March 8, 2016 — Rock star, basketball nun, cherished chaplain — these are just a few ways the Loyola University Chicago community describes Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, BVM. She says to just call her “Sr. Jean.” She’s been at Loyola for over a half century and has served as chaplain of the men’s basketball team since the early 1990s. At 96 years young, Sr. Jean says, “I have fun all the time.”
Sr. Jean is just one of the thousands of nuns who are being celebrated during National Catholic Sisters Week, March 8-14. Women religious serve God through a diversity of ministries; in Sr. Jean’s case, her impact can be felt in several generations of students.
Sr. Jean with Loyola students at commencement.
At her 95th birthday celebration in 2014, then-Loyola President Jesuit Father Michael Garanzini teasingly pointed out that “Sr. Jean is older than the grandparents of the parents of our freshman class … Sr. Jean has worked at Loyola since before Loyola had adopted a pension plan for its employees!”
Fr. Garanzini continued that Sr. Jean is “better known and more loved than anyone else on campus.” What do you give a 95-year-old nun on her birthday? "Well, of course, in this case, it’s easy: a new pair of running shoes!” said Fr. Garanzini.
Sr. Jean wearing her custom Nikes.
You’ll find Sr. Jean wearing a personalized pair of gym shoes at the basketball games, and she’s honored to serve as chaplain of the men’s team. “Bopping around the sidelines in my Nikes and trifocals, standing 5 feet tall, I’m towered over by the athletes, but they treat me like a queen,” she says.
Sr. Jean takes her job seriously, scouting out opposing teams before games and offering input on which players to watch out for in pre-game huddles. Head coach Porter Moser recalls that when he first got the job, he found a scouting report on his desk of every current player — written by Sr. Jean. “I was blown away. She's one in a billion.”
She may be only 5 feet tall, but Sr. Jean has a large presence on and off the basketball court at Loyola.
She also acts as a guide for the team, focusing on their educational and personal development as well as athletics. She even sends each player a personal email after the games.
Born in 1919 in San Francisco, Sr. Jean said she knew in the third grade that she wanted to be a nun and help people. “I love being with people, spreading God’s word. And you do that not by talking all the time, but just by your presence.”
Sr. Jean with Loyola cheerleaders.
Sr. Jean says that growing up in a Catholic family she embraced her faith and sought adventure. She remembers that in second grade, she had the audacity to hand-deliver a Valentine to a cute sixth-grade boy named Charles. “Charles went on to become a Jesuit priest and serve as president of the University of San Francisco!”
As an eighth grader, Sr. Jean had saved up all her birthday, Christmas and First Communion money to travel to Chicago for the 1933 World’s Fair. When she laid out her plan to her parents, her mother asked how she was going to pay for lodging. “I didn’t bat an eye. ‘Oh, I’m sure the sisters there will be happy to host me.’ I wasn’t afraid of anything.”
At age 18, she took a ferry from San Francisco to Oakland and then boarded a train bound for Dubuque, Iowa, to enter the convent, the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “I was armed with one suitcase, two girls from the class above me in school and a sense of possibility,” she recalls.
After becoming a nun, she spent two decades working as an elementary school teacher and coaching girls’ basketball, volleyball, softball and track at schools in Chicago, Los Angeles and North Hollywood.
In 1961, she took a job teaching at the Catholic all-women's Mundelein College near Loyola's campus in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. Thirty years later, she was still there when the college affiliated with Loyola, and in 1994, she became the basketball chaplain. She’s done it ever since, as well as riding with students on the campus shuttle bus and handing out prayer cards during finals week.
She says young people are an inspiration, keeping her young and informed. She even keeps up with friends on Facebook. “I learn every day. My vocabulary has changed over the years by virtue of the fact that they use words differently. Everything is awesome, everything is cool,” she says smiling.
Sr. Jean says the students keep her young.
What does she attribute her good health and longevity to? “I say I eat well, I sleep well and hopefully I pray well and I do those things every day.”
While the number of young Catholics entering religious life is smaller than it was when Sr. Jean was young, she says, “All you have to do is spend one day with the students here at Loyola and you’ll be filled with great hope for the church.
Sr. Jean watches a Loyola basketball game.
“And I’m excited by Pope Francis, not just because he’s a Jesuit, but because he’s asking us to evangelize, to share our faith with other people and listen to their faith as well. He needs our help. We better give it to him! He keeps telling us, ‘God loves us. We may get tired of loving God, but He never gets tired of loving us.’ To me that’s a great gift.”
Sr. Jean is one of a kind and that’s fine with her. “We need to lead extraordinary lives. I don’t have to be like somebody else. I just have to be me.”
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.