an amitié particulaire, as the French euphemism goes — although they always denied that it had a physical component.)

They started a school for autistic children named Claire-Joie (“clear joy”), but sank ever further in debt, with no hope of ever paying the Belgian tax authorities back. (I am not a Belgian tax lawyer, but I believe this would have been an easily winnable case.)

All her attempts to reboot her singing career, in order to generate income, met with failure — the last attempt was a collaboration with Belgian electronic music pioneer and producer Marc Moulin (of “Telex” fame).

The couple sank into depression fueled by alcohol and prescription medications. After their school went bankrupt, they took their lives in a suicide pact. They left detailed instructions on each item in the apartment whom to give it to, and how they wished to be buried together.

Now get this: the very same day, her royalties statement from SABAM (the Belgian equivalent of ASCAP) was issued (it must have arrived in the mail the next day or so): it was about ten times the amount owed to the taxman.

Moral of the story: salvation may be just around the corner when you feel you absolutely are “done”. In the immortal last words to the House of Commons of WInston Churchill: “Never flinch, never weary, never despair.”

ADDENDUM: Kudos to D. Jason Fleming, who drew my attention to parallels with the case of “Golden Age” science fiction and alternate history writer H. Beam Piper. “He committed suicide, leaving a note apologizing for the mess, never knowing that his agent, who had died a short time before, actually sold a number of stories and books of his, which would have erased the problems that led him to do it in the first place.”

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