Eamonn McCann - The strange journey of the Singing Nun

The original Singing Nun, Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers - still has the only Belgian song to top the US charts. 0507MG01
The original Singing Nun, Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers - still has the only Belgian song to top the US charts. 0507MG01
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“I’m not going to harp on this,” remarked Mary O’Hara as they handed her a guitar and asked her to impersonate the Singing Nun.” Once upon a time, that was hilarious.

Mary O’Hara was a Sligo woman huge all over Ireland in the 1950s as a soprano and harpist. Check out her “Spanish Lady” or “Sally Gardens” on YouTube, or her best-selling autobiography, “The Scent of the Roses”. When her husband, the poet Richard Selig, died in 1957, she entered a contemplative convent, where she was to stay for 12 years. Rejoining the outside world and resuming her career, she made 13 albums, played Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, the Royal Albert Hall etc. Hence the Singing Nun reference.

Ireland's answer to the Singing Nun, Mary O'Hara. 0507MG03

Ireland's answer to the Singing Nun, Mary O'Hara. 0507MG03

The real Singing Nun was Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers, a Dominican sister who wrote and sang songs for visitors to the Ficchermont Convent at Waterloo in Belgium. Given permission by the order to make an album, she enjoyed a huge world-wide hit in 1963 with the irresistibly catchy “Dominique”: it remains - amazing fact coming up - the only Belgian record ever to reach number one in America. A biopic starring Debbie Reynolds was released in 1966.

That’s as much as I knew about her, or about Mary O’Hara, until earlier this year when I was researching a piece about Brummie metallists Black Sabbath and remembered a day wandering Dublin with bass-player Geezer Butler trying to find Mary O’Hara records to bring back to his Irish dad. We finally struck lucky at the Provo shop on Parnell Square. Thus did Ozzie Ozbourne’s closest sidekick buy an album by an ex-nun from Joe Cahill. Along the way, we’d come up with the Singing Nun joke.

“Dominique” was her only hit. It’s only now I learn that, soon afterwards, she was denounced by the Church - bang went the American market for her religious songs - and marginalised elsewhere when she publicly endorsed John Lennon’s remark about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus.

She became a vigorous advocate for contraception, lobbying Church leaders during the Second Vatican Council which was to respond to the revolutionary times with “Humanae Vitae” in 1968, reinforcing the hard line. The former nun then published a passionate polemic, “Glory Be To God For The Golden Pill”. None of this made her popular with people who mattered.

Abandoning religion, she opened a school for children with learning difficulties. The Belgian authorities then intervened to claim $63,000 in taxes said to be owed on her earnings from her time as a star. She pleaded that she’d handed all royalties over to the convent. But the Dominicans could locate no records or receipts. She was financially ruined and lost the school.

In 1985, she and her partner of 10 years, Annie Pecher, took an overdose of barbiturates together and died by suicide. She was 51.

“Dominique” was released in the US on this day in 1963.