Remembering Jeanne Deckers, Lesbian Catholic Who Won Fame as “The Singing Nun”

Jeanne Deckers, left, and Annie Pécher

A recent report on LGBTQ history highlighted the lesbian identity of Jeanne Deckers, also known as “The Singing Nun” who achieved worldwide fame in the 1960s.

According to Back2Stonewall, an LGBTQ history website, Deckers acquired world fame in 1963 with the release of the French song “Dominique,which succeeded on musical charts including Billboard in the U.S. Her song and popularity gained international attention when her album sold nearly two million copies in 1962. The success of “Dominique” led to the production and release of the blockbuster, The Singing Nun, starring Debbie Reynolds. 

The website also reported on a less well-known side of this singer-songwriter. Deckers joined the Missionary Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of Fichermont, Belgium in 1959, where she took the name Sister Luc-Gabrielle. Also known as Sœur Sourire (“Sister Smile”), she struggled to remain faithful to the community after maintaining a close relationship with her friend, Annie Pécher. 

The two met in their youth while away at a seaside camp. “Annie, who was eleven years younger than Deckers, became warmly attached to her, a sentiment that Deckers at the time did not reciprocate, ” the website reported. At that point,  Deckers was focused on living with her sisters.

Years later, the two reconnected in 1963 when Deckers was ordered “to take theology courses at the University of Louvain.” Rekindling the close friendship, “the younger Pécher relocated to be closer to Deckers while she attended the university.” As they grew older, Pécher visited Deckers in the convent regularly. They grew such an attachment that, when Deckers was almost sent out on a missionary trip, Pécher “fell into a deep depression and tried to kill herself.” While this attempt was unsuccessful, it was clear that she cared deeply for Deckers but also struggled with mental health issues. 

As Pécher fell more in love, Deckers remained true to her religious commitment and her musicianship. The nun began to write and perform her own music for her fellow sisters, often putting on concerts. The sisters loved her music so much that “her religious superiors encouraged her to record an album, which visitors… at the convent would be able to purchase.” Many people, secular and non-secular alike, recognized and cherished her musical talent. 

As her fame grew, the identities between her religious life and her worldly life began to clash. In 1966, she left the Dominicans, explaining that she was forced out because of disagreements she had with the superiors.

After leaving the convent, Deckers chose to live with Pécher, at first refusing to have any type of romantic or sexual relationship with her. Her diaries indicate that after 14 years of living together, they developed a lesbian relationship.

When the couple finally settled into a life together, “the Belgian government claimed that [Deckers] owed $63,000 in back taxes from the royalties of her music.” She attempted to argue that the Missionary Dominican Sisters were responsible, but the verdict ultimately landed on her as an individual woman. The weight of this financial burden deeply affected Deckers’ already compromised mental health. Deckers had struggled with depression in the past, which came through most clearly in lyrics that her superiors ultimately made her edit out of her songs.

Having struggled so intensely with this weight in the past, the financial burden of the royalties ultimately pushed Deckers and Pécher both to die by suicide on March 29th, 1985. In a farewell note, they “cited financial difficulties and stated they had not given up their faith and wished to be buried together after a church funeral.” Buried together at Cheremont Cemetery in Wavre, Walloon Brabant, the tombstone inscription reads, “I saw her soul fly across the clouds,” a phrase from the refrain of Deckers’ song “Dominique.” 

Recognizing the stories of LGBTQ church people from the past is a way to carve space for the future of queer folks in the Church.

Emily Win, April 18, 2020

2 replies
  1. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    A story of faith, love, and tragedy. She was indeed a precious gift to the world and to the Church. A stirring and powerful story. Thank you for sharing their story.

    Reply

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