The Once Joyful Song of Belgium's Singing Nun Is Silenced by Despair—and Suicide

UPDATED 04/22/1985 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 04/22/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

They called her Soeur Sourire—"Sister Smile"—and she was the most improbable international pop star of the 1960s. From within the walls of a Belgian convent she composed a lilting paean to St. Dominic, which she sang in a high, clear voice to her own guitar accompaniment. Her recording of Dominique sold more than 1.5 million copies and temporarily topped such rock heavy hitters as the Beatles and Stevie Wonder on the charts.

In 1966 Hollywood honored her with a fictionalized musical called The Singing Nun, starring Debbie Reynolds. That same year the real Soeur Sourire left the Fichermont Convent near Waterloo without taking her final vows, reportedly to pursue missionary and recording careers. She all but vanished until early this month when she and a woman companion were found dead in their modest apartment in Wavre, near Brussels. The tragedy was termed a double suicide through "massive doses of barbituates swallowed with alcohol."

Soeur Sourire was shy even at the height of her brief fame, and little was ever made public about her life. In her seven years at Fichermont, she was called Sister Luc-Gabrielle. She was said to have been born 51 years ago as Janine Deckers, but at her death her name was variously spelled as Jeanne or Jeanine.

In her last years she was overwhelmed by financial problems. She claimed she'd donated most of her song earnings to her convent, but the Belgian government nonetheless held her liable for back taxes of between $47,000 and $63,000. Nor was she ever able to duplicate her one big hit. Two years ago she issued an updated electronic version of Dominique, but it failed to attract sales.

At about that time, Deckers and her friend of 10 years, Annie Pecher, a physiotherapist and also an ex-nun, founded a center for autistic children, but their project soon withered for lack of funds. "We hope God will welcome us. He saw us suffer," the women wrote in their last letter. Belgium's Catholic authorities granted their wish to be buried in consecrated ground. Only a handful of friends and family members were on hand to mourn.

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