SOEUR SOURIRE, better known as The Singing Nun, is broke.
The Belgian ex-novice who became an international celebrity in 1963 when her song, "Dominique" reached the top of the hit parade, says she subsequently gave all her money away, and is now in debt. The songstress who earned well over $100,000 for her Dominican convent at Fichermont as well as a gold record, also faces serious tax problems. "The (Belgian equivalent of the) Internal Revenue will sell my apartment . . . In the end perhaps I'll go to jail. That would not be funny."
In an interview from her apartment in a suburb of Brussels, Soeur Sourire called her money problems "crucial." She no longers receives roalties from the albums she recrded and has barely been able to make a living as a guitar teacher.
"When I left the convent in July 1966, I encountered very grave money problems. The attorney who was assigned to me by the religious community to help run my assets tole me, 'What will you do with all this money? Donate!' That's what I did. This attorney is now dead and there is no trace of the countless donations I gave.
"The Internal Revenue is claiming I owe 4 million francs ($126,182) in back taxes, and the matter is before the Brussels Court of Appeals.
"It makes me suffer a lot," says the former celebrity who called her present situation "grave."
"I really live from hand to mouth, in debt and unable to overcome this depression."
The fairytale that might have had a happier ending began in 1959 when a young girl named Jeanine Deckers entered the Dominican convent at Fichermont in Belgium and took the name Sister Luc-Gabrielle. She was 24. As the story goes, the novice's singing/songwriting talents were "discovered" by executives of Philips Records, who recorded her first album of original songs under the name "Soeur Sourire" (Smiling Nun) in 1962.
A year later, Ed Sullivan flew to Fichermont where he filmed a segment of the bespectacled nun strumming an acoustic guitar, singing "Dominique, nique, nique . . ." The song was an instant success and so was the smiling nun, known everywhere as "The Sining Nun."
"The song 'Dominique' did not change my life at all," she recalls. "When it came out I was a novice at Fichermont and I was kept safe from eddies and the success confronting me and the song. My superiors wanted to protect my personal religious life, and I was kept away from the whole world of the song, the spectacle etc. In a way it was good," she says. "My superiors feared that I would become haughty!" Their fears were unfounded, for as she recalls, "I considered the song amusing . . . without great artistic value. I didn't takey myself seriously. For me the name Soeur Sourire was a pseudonym and a little bit ridiculous.
"All the money I earned during that time was deposited to the community. I couldn't keep any of it. But that's completely normal in the religious life. It wasn't really a problem for me."
In 1965, Fichermont declared a moratorium on The Singing Nun phenomenon. No more interviews; no more TV cameras. Sister Luc-Gabrielle would continue her studies for her final vows. But a year later, unsure of her vocation, she returned to secular life. "When I left the convent, I was stunned by the success of my songs," she remembers. "I had received a lot of mail from admirers and spent months answering them. I considered myself more a singing nun for the service of the Lord and others, than a star."
She gave interviews espousing the pill, defended Beatle John Lennon and his remark about being more popular than Jesus Christ, wore lipstick and high heels, and, according to reports at the time, popped pills to get her through long recording sessions and took the name Luc Dominique. Soeur Sourire is dead . . . it was high time she sand on the album, "I Am Not A Star." Hollywood's version of her life as "The Sining Nun" (starring Debbie Reynolds) was released the same year. Soeur Sourire says, "I found the film absolutely idiotic."
In 1967 she toured Quebec for two months and returne dhome "overstrained."
"I was not prepared to confront the public," she recalls. During that time she joined the Dominican Third Order, a religious group of lay members, and took a vow of celibacy. She now shares an apartment, "the living room of which was transformed into a chapel) with another religious Domician, Sister Annie.
After her initial success, Soeur Sourire studied at Louvain University and taught religion to children. She still sings (once a month in churches), composes, teaches guitar, draws and keeps a diary. Last year she recorded an album of 12 religious songs for children and says she is happy, despite her financial situation. "I'm happy because I found my way and because the religious life in the open world is marvelous . . . I love the young."
They gave me a gold record, What can I do with it?
They told me, "That's great . . . You have become a millionaire."
Oh well, do not forget . . . My vow of poverty has made me independent.
I have my freedom, but find not enjoyment . . . Oh well, do not forget.
"When I left the nuns' convent, a woman of 26 had become a shy girl, hardly daring to open her eyes, let alone be aggressive," says Soeur Sourire."But now I'm 44 and I see life differently. Life is a struggle. And I struggle."
Interview translated by Washington Post library assistant Vu Thuy Hoang. Lyrics from "I am not a Star," published by Editions Musicales SPA Primavera.