The Singing Nun
If I say the name Allan Smethurst to you I don’t suppose it will mean very much. So, here goes: Allan Smethurst. No? I thought not. However, what about “The Singing Postman”? I’m sure that will stir a vague memory for fans of Sixties’ popular music. You might also remember “Hev Yew Gotta Loight, Boy?”, the hit record from 1966 that won Allan ( who really was a postman) an Ivor Novello Award for best novelty song of the year and, with a series of LPs and less- successful singles that followed, introduced Norfolk dialect to the listening public ( Not forgetting, of course, the song’s colourful heroine Molly Windley — “she smook like a chimley”).
The 1960s produced a number of similarly offbeat artists and songs, providing a refreshing contrast to the established pop groups and singers with their electric guitars, long hair and fashionable clothes, and bringing with them, in many cases, interesting background stories that were seized upon by the press. Unfortunately for Allan, who suffered from chronic stage fright, the sudden fame and fortune proved impossible to handle: problems with alcohol followed and he ended his days in poverty in a Salvation Army hostel.
The sad saga of The Singing Postman, and the stark difference between the gentle innocence of his songs and the harsh reality of his life, provided an uncomfortable echo of another “novelty” performer who had reached the charts three years earlier. In fact the story of Jeanne (“Jeanine”) Deckers, the Belgian nun whose self- penned song “Dominique” became a worldwide
hit in 1963 — reaching number one in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA — was even darker and more tragic.
Born in Laeken in 1933, the daughter of a baker, Jeanine began playing the guitar and singing at Girl Guide meetings. After attending art school, in September 1959 she entered a Dominican convent in Waterloo, took a vow of poverty and adopted the name Sister LucGabrielle. Speculation later suggested that it was a failed engagement and subsequent nervous breakdown that had prompted her to take such a radical step.
The young sister continued to write songs to entertain the other nuns, receiving the approval and admiration of her religious superiors who suggested she should record an album of original religious songs which could be sold to visitors. However, when an executive at the Philips recording studio in Brussels heard her compositions he immediately recognised there was potential far beyond the convent walls. With the agreement of the Dominican order, at the end of 1963 the song “Dominique” ( about the 13th- century saint who had founded it) was released as a single under the singer/ composer’s stage- name of Soeur Sourire (“Sister Smile”).
As already described, the song, promoted by its unlikely composer on a world tour, became a huge hit, as did the album from which it was taken, Soeur Sourire — The Singing Nun, which sold more than two million copies. In the United States Sister Luc- Gabrielle even appeared on the programme that had
become a must for all UK acts with ambitions to make it big on the other side of the Atlantic: The Ed Sullivan Show. In the United Kingdom the record reached number seven in the charts in December 1963. Just how unusual she and her song were is emphasised by looking at the top six at the time: 1. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” ( The Beatles), 2. “She Loves You” ( The Beatles), 3. “You Were Made For Me” ( Freddie and The Dreamers), 4. “Secret Love” ( Kathy Kirby), 5. “I Only Want To Be With You” ( Dusty Springfield), 6. “Glad All Over” ( The Dave Clark Five). Despite high sales, the record made no money for Sister Luc- Gabrielle, with all profits going to the record company and the convent. The same was true of her second LP, Soeur Sourire: Her Joy Her Songs ( 1964).
Bespectacled, frequently expressionless and clothed from head to toe in her nun’s habit whenever she performed, it was difficult for observers to gauge what “Sister Smile” really looked like or, for that matter, once the adopted names were peeled away, what the woman who had been Jeanine Deckers was actually thinking. In fact, being painfully shy, she was quickly finding all the attention and expectations of how she should behave a terrible burden. She came to despise the “Sister Smile” tag, loathed The Singing Nun, a 1965 film purportedly about her life which starred Debbie Reynolds, and even began to question many of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1966 she left the convent but continued to pursue her musical career under the name
“Luc- Dominique”. She still followed a life of prayer and meditation, but a year later outraged many of her most loyal fans by releasing a song in favour of contraception. She also courted controversy by setting up home with long- time companion, 22- year- old Annie Pecher.
I Am Not a Star in Heaven, an album of children’s songs released in the 1970s, was not a success, and by this time Jeanine had fallen into a downward spiral of depression and dependence on tranquillizers and alcohol. Her situation was made even worse by the relentless demands of the Belgian tax authorities who claimed she owed $ 63,000 in unpaid taxes. When the convent to which she had donated most of her royalties refused to pay ( no records had been kept of where the money had gone), a lengthy, debilitating legal battle ensued. These financial difficulties and Jeanine’s fragile mental state also meant that, in 1985, a boarding school for autistic children that she and Annie had opened was forced to close. In a final, desperate attempt to raise the money, Jeanine released a disco version of her famous song. From gentle voice and softly strummed guitar to flashing lights and whining synthesizer… the humiliation and loss of innocence were complete.
“We have reached the end, spiritually and financially,” wrote Annie in the note that was found beside their bodies on 1st April 1985, “and now we go to God. We go to eternity in peace. We trust that God will forgive us. He saw us both suffer and he won’t let us down. It would please Jeanine not to die from the world. She had a hard time on earth. She deserves to live in the minds of the people.”
The couple had killed themselves by taking barbiturates and alcohol. They were buried together in the cemetery at Wavre in Belgium, and Jeanine Deckers was finally at peace. How strange that a simple song in praise of a saint should have created such torment and tragedy.
The town square and city museum in Brussels.
Together in death as in life... the grave at Wavre.