Nuns are People Too

I am rarely moved to tears by prose. Put on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or cue up “Space Oddity” by David Bowie and you will be guaranteed a few of them, if that’s what you want. You probably don’t. But when reading does cause me to cry, it’s somehow more real. It hurts. I can only cite three examples in my entire life of literacy.

  1. The New Yorker profile of Howard Dean, which talked about the mysterious death of his brother, Charlie, in Laos, and how Howard wore his brother’s belt every day on the campaign trail. I shouldn’t even think about this. It still gets me.
  2. Fire of the Heart. This unassuming little Quaker pamphlet was written by the Anne Morrison-Welsh, the widow of Norman Morrison, the Baltimore Quaker teacher who took his infant daughter, Emily, to Washington, handed her to a stranger, and set himself on fire outside of Robert McNamara’s office in protest of the Vietnam war. Years later, she and Emily and her other daughters traveled to Vietnam and were overwhelmed by how much Norman’s little-known (in the US) sacrifice meant to them. I had to put this 39-page work down several times.
  3. The Singing Nun Story: The Life and Death of Soeur Sourire by D.A. Chadwick. Having recently been introduced to the delightful music of Soeur Sourire, or the Singing Nun, or Sister Luc Gabrielle, or Jeannine Deckers, I was interested to learn more about the Belgian Dominican who was only knocked off the top of the American charts by the Beatles. Her captivating voice and sparse arrangements have been a great comfort to me for months.

I didn’t know what I was in for when I cracked this book open. This one got the husbandly “What are you reading? Oh. That looks… good?” Deckers, who was presented as a kitsch object or childish innocent from the get-go—she was called “Sister Smile” in Europe and “The Singing Nun” in America—nonetheless captivated listeners with her clear voice and unerring melodies.

Deckers’ childhood was spent in the company of a rather grim family of bakers; she may have been sexually abused; and wasn’t sure if religious life was quite right either, but options at the time were limited. In the convent, she composed and sang religious songs and was asked to record them so that the records could be given away as gifts. Once the music was heard in the studio, it was decided it should be released by the record company. “Dominique,” a song which slyly pokes fun at St. Dominic, became a worldwide hit, and Deckers even got a misleading Hollywood biopic.

Legal and other entanglements ensued, and Deckers left the order to form a “community of two” with her lifelong companion, Annie Pécher. She continued to write and perform and reside in convents and monasteries periodically for the rest of her life. Pécher was a pioneer in the education of autistic children in her own right, but their story ended tragically when the two, hounded by the Belgian government for taxes, took their lives together. The notes they wrote to each other are presented in the book.

Deckers didn’t quit being a Catholic after leaving the Dominicans, and she spent the rest of her life trying to find some place in the church, but there was no peace for her there. She and Pécher were constantly being “accused” of being lesbians, although Deckers swore they were platonic friends. Whatever form their relationship took, their lifelong partnership and deep love for each other is rare—rare indeed. The troubled Deckers probably wouldn’t have lasted as long as she did without her devoted Annie.

Deckers, who was presented as a novelty act, was nonetheless a truly talented singer/songwriter and forebearer of what was to become one of the dominant modes of pop music in the 1960s: folk. Because she was a nun, and a woman, and wearing a habit and then not, the world looked upon her as being “small” or “silly” or just a joke. I’m reminded of another artist/nun, Sister Corita, who never received the same art-world accolades as her male brethren working in the same field, at the same time, even though Corita had great popular success. If you’ve ever wondered what is even more absurd than a woman artist, I’ve got the answer right here. A nun artist.

Chadwick, who did an excellent job researching and uncovering the details of Deckers’ troubled life (pushing on through resistance from various Belgians who regard Deckers as an embarrassment) ends the book with a remembrance of herself as a child listening to the Singing Nun, looking out at the trees through her window at the darkening sky, and wishing that someday she would know the peace she heard in the voice of Jeannine Deckers.

Just a little pollen or dust or something, don’t mind me.

Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.