Sister Rose and Sea Wife

by G. Murphy Donovan (October 2014)

“No one ever looks at a nun’s face.” – JM Scott

A novice

Before scholarship, they always insisted on discipline, attendance, good manners, good hygiene, and good penmanship. Poor penmanship and dirty nails were thought to be the marks of backsliders. Punctuality, behavior, and a good hand could compensate for many an academic deficit. Most sisters argued that any success began with showing up.

For nuns, caring and teaching were vocations, not government or union sinecures. That difference made all the difference in the blue-collar Bronx.  


Repeat offenders in Jabbo’s “jug” would often be told that “wise guy” wasn’t a career choice. Father Jablonski lived long enough to see George Carlin become one of New York’s most successful dropouts.

In profile, the good sister’s nose extended beyond her wimple. Adolescent boys, being what they are, rechristened the good lady “Rose the Nose.” Sister Rose soldiered through such indignity with grace. Indeed, her notion of discipline, unlike Jabbo’s heavy hand, was a mix of public approbation and private compassion. Public discipline often came in the form of allowance forfeiture.

On Saturdays, allowances and clean laundry were dispensed at noon. Boys who had been fined one week would often find the furloughed loot from a previous infraction wrapped in a rolled pair of socks. Mary Rose folded laundry for thirty boys every Friday as an act of humility and a prelude to the Saturday reconciliation ritual. Week’s end always provided another opportunity for a figurative or literal clean start.

Not long after the Kennedy Home and Sister Rose were in the rearview mirror, I came across a small novel about a nun, set in WWII, which reminded me of Mary Rose.  

James M. Scott’s Sea Wyfe and Biscuit tells the tale of three men and a nun marooned in the Pacific after their ship is torpedoed. The tale was retold in film as Sea Wife, starring Joan Collins and Richard Burton.

Joan Collins as Sea Wife 

In retrospect, the much married Joan Collins gives the role a special poignancy. Easy to forget what a natural beauty Collins was as a girl. Her iconic portrayal of a young nun is Bells of Saint Mary’s brilliant. The tension between beauty and virtue is the mastic that binds the castaways and their adventure. Hard to imagine that anyone could upstage a bombastic Richard Burton, but Joan pulls it off in Sea Wife.

The lifeboat principals include an army officer, an arrogant colonialist, the ship’s mulatto purser, and a nun in mufti. They all adopt pseudonyms (Sea Wife, Biscuit, Bulldog, and Number Four) because none expect to survive. Only the purser, Number Four, knows that the lone female is a nun. He allows the inevitable one-sided romance between the Burton/Collins characters to unfold as a kind of passive-aggressive revenge.

Racism stalks the quartet. The white men are full of themselves, yet Sea Wife indulges their presumption and foibles because she sees goodness in all men. She has the compassion that comes with humility. The faith of the nun sustains the men whose fears, cynicism, and prejudice are liabilities in a crisis. Indeed, Number Four, the purser is eaten by a shark when the other two male castaways abandon him.

The nun prays frequently, but because she is so plainly pretty, the clueless men never imagine that she is a nun. Outer beauty and internal faith provide habit, armor, and resource for Sea Wife. Ironically, a ‘sea wyfe’ is a mariner’s euphemism for that “girl in every port.”

Three of the four castaways survive their ordeal and return to London where Biscuit, the Burton character, is told a humanitarian lie, that the nun, the Collins character, didn’t survive hospitalization.

A few years hence, Biscuit encounters Sea Wife and her mother superior by happenstance at a convent gate. Biscuit doesn’t recognize his former shipmate in her nun’s regalia.

Mother superior, who knows the details of Sea Wife’s wartime ordeal and platonic romance, is amazed that Biscuit doesn’t recognize his castaway passion. As the two women stroll back to the cloister, Sea Wife replies wryly: “No one ever looks at a nun’s face.” Key theme music. Fade.


The morality play, the notion that virtue is its own reward, has all but disappeared from modern literature, possibly extinct in television and cinema. Virtue might still have a cost, but seems to be of little value today.

The good old days are never as good as we think because they have to be gone before we appreciate them. Indeed, the past is never what it used to be. Living in the moment is a skill that few possess. History is the comfortable illusion and the future is always fraught with peril. Death, especially! Between nostalgia and nightmares, the moment and moral clarity are often worlds apart.

The author is an alumnus of Catholic schools and a childhood in the east Bronx. He is also a former Intelligence specialist who usually writes about the politics of national security.


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