Debbie Reynolds and the Less-Than-Bouncy Life of the Real Singing Nun

The loss of Debbie Reynolds just hours after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher, is a double tragedy unlike anything Hollywood and movie lovers have ever experienced. The personality clashes between mother and daughter have been exhaustively documented, but their family troubles shouldn’t overshadow that Reynolds and Fisher were busy working actresses who appeared on popular prime time sit-coms, cable channel series, and, of course, in a lot of movies.

To be honest Reynolds’ films were a bit on the frothy side: Singin’ in the Rain, The Tender Trap, even the star-studded How the West Was Won. Part of that same bubbly genre is The Singing Nun, the 1966 musical “biopic” (not really) of a real-life Belgian sister whose sweet religious folk song, “Dominique,” soared to the top of the pop charts, beating out The Beatles for the Number 1 spot, and winning a Grammy Award. Aside from Reynolds’ performance of the chart-topper, “Dominique,” The Singing Nun, the movie, had nothing in common with the tragic life of the real Singing Nun.

At age 25, Jeanine Decker escaped her loveless family life and a fiancé who had broken off their engagement and entered the convent of the Dominican sisters in Waterloo, site of Napoleon’s final defeat. Typically, novices were not permitted to bring personal property into the convent, but Jeanine proved herself to be such a skillful song-writer and performer, her superiors let her keep her guitar.

Now known as Sister Luc-Gabrielle, Jeanine, backed up by several nuns with musical gifts, sang for local congregations. Her music was well received, so much so that Sister Luc-Gabrielle asked her superior if she could record a selection of her songs, with the proceeds earmarked for her order’s mission in the Congo.

The vanity LP was carried by one tune — “Dominique,” a musical tribute to St. Dominic, the 12th-century priest who founded the Dominican order. Sister Luc-Gabrielle sang in her native French, and outside the French-speaking world, few of her fans realized that behind the bouncy tune were lyrics that described Dominic’s encounters with members of the Albigensian sect. Sister Luc-Gabrielle even used the word “heretic” in her song—a term that had never before appeared in pop lyrics.

Executives at Philips Records heard “Dominique,” and recognized the money-making possibilities of signing a singing nun to a record deal. With the permission of her Mother Superior, Sister Luc-Gabrielle signed the contract and agreed to go on tour to promote her music. As a nun vowed to poverty, any royalties generated by Sister Luc-Gabrielle’s songs would go directly to the Dominican order.

In a feeble attempt to preserve her privacy and make her appealing to the widest possible audience, Philips’ marketing department renamed Sister Luc-Gabrielle “Sister Smile.” Talk about a lousy choice for a stage name. Go to YouTube and watch Sister Luc-Gabrielle’s performance of “Dominique.” She looks dour, severe, even miserable. Smiling she is not.

Debbie Reynolds, on the other hand, was positively beaming throughout The Singing Nun. A new set of cheerful English lyrics were written specifically for the movie, and at no time while singing “Dominique” did Reynolds mention heretics. The movie was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Music category.

Sister Luc-Gabrielle was not prepared for the media frenzy that overwhelmed her, the gushing celebrities who wanted to meet her, the notes from fans—a lot of them men who had something other than folk songs on their mind. Pretty thoroughly freaked out, Sister Luc-Gabrielle retreated to her convent, where things were not much better. Back in the only place she considered home, the Singing Nun suffered the jealousy and spite of too many of her sisters.

Then Sister Luc-Gabrielle met a novice eleven years her junior, Annie Pecher. As the friendship deepened into a romance, both women left the Dominicans and moved in together. Jeanine tried to revive her singing career by recording “Glory Be to God for the Golden Pill,” which gives thanks for contraception. The she tried to kill off her old persona in a song entitled, “Sister Smile Is Dead.” Both numbers tanked. If Jeanine succeeded in killing off anything, it was her audience.

To make matters worse, Belgian tax officials began to harass Jeanine regarding her expenses during the years she was on the road promoting “Dominique.” As a nun whose earnings had gone straight to her order, she had kept no receipts, but that excuse did not satisfy the tax man.

As their situation became ever more desperate, Jeanine and Annie made a suicide pact. On March 29, 1985, Jeanine Deckers, age 51, and Annie Pecher, age 40, swallowed lethal doses of barbiturates. Journalist Simon Edge, writing in the Express (UK) of the unhappy life of Jeanine Deckers, said, “Sister Smile… ended up with very little to smile about.”

 

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