Good Habits: Weird History

Article by Michael Hingston

For a brief, shining moment, The Singing Nun topped the Billboard charts.

THE Billboard Hot 100 isn’t a perfect metric for listing the biggest songs in America—its measuring criteria are constantly shifting, for instance, making it difficult to compare chart positions over time—but it’s always a fascinating snapshot of certain periods in pop-culture history. And when things get weird, the results are frozen in time for all to see.

Take the week of December 7, 1963. Despite the decade, little of what we now think of as “sixties music” had arrived on the charts yet. At this point, the Beach Boys were around, and the Kingsmen’s iconic cover of “Louie Louie” had spiked to No. 4. But the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion were still months away from crossing the Atlantic. Mostly, it was a simpler time on the Billboard charts, the domain of singers like Chubby Checker and Elvis Presley, whose “Bossa Nova Baby” was still hanging around the charts at No. 29.

But the No. 1 spot in the country? That belonged to “Dominique,” a gentle acoustic sing-along, sung entirely in French, written and performed by a Belgian woman in full habit—Jeannine Deckers, better known across the English-speaking world as The Singing Nun.

Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers was born in 1933 and grew up in Brussels. After college she joined the Dominican Order and moved into a convent. In her spare time, Deckers was a singer-songwriter, and her musical talents quickly caught the ears of her fellow nuns. Once they realized what she could do, they sent her off to Philips Records to record an album that could be privately used to promote the convent. But when Philips executives heard Deckers’s material, they smelled a commercial hit and offered her a record contract as Soeur Sourire, aka Sister Smile. “Dominique,” an ode to the founder of her order, took off on the European charts in 1962, and was exported to the United States soon afterward.

As improbable a hit as the song might seem today, “Dominique” nonetheless followed what would become a familiar pop trajectory. It rocketed up the Billboard charts, in part due to the comforting feeling of innocence it conjured in the wake of the JFK assassination, and Deckers even came to America to perform it live on The Ed Sullivan Show—once again beating the Beatles to the punch. It was there she received the moniker The Singing Nun, and a few years later Hollywood came calling, adapting her life story into a musical of the same name, starring Debbie Reynolds.

But fame, as always, came at a cost. Deckers felt that her persona was difficult to live up to, and that the Church, which handled much of her career, including her income, was too controlling. “I was never allowed to be depressed,” she said later. 

In 1966, she left her convent and started releasing music that was increasingly critical of the Church, including the pro-birth-control song, “Glory Be to God for the Golden Pill.” After the failure of another album (sample song title: “Sister Smile Is Dead”), Deckers returned to Belgium to open a school for children with autism. By the late 1970s, the Belgian government went after her for $63,000 in unpaid taxes, which Deckers claimed ought to be paid by the convent. She briefly returned to music, releasing a disco version of “Dominique” that sounds pretty much how you think it would. Finally, in 1985, struggling with both her finances and her mental health, Deckers and her female roommate committed suicide together. Some later sources, like the 2009 Belgian biopic Sister Smile, argue that the two women were long-time lovers.

As for “Dominique,” it remains one of only a handful of foreign-language songs to ever hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song has had a curiously lengthy legacy in American pop culture, too, being referenced in TV shows from The Simpsons to Mad Men to Everybody Loves Raymond. Most recently, “Dominique” was darkly repurposed over the course of the entire season of American Horror Story: Asylum, as a torture device played on an endless loop by a sadistic Catholic nun in the hallways of a mental institution.

It may not be the legacy Deckers had in mind, but given the surprising and tragic arc of her post-Billboard career, that sounds about par for the course.

Image via Getty

Leave a Reply