THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SISTER MARY QUITE CONTRARY
(The following story is taken from “The Book of
Bad Virtues”, by Tony Hendra. It illustrates the
humble origins, bizarre life, and tragic demise of Sister
Sourire (Sister Mary Quite Contrary).
by Tony Hendra
THE LIVES OF THE SAINTS—
THE SINGING NUN
Sister Sourire, the Singing Nun, had a runaway hit on
Phillips Records with “Dominique” in 1963. The song’s
success was a surprise to her convent in Belgium. In the
U.S. the paean to Saint Dominic was simultaneously number
one on ‘Billboard’s’ single and album charts. Sister
Sourire—her religious name was actually Sister Luc-
Gabrielle—subsequently did a seven-month-long nationwide
tour. It was her first taste of what the world had to
offer—as opposed to the joys of poverty, discipline, and
obedience she was used to in the cloister.
Reports of heavy drinking and marijuana use began to
circulate toward the end of the tour, which began with an
appearance at Loyola, migrated to the West Coast, and then
finished with a huge concert at Notre Dame. Several dates
were cancelled during the tour for unexplained reasons; this
was due to Sister Luc-Gabrielle’s being, as one member of
her backup group put it, “permanently zonked.”
The final Notre Dame concert was canceled after a private
performance for the Notre Dame faculty, prominent alumni, and
other Catholic notables, including the then attorney general,
During the show Sister Luc-Gabrielle began to insult the
audience, at one point mumbling the Rite of Exorcism in
Latin at the president’s brother. She then launched into
an ultra-up-tempo version of her hit, screaming the
chorus, “Dominique, nique, nique, etc.,” over and over,
progressively louder and more off-key. Finally she threw
up into her guitar and left the stage.
Her superiors attributed these lapses to a lack of
familiarity with “tentations mondiales” (worldly
temptations), but her return to the cloister was a stormy
one. Some of the episodes of disobedience were trivial.
Some were not.
For example, it was the custom at her convent for the
nuns to be allowed a glass of wine for dinner on their
saint’s day (the feast day of the saint whose name each
had assumed upon taking her final vows).
Sister Luc-Gabrielle reportedly began to agitate for:
A. a nun being allowed to have as many glasses of wine
as shewanted on her saint’s day, and
B. all the sisters being allowed to have as many glasses
of wine as they wanted on anyone’s saint’s day.
When this campaign failed, she privately sent a circular
letter to all the major negociants in Bordeaux, Burgundy,
Champagne, and the Beaujolais, stating that her order was
upgrading its sacramental wine and requesting samples.
The negociants responded enthusiastically, and she amassed
a fair cellar—including many first growth and Grand Cru
wines of the excellent ‘59 vintage—before she was found out.
She quarreled violently with the Mother Superior General
of her order over distribution of royalties from “Dominique,”
demanding that a portion be set aside for “R&D” on future albums.
This was refused point-blank, on the grounds of her vow of
poverty. It later emerged that she had set up a bank account in
California during her U.S. tour and roughly sixty percent of her
BMI payments were being channeled there, instead of to the
order’s orphanages for Thalidomide babies.
Another source of friction was that she neglected her religious
duties, spending most of her time trying to compose a
satisfactory follow-up to “Dominique.”
She recorded a song dedicated to Saint Benedict entitled
“Benedicte”—very similar to her first—but the order
objected to its release on the grounds that the first line
of the chorus, “Benedicte, dicte, dicte, dicte,” might
strike English ears as inappropriate.
She also insisted on being addressed as “Sister Sourire,”
demanding that people smile when they did so. Finally she
bombarded GMA, her American agency, with demands that she be
allowed to join the group Peter, Paul and Mary, apparently
under the impression that the names referred to the first two
Apostles and the mother of Christ.
In 1966, right after a movie of her life starring Debbie
Reynolds bombed, she traveled from the convent to the Vatican,
where she requested a private audience with Pope Paul VI.
At the audience she informed His Holiness that the huge success
of her song and album had been a major contributory
factor in “selling” the reforms of Vatican II to the faithful
and proposed that an entire order of singing nuns be established
with herself as the Mother Superior General.
When this request was denied, she became abusive, calling Pope
Paul “un pede” (homosexual). According to Vatican sources
who escorted her from the papal chambers, she appeared to be
under the influence of some unspecified substance.
The ambitious proposal—along with her outrageous behavior-
was, of course, more a cry for help than a real plan. A
break with the order was inevitable.
Quitting it the same year, she made straightaway for the
U.S. and specifically San Francisco: the place to be in the
mid-sixties if you had musical ambitions. She resumed her lay
name—Jeanine Deckers—and moved in with another musician, a
heroin addict named Rex Reinhardt. Then she embarked on
what would become a lifelong search for another hit.
There were two obstacles to that dream. First, she’d already
topped the charts, and there’s nothing so cold as an old hit.
(When she announced with great fanfare to the press in
June 1966 that “The Singing Nun was going electric,” it
garnered not a single line of copy anywhere in the continental
United States.) Second, it seemed that no matter how hard she
rebelled, however bohemian a life she led, she could not
conceptually escape from her religious training.
This kept her creatively out of step with an ever more secular
audience that, if it was religious at all, looked to the East
rather than to Rome. Photos of her taken at the time show a
conventional hippie with flowers in her waist-length hair—albeit
somewhat older than her fellow peace-and-lovers.
The first band she tried to form with her rapidly dwindling funds
was called ‘The Summa of Love’. Few people got its reference to
the work of the great Dominican saint Thomas Aquinas; most
interpreted it as a crassly exploitative misspelling.
The band bombed disastrously, as did two others she formed:
‘The Dominican Invasion’ (1968) and ‘The Perpetual Light Orchestra’
(1969), whose demise was hastened by its unfortunate acronym
Another ill-advised project involved a lawsuit she brought against
the producers of ‘The Flying Nun’; she claimed that she had
conceived the year before while on an acid trip. (The suit was
thrown out of court.) The political side of the Bay Area’s
counterculture seems largely to have passed her by, but her
super-saccharine background gave her a perverse cachet in San
Francisco’s burgeoning erotic demimonde.
(Not dissimilar to the notoriety achieved by porno-queen Marilyn
Chambers, who had once been the 99 and 44/100ths percent pure
Ivory Soap Girl.)
Part of that world was the Hell’s Angels biker gang to which she
was briefly drawn and whose nonreligious nature she typically
misunderstood. She had a tempestuous fling with the Angels’
legendary leader, Sonny Barger. However, the experiences gave
her an abiding love of Harley-Davidsons; she became a familiar
sight in North Beach, riding her “Hog of God,” resplendent
in black leather and the nun’s wimple she had once again taken to
wearing. She was known to biker friends as Mama Superia.
More ominously, she was arrested in early 1971 for soliciting;
by now her addiction to heroin cost her five hundred dollars a day.
This didn’t faze her: she referred to her jones as “a nun’s habit.”
She achieved a curious equilibrium in the excitement of San
Francisco’s ultra-permissive early seventies erotic underground,
and she eventually settled on S&M as her “thing.” At this time she
acquired great prominence. Underground publications carried ads for
her services promising “strict discipline” and guaranteeing “total obedience”—the old familiar echo of her religious training.
She displayed her charms in knee-high spiked-heel black leather boots,
a heavily studded black-leather corset, and full-face black leather
mask topped off with the trademark nun’s wimple. She worked under
various pseudonyms, e.g., “Dominique the Dominatrix” and “The Bride
of Christ Almighty,” but most notably as “Sister Mary Quite
She came to look back on this period as the happiest time of her life.
But its end came abruptly. In March 1976 one of her regular clients
suffered a massive heart attack ‘in medias res’ (in the middle of
things). The man, a prominent California Republican, member of
the Bohemian Club, and intimate of Governor Reagan, was of
Scottish extraction and enjoyed being crucified in the manner of
Saint Andrew—upside-down on an X-shaped cross.
Equipped with a small silver-handled cat-o’-nine-tails, the
dominatrix was busy disciplining the “saint” for his
imperfections at golf when he went into cardiac arrest; he was amply
proportioned, and she couldn’t get him down from the cross in time
to administer CPR. Luckily for her, the man’s position ensured that
the case never got to trial, but from then on the SFPD harassed Sister
Mary Quite Contrary as mercilessly as she had once flogged her clients.
The beginning of the eighties found her reembarking on a musical
career. Although she might have become a beneficiary of
nostalgia for the early sixties which waschic at the time, she
instead opted for R&B, on the odd theory that since R&B had
religious roots, she was uniquely qualified to interpret it. She
scraped together the money for a demo album—a dozen covers of
standards by Otis Redding, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and others,
in her unvarying, squeaky “Dominique” monotone. Record producers
who heard it said every song was pitched an octave higher than
they’d ever heard it before. She insisted on titling the demo
“Our Lady Sings the Blues.” There were no takers.
She tried a few more harebrained schemes—for example, she campaigned
vigorously to become the “voice” of Domino’s Pizza—but, as so often
before, no one but she saw the appropriateness of the connection.
In 1982 she moved back to Belgium, where she shared a house with
a friend. According to neighbors, the two women did little but eat,
watch television, and drink ‘kriek’, a cherry-flavored beer.
In April 1985 police found the two friends dead, apparently the victims
of a massive binge. At the time of her death, the Ex-singing Ex-nun,
as she called herself, weighed more than three hundred kilos (660 lbs.)
That’s for real? It sounds right off the pages of “The Onion”.
I remember the song well because it was so damned annoying.
I only heard the first screeching “Dominika-nika-nika...” which was the exact time it took to punch a button to change stations.