Sister Rose and Sea Wife
by G. Murphy Donovan (October 2014)
“No one ever looks at a nun’s face.” – JM Scott
Nuns are a curiosity today. In another time, girls for whatever reasons were given over to convents for a life of prayer or good works. If the candidates were young enough, notions of choice were probably very elastic. Vocations are few in the modern cloister - and few orders of good sisters would tolerate or encourage any coercion by families or sponsors anyway.
Nonetheless, the values in convents appeal to cynics and altruists alike; free labor in God’s name. Indeed, the idea that women had purpose beyond mate and mother was always progressive, if not subversive, in the best sense of those words. Changing the world by example, genuine selflessness, are rare if not revolutionary ideas.
Those who supervise the novitiate today take great pains to be brutally honest about the rigors of a religious vocation: vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Unlike diocesan priests, nuns are not salaried as a rule. So what moves a girl to choose a life of altruism - and often thankless drudgery?
Over the years, I gave this question a lot of thought. Nuns played a large role in my childhood. I came to the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. School and Home for Children in my 11th year shortly after my nuclear family imploded. Before that I attended Our Lady of Solace grade school on Morris Park Avenue in the East Bronx - as a charity student. Nuns ran both institutions. Most of my memories of these ladies are salutary. A veteran sister could be tough, but seldom abusive.
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.
A neat hand or script was thought to be a path to an orderly life. Science may some day establish such a correlation. Like no other group of teachers, nuns set the standard in many a blackboard jungle. Sisters often had little more than a high school diploma yet; most would be the equal of any credentialed pedagogue today.
Motivating potential scholars in the east Bronx wasn’t the challenge it might have been had it not been for the alternative - public schools. A parochial school might make a child repeat a grade or expel the incorrigibles but, the real muscle lay with deterrence. The threat of expulsion to a public Dewey was usually more than enough to sober the most indulgent parent. There was no greater indignity among upwardly mobile Irish, Italian, or Jewish parents than having a child bounced by the nuns.
One prominent expulsion could set the tone for generations. George Carlin was an example in the south Bronx. He was expelled from Cardinal Hayes by the legendary Dean of Discipline, Father Stanislaus Jablonski; known to miscreants simply as “Jabbo.” Detention was the penalty for most misdemeanors. The prospect of going home alone, after hours, from the south Bronx was often enough to bring the worst to heel.
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.
Conformity was thought to be the predicate of successful individuality in those days. Nuns argued that you had to learn to follow before you were equipped to lead - or be divergent. Uniforms and decorum were literal, quaint notions today in an era where the line between childish and adult behavior is barely visible. Many adults today seek friendship or approval and demand little respect from kids. Parents frequently get little of either.
Children were segregated by sex and age at the Kennedy School and Home for Children. Sister Mary Rose was assigned to the high school boys. At mealtime, Mary Rose would often serve a homily as a side dish, a tale that invariably began with, “when I grew up in Philadelphia.” For Sister Rose, the city of brotherly love was a Rebecca’s Well of rectitude. Alas, teenagers from broken homes were not the best audience for urban nostalgia, civility - or compassion.
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.
Sea Wife is the lovely dream, everyman’s girl; pretty, virginal, and virtuous. Sister Rose is everyday selflessness, the inner beauty and values we seldom recognize until they too are gone. If we had to choose between them, heaven knows, it would be Sister Rose – by a nose.
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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