The True Story Behind A Popular French Song: Dominique by The Singing Nun


It doesn’t really matter whether or not you speak French — if you grew up in the 1960’s, you probably heard the song Dominique.

I didn’t grow up in the 60’s myself, but of course I know this song — not only because it was so popular all around the world, but also because of the fascinating story of its Belgian singer-songwriter, La Sœur Sourire, also known as The Singing Nun, who tragically took her own life in the 1980’s after falling into poverty and experiencing a crisis of faith.

Do you want to hear more about this song and the interesting life of the woman who sang it? What if we talk about it in French? Don’t worry — I’ll speak slowly so that you can practice your comprehension skills. And don’t forget to turn on the subtitles if you need to. C’est parti.

1) The Singing Nun: in French
2) The Singing Nun: English translation
3) The Singing Nun: Vocabulary
4) The Singing Nun: More context and the hidden joke!

Want all the vocabulary of the lesson ?

1)The Singing Nun: in French

Dominique est la seule chanson en français à s’être classée numéro 1 des ventes de disques aux États-Unis. Elle était numéro 1 pendant tout le mois décembre 1963 !

La chanteuse était appelée Sœur Sourire.

De son vrai nom Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers, dite Jeannine, elle est née en 1933 en Belgique. À 26 ans, après avoir été professeur de dessin pendant quelques années, elle entend une vocation religieuse et entre dans un couvent de sœurs dominicaines.

Là, elle joue de la musique, si bien que ses supérieurs décident de lui faire enregistrer une chanson avec une maison de disques.

Pour des raisons de marketing, on décide de lui donner le nom de scène de Sœur Sourire.

Elle, elle aurait préféré son nom de scoutisme : Ourson. Mais elle se laisse faire.

Et très vite, elle enregistre un tube sur le fondateur de son ordre religieux : Dominique (1963), pour saint Dominique de Guzmán (~1200).
Le refrain reste dans la tête !

Comme dit la chanson, saint Dominique était “pauvre et chantant”, et il s’en allait tout simplement sur les chemins pour parler du Bon Dieu.

Et là, c’est le succès ! Dans toute l’Europe, et dans le monde entier ! Tout le monde adore la nonne belge. Aux Etats-Unis, on l’appelle The Singing Nun, “la nonne qui chante.”

Elle est nommée pour quatre Grammy Awards en 1964, elle va dans l’émission de Ed Sullivan…et il y a même un film américain sur son succès en 1966 !

Mais déjà, le succès est fragile…
Son deuxième album marche moins bien. En 1966, elle quitte le couvent et cherche à voler de ses propres ailes. Elle commence une relation avec Annie Pécher, qu’elle a rencontré à l’université.

Jeannine doit changer de pseudonyme et choisit “Luc Dominique” comme nouveau nom de scène. Portée par les changements des années 60, elle chante des chansons féministes et engagées et prend ses distances avec son ancienne image.

Mais c’est une déception. Le public n’est plus intéressé. Et surtout, la maison de disques a gardé presque tout l’argent des millions de ventes de Dominique !

Avec Annie, les deux femmes ouvrent un centre d’accueil pour enfants autistes. Mais les problèmes d’argent, les paparazzis, la presse qui exploite le scandale de la relation homosexuelle de l’ancienne religieuse, font plonger Jeannine dans la dépression, et l’alcool.

Le centre d’accueil fait faillite. Et le 29 mars 1985, endettées, désespérées, les deux femmes se suicident.

Et enfin, pour ajouter l’ironie à la tragédie… Le même jour, ce 29 mars 1985, on lui envoyait une grosse somme d’argent, un chèque avec tous ses droits d’auteur.

Et depuis, que reste-t-il de Sœur Sourire à part cette histoire tragique ?
Quelques références parfois.
Et il y a quelques années, il y a eu un film biographique sur sa vie, avec l’actrice belge Cécile de France.

La chanson Dominique est complètement démodée. Mais tellement démodée que ça devient à la mode d’en faire des reprises !

Cette histoire est tragique mais je voulais donner du contexte à cette chanson en français très connue.

2) The Singing Nun: English translation

Dominique is the only song in French that’s been at the top of the charts of record sells in the US. It was #1 for the whole month of December 1963!

The singer was called “Sœur Sourire,” “Sister Smile.

Her real name was Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers, or Jeannine in everyday life. She was born in Belgium in 1933. At 26, after a few years as a drawing teacher, she hears a religious call and enters a convent of Dominican nuns.

There, she plays the guitar, so well that her superiors decide to have her record a song with a record company.

For marketing reasons, they decided to give her the stage name of “Sœur Sourire.” She would have rather used her girl scout name: “Bear cub.” But she allows herself to be pushed over.

And quickly, she records a hit song about the founder of her religious order: Dominique (1963), about saint Dominique de Guzmán (who lived around the year 1200). The chorus stays in your head, it’s an earworm!

Like the song says, saint Dominique was “poor and singing,” and simply walked on the road to talk about the Good Lord.

And it’s a success! All over Europe, and in the whole world! Everybody loves the Belgian nun. In the US, they call her The Singing Nun. She’s nominated for four Grammy Awards in 1964, she goes on the Ed Sullivan show… and there’s even an American movie about her success in 1966!

But success is fragile already…
Her second album sells less. In 1966, she leaves her convent and tries to stand on her own feet. She enters a relationship with Annie Pécher, who she met at the University.

Jeannine has to change her pseudonym and picks “Luc Dominique” as her new stage name. Carried by the changes of the 60’s, she sings feminist songs and protest songs, and distance herself from her previous image.

But it’s a disappointment. The audience isn’t interested anymore. And most of all, the record company kept almost all the money from the million of sold albums of Dominique !

With Annie, the two women open a shelter for autistic children. But money problems, paparazzi, the press that loves to exploit the scandal of the former nun’s homosexual relationship, lead Jeannine to fall into depression and alcohol.

The shelter goes bankrupt. And on March 29, 1985, burdened with debt and despair, the two women commit suicide.

And finally, to add irony to tragedy… On the very same day, of March 29, 1985, she was sent a big sum of money, a check with all her royalties.

Since then, what’s left of the Singing Nun, outside of this tragic story?

Some references, now and then.
And a few years ago, they made a biopic on her story, with Belgian actress Cécile de France.

The song Dominique is completely old-fashioned. But so old-fashioned that it became hip again to make covers of the song!

Her story has been a tragic one, but I wanted to add context to this very famous song in French.

3) The Singin Nun: Vocabulaire

  • Sœur Sourire = “Sister Smile”œ (“e dans l’o” = “e in o”) most often sounds like “uh.”
  • Un ourson = A bear cub.
  • Un tube = A hit song (informal French, but very common)
  • L’émission de télévision = the TV show, TV broadcast
  • Voler de ses propres ailes = “Fly with your own wings,” stand on your own feet
  • Une chanson engagée = a protest song, a political song
  • Démodée = out of fashion, outdated

1963 in letters is: “Mille-neuf-cent-soixante-trois.”

Extra vocabulary:

  • Se laisser faire = “Letting yourself” be pushed over – Not resisting
  • Le Bon Dieu = “Good God,” Good Lord – an old-fashioned, quaint, naive way to talk about God.
  • Une déception = A disappointment. Not une tromperie (= a deception) !
  • Faire faillite / La faillite = Going bankrupt / Bankruptcy.
  • Un couvent = A convent

In French, a word that ends in “-ent” can sound like the nasal sound “an”, as in le couvent, or souvent (= often). Or it can be the third person plural, a verb ending, that’s silent ! For example:

Couver (birds) = To sit on an egg
Les poules couvent souvent au couvent. (= Chicken often sit on their eggs in the convent.)
The first “couvent” sounds like [“koov”] with a silent “-ent” !

Yes, that example comes from a scene in “Amelie.”

4) The Singing Nun: More context and the hidden joke!

Jeannine was probably influenced by the Catholic Church evolution of the 60’s, most notably the Council of Vatican II, that gave hope for more progressivism at the time – as well as the French riots of Mai 1968. She also got involved in her later years with the “Catholic charismatic renewal”, which started in Pittsburg, USA.

Her feminist songs protested the oppression from men, from conservatice forces in the Catholic Church, and defended the pill (with the song “La Grande Pilule d’Or”, “The Great Golden Pill.”)

Oh, yeah, and by the way: there’s an obvious “joke” in her first song.
Nique” is French slang for “having sex” ! So “Dominique nique nique” can be heard as “Dominique is having sex” – it’s not the intended reading, of course, but it’s enough to bring out snickers. It gives the song an air of old-fashioned naivete.

And makes it easy to parody!

Est-ce que tu connaissais “Dominique” ?
Est-ce que tu as compris la leçon en français dans la vidéo ?

For now, click on a link to find your next step on French culture:

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!

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Join the conversation!

  • Merci beaucoup, Geraldine. I credit my desire to learn French to the Singing Nun album, which my father brought home when I was little. I played the whole album on his hi-fi (high fidelity) stereo console. I sang the words by “ear,” not knowing the exact pronunciations, but was very close. I also credit the beautiful, clear vocals that taught me a great French accent! I still have the album and a CD copy. I did not know about Jeannine’s tragic demise.

  • Cette chanson était aussi dans la deuxième saison de American Horror Story, donc même encore à 2012 (Oh…mais c’est déjà il y a10 ans! When did that happen?)

  • Merci Géraldine. J’ aime les leçons en français. J’ai entendu la chanson et aussi ‘the singing nun’, mais je n’ai pas entendu son histoire tragique.

  • Je me souviens bien de cette chanson d’années 60’s.
    L’histoire est très tragique est très très triste. Merci Géraldine je l’ai enjoué cet leçon.

  • Je me souviens bien de cette chanson de mon enfance. J’avais l’habitude de la chanter en écoutant la radio. Elle était très populaire, surtout auprès des filles et des religieuses de mon école. Je n’avais aucune idée de cette histoire tragique. C’est tellement triste, mais j’aime toujours cette chanson. Je l’ai fredonnée toute la soirée. Merci, Geraldine !

  • Many thanks Géraldine, and a trip down
    memory lane for some people I should
    think to hear that song again. Yes, a big
    hit in UK at the time too, although I’d
    suspect that many pop song listeners
    in UK back then would have had no idea
    of what the lyrics were actually about.
    Me neither ! I’d always imagined they
    were singing about a girl whose name
    was Dominique – à la Julie Andrews –
    when in fact it’s about St Dominic,
    the founder of their Dominican order
    of monastics.
    If anyone wants to check it out just
    Google – chanson Dominique paroles.

    Merci pour la chanson ~ ♫

  • Je me souviens de cette chanson quand j’étais petite dans les années 60. Je ne connaissais pas l’histoire de sa si triste vie. Bien que je sois heureuse de pouvoir comprendre les paroles maintenant.

  • My father is Quebecois, but I grew up in San Francisco in the 1960’s. This album was one of my favorite French albums (followed in the 1970’s by Rene Simard) 🙂

    I sang the song Dominique countless times when I was young . Her story is so tragic, it’s almost unbelievable.

  • Merci beaucoup Géraldine. J’aime bien que vos leçons couvrent à la fois le contexte française actuel et historique. De plus, merci pour la leçon en français.

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