Sunday, November 19, 2006

Sister Smile

Two weeks ago I was in the grocery store when the most captivating little tune came over the loud speakers..."Dominique, nique, nique, S'en allait tout simplement...Il ne parle que du Bon Dieu." Now, some of you may be familiar with this tune, but I was not and I was taken by it. The melody was unique, the voice was clear, and together they made the prettiest song I had heard in some time. I asked the old woman beside me( who was singing the song to herself as she shopped) "Do you know who sings this song?"

"Ah, yes, They were popular in the sixties. I think they were called The Singing Nuns." She told me.

When I got home I found "The Singing Nun" on the internet and listened to samples of her other music. I ordered a cassette. It arrived three days later and I was eager to hear it. I had been hoping it would all be as enchanting as the song I remembered from the grocery store had been and it was...and then some.

I was amazed by the infectious melodies and the beauty of the lyrics. First of all, the song "Dominque" was about St. Dominic, the founder of the order where this Belgian nun, Sr. Luc-Gabrielle, was serving her novitiate. The insert informed me that she called herself "Soeur Sourire" or "Sister Smile" but was re-christened "The Singing Nun" when, in 1963, the single Dominique and the album that contained it shot to number one on the charts in the United States. Apparently, she even made an appearance shortly after on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The insert also informed me that she affectionately called her guitar, "Sister Adele," which made sense of the lyrics in the second song on the album...
In all the tones of her whole soul Adele dedicated herself to the Lord. And her songs proclaimed everywhere that serving God was her happiness. Behind the harps and zithers forming the orchestra of heaven, one day, Adele, the humble guitar, will be heard in the abode of God. [translated]
Lyrics like these and the music that expressed them seemed to indicate that "Soeur Sourire" was a pure and gentle soul with a lovely voice and a rare gift for melody.

I was eager to learn her every song by heart. I listened while driving, while cleaning, whenever and wherever I could. The boys enjoyed the songs, too, and since French is the foreign language of choice for study here at Temple Academy, I considered it educational as well. Soon, I heard Jeremy whistling the happy tunes. Our whole family was hooked. I began to think of "Soeur Sourire" as an older sister, looking down and smiling upon us as we sang her songs of love and praise.

Then it happened. I decided to learn more about my "older sister" and I didn't like what I discovered. In short, I found that "Soeur Sourire" was very much a child of the sixties. She publicly supported things she should not have and in direct defiance to authorities to whom she was lawfully subject, she left her order, became involved in an unseemly relationship, and met a premature and disreputable demise. Enough said.

It may seem silly, but I was heartbroken. Oh well, I reasoned within myself, so she wasn't what you thought. Those songs are still lovely and those lyrics are just as meaningful-- if only to you. But I couldn't listen to the music in the same way again. The catchy tunes, rather than lifting my spirits, reminded me of disappointment and left me with a feeling of longing and sadness.

My "older sister" was gone. In fact, I don't know if she ever was real. It is hard for me to imagine anyone writing such lyrics without having a sincere love for God, but I don't know. I can't explain it, and I don't have to. God knows her heart and God will be her judge. "Nothing prevents you from praying for her." Jeremy said when I shared the sad news. He was right-- and I did.

As I reflected on this experience, it occurred to me how natural my feelings were. We all want to see beauty, truth, and goodness united. We don't like the disjoint between great art and a life poorly lived. We want a chaste Mozart and a prudent Jefferson; we want a humble Michelangelo and an orthodox Da Vinci. We want those who inspire us to be inspiring in every way. We desire to see great beauty, truth, and goodness united in a single creature, but most often they are not-- not perfectly anyway.

Our desire to see these qualities together is ultimately a desire for God, for only in Him are beauty, truth, and goodness perfect and united.

"Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." --St. Augustine.


Anonymous said...

When I was a pre-schooler, I loved an album of "The Singing Nun" translated into English so much, that I insisted that Mom take me to the record store to meet Sister. The first big disappointment in my relationship with the Singing Nun was not being able to meet her.

The second, far worse, was hearing of her suicide, and misguided life after the convent. I pray for her too, and I feel that she was probably still searching for the God she sang so beautifully about.
Her music seemed absolutely sincere, and innocent, and I think that's the secret of her worldwide success; she was the last breath of innocence before the cultural crash of the sixties.

Here's my hope for Sister Luc, in her own words:

Entre les etoiles, le Seigneur ha ecrit tu nom,
Entre les etoiles, tout le-Haut, dans sa maison,
Entre les etoiles, le Seigneur ha pose sa vie,
Entre les etoiles, pres de Lui, en Paradis.

Jennifer said...

Those are thoughts I've had myself so many times. Esepcially the last two paragraphs. You said it very well.

Anonymous said...

Amen to these sentiments, especially those of the last two paragraphs.

God is so good, though, He can and will make sense of all of it.

By the way, (and I bring this up because you & I both used to listen to their music) I remember feeling equally disappointed when I read about the sexual "preference", as it were, of the Indigo Girls. And then I read about the politics (very vocally Pro-choice) of Natalie Merchant, whose songs I still know by heart and whose voice I absolutely love.

As is the case with the actors whose work I so admire, the ideologies of the artist are often quite different from the art itself.

Anonymous said...

I felt the same way, when I found out that one of my favorite bands, The Cowboy Junkies, contributed to a "pro-choice [anti-life!] promoting" collaborative recording. It really is disheartening. Your husband is wise. Pray for the soul of the Singing Nun.

helene said...

Maybe if I got a guitar and goofy glasses I could try to fill this hole in your heart.....only I don't know French and I really, really can't sing.

Suzanne Temple said...

CNL, Well said.

Thanks for the thought, helene, but I'm going to pass on that one for everyone's sake. You're so funny.

Anonymous said...

You've raised a very interesting question. I am not sure I would agree philosophically or politically with most the greatest writers, poets, and artists philosophically or politically. But poetically: absolutely! Poetic vision gives a wildly diverse group of artists the ability to witness to beauty and truth on a level that transcends politics. They are able to make creative sense of--however briefly or profoundly--the "mystery of creation," as John Paul II describes the object of art. Most writers, poets, and artists would make lousy politicians, and worse philosophers. That's okay. The novelist (and you could add other artists), as Eudora Welty reminds us, is not the crusader. If the novelist insists on using his or her art to crusade, well, he or she is going to produce pretty bad art. This is not to say that an artist cannot also be a saint, or even a deeply spiritual person, but nothing about the artist as person should detract from nor add to the poetic vision that tries to witness to something, however imperfectly. I may be a great Catholic, but that isn't going to make me a great novelist.

Anonymous said...

Forgive the lack of proofreading!

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness--the Cowboy Junkies! I loved them, too...

Diane said...

Isn't that the way that it is though? I guess it all goes back to the old saying that nobody is perfect. We must always remember that Priests, Nuns and other clergy are still human . We should also remember them in our daily prayers.

Alice said...

Suzanne, I share your disappointment, but just had to pop my head in yet again to say I LOVE the way you write.

Suzanne Temple said...

You are so kind, Alice.

Phil— said...

To my amazement and surprise I had Thanksgiving Dinner two years ago with the founder/director of The Singing Nuns, seems we have mutual friends. Perhaps we're talking of different groups, these 60 nuns were in high demand for years and years here in the states. I sat across from her and listened intently as she answered questions about the Singing Nuns travels and opportunities.

An amazing group with a remarkable leader and director, she still has plenty of spunk and a deep love for the Lord(as of 2004 anyway.) As a girl, she learned organ so she could continue to study at the convent. Then one afternoon before she was to go home for a holiday break, the Mother Superior pulled her aside and asked if she still played the saxophone. "Yes, why?"

"Bring it back with you, we need it around here!" :-D Of course she did, and the doors began to open from that day forward.

I was encouraged by our time together. She told remarkable stories of God's faithfulness and creativity through the years.

Amazing, the power of music, isn't it? So is one's obedience to God.


Anonymous said...

Why must you be so judgmental? You have no idea what was in her heart. Please, be a true Christian and leave the judgments up to God.

Suzanne Temple said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Suzanne Temple said...

Anon, It is true that I don't know what was in her heart. You must have missed the fourth paragraph up from the bottom where I wrote,

"It is hard for me to imagine anyone writing such lyrics without having a sincere love for God, but I don't know. I can't explain it and I don't have to. God knows her heart and God will be her judge."

So you see, I am leaving judgement to God and not being "judgemental." I'm sorry you felt it was necessary to accuse me of that. God bless you and give you peace.

Sorry about the deleted comment. I had wrote a reply but wanted to include more in that quotation.

Beth Pack said...

Hi Suzanne,
I think you should check out this great Catholic artist, Sarah Bauer. She lives and believes what she sings.
You can get her cds at

My husband and I are in her band - she is great, especially her second album, Lead Me Home.


Barb, sfo said...

This post really hit home for me. I think the last 2 paragraphs were especially fantastic.

I know that I tend to put on my rose-colored glasses in any kind of relationship until...the other person somehow lets me down in some way. And BAM! Suddenly they are on the level of the devil himself. But there's no good reason for these extremes, either way.

Suzanne Temple said...

I know what you mean barb, and I have been meaning to ask you...what does the sfo after your name stand for?

Barb, sfo said...

Suzanne, "sfo" stands for Secular Franciscan Order. It used to be known as "The Third Order" and is for laypersons who wish to live the Franciscan life, but within the context of their families and work rather than as a priest or religious. We go through a formation process and a public profession to begin our life in the SFO.

(It does not mean I live in San Francisco, LOL! I actually live in New Jersey.)

Suzanne Temple said...

Funny barb, whenever I see your name I DO think of San Francisco. But I suppose even that was named for St Francis!

TiaKay said...

I had the entire album memorized as a child, and in fact, it inspired me to study French in school, up to the level of a minor in college.

I too was heartbroken at the way the "story" ended.

But, her songs WERE inspired from her love of God, and while her life changed, God did not, and so I still love her music and her songs, and the joy she brought me as a child.

When I hear them, I enjoy them, and I also pray for her, remembering always that our God is a merciful God who knows our hearts.

Suzanne Temple said...

tiakay, it is beautiful, isn't it?

JennGM said...

I went through the same process. I heard that song, watched the movie, and was really moved. Then I read what happened later. So sad...she didn't realize that being a nun and writing and singing her songs was what attracted others to her songs...losing her habit and order made her like everyone else and her music got lost in the shuffle.

I do listen to her first record still...I don't feel it's completely "tainted" because it's her earlier work before the 60s mentality touched her.

suzanne temple said...

jenngm, it's nice to know someone else had the same experience. I do love her music and will also continue to listen to her older pieces.

Anonymous said...

you have written this many months ago and maybe won't even know i wrote this comment. nonetheless, i write it all the same.

i have known of the song dominique all my life ~ my mother used to sing it to me as a young girl and i was nearly named dominique ... i've seen the debbie reynolds movie several times - its mostly fabrication ... not much reality in it.

i had all but forgotten about jeanine deckers (her real name) until coming across a clip on youtube. i felt saddened to hear of her death and the awful circumstances that drove her to it. how shameful, that an organization to which she donated all of the earnings of her fame ... for which she sacrificed her musical career ... could not see fit to assist her in some way when it came time to making good with the belgian tax authorities. after all, her vow of poverty required her to give all her income to the order. its not like she had a choice ...

in your research, did you come across information that indicates what drove her to suicide? or that alludes to the fact that she could no longer use the moniker soeur sourire after leaving the convent b/c the church had patented it?

had you ever come across any information to substantiate the numerous claims that she indeed had a lesbian relationship with annie pescher? why does everyone think a close friendship/companionship necessarily means a sexual one? imagine how they must have been two aliens in a world of burgeoning sexuality and rebellion - both being former nuns and lifelong friends. why does this make them lovers?

i have tried to find some sort of reliable source of biographical info on jeanine decker's life ... to much disappoint. so ... really all we have here is an instance of a woman who suffered much at the hands of a large, controlling and crushing institution known as the catholic church.

i wonder if anyone can appreciate how truly difficult it is to adjust to 'real life' for someone like soeur sourire, when s/he leaves the world of religious life.

soeur sourire never wanted fame or recognition. she certainly never wanted anyone's admiration or adoration. she likely would have thought herself unworthy of such attention. she wanted to be a nobody ... and wrote dominique to honour the humble nobody that has such love for simple greatness.

why so disappointed in the real woman behind the enchanting lyrics and voice? jeanine deckers was real like all of us. and she continues to be real.


UrsoBR said...

As for your disappointment with Jeannine, let me quote what a friend said about another friend of ours, whose over-religious mother was going over the top after finding out that his son was gay (or "unseemly," as you say) and was urging him to chastity:

"It is very easy to love those who fulfill all our expectations of beauty, behavior, adequacy to norms and so on. But it is much harder to love those who do not fit our expectations, the behavior and the norms we were taught how to handle. So, one might ask whether it is he or his mother that God is really putting to a test here."

But judging from the last two paragraphs of your posting, I think you eventually reached the same conclusion...

jeff34668 said...

Such judgmental don't get it!
If this wonderful woman didn't have the guts to challenge things and live her life in her own way, we'd never have heard her beautiful songs. They were about her love for God and she donated all her money to her convent. Then she started an orhpanage for autistic children. The horrible Belgium government caused her suicide as they demanded donated money to her orphanage be taxed and she and her significant other died in each other's arms because they had to close their orphanage. We should all live our lives as well as the beloved, caring and God loving and child loving SINGING NUN.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know what happened to Sister Adele? Sad to think its voice is quiet now...


Margaret in Minnesota said...

Amy Welborn wrote about "Soeur Sourire" today and I immediately thought of you, Suzanne, and this achingly poignant post.

You have blessed with such an insight. What's more, you continue to bless us with it! (What can I say? I'm 9 mos. pregnant and emotional.)

The movie about Soeur Sourire looks romanticized. I think I'd be better off just enjoying her music "as is." It's what we have to do, sometimes, isn't it? Especially when we're give TMI about our much-loved musicians/artists/actors etc.