Closer Look

Ninety-nine nun: A near-century of service for Sister Jean

Nick Schultz | The PhoenixSister Jean blows out her 99 candles at her birthday party in the Damen Student Center on August 21, 2018. Friends, coworkers and fans all showed up to show their love.

Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, BVM, men’s basketball chaplain and Loyola icon, turned 99 years old Aug. 21. She blew out 99 candles surrounded by friends, coworkers and adoring fans in the Damen Student Center. Head men’s basketball coach Porter Moser even presented her with a number 99 basketball jersey.

As she comes off arguably her craziest, and by her own admission “most fun,” year in her near-century life, she’s been a celebrated Loyola figure for much more than just basketball.

While hundreds of Loyola students can recall their own unique moments with Sister Jean, she skyrocketed to stardom during Loyola men’s basketball’s magical March Madness run that reached the Final Four this past spring.

Sister Jean was featured in newspaper profiles, in witty soundbites on television news, in viral memes and on Rambler memorabilia.

Sister Jean’s fondness for sports goes back decades. As The Phoenix previously reported, she urged the pastor at the Los Angeles elementary school where she taught in the 1950s to start teams for a number of sports.

“We set up seventh and eighth-grade football, basketball, soccer and, believe it or not, yo-yo,” she told The Phoenix in 2016. “I ended up as head coach of our women’s basketball team.”

Sister Jean told the Jesuit Order’s online site she’s wanted to be a nun since third grade: “I love being with people, spreading God’s word. And you do that … just by your presence.”

She joined her order, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in 1937 and Mundelein College in 1961. At that point, Mundelein was still a women’s college; it would later merge with Loyola in 1991.

Still, in 1963 she watched as Loyola won its first and only NCAA Championship against the University of Cincinnati 60-58. She recalled the game to The Phoenix in 2016.

“I remember that night so well: Another sister and I were watching the game on tape-delay on a little, black-and-white TV,” Sister Jean told The Phoenix. “Around midnight, when the broadcast of the game was over, all the Loyola boys came to Mundelein and grabbed the girls and began celebrating. You could hear them chanting up and down Sheridan all night long. They almost made it up to Evanston!”

By now, the country and the world know that Sister Jean prays with the Ramblers before each basketball game. She gives detailed scouting reports before their games against rival teams and she gives each player heartfelt feedback via email after each game. But her fixture as Loyola’s biggest basketball fan is only part of why she’s revered on campus.

Courtesy of Lukas KeapprothLoyola Men’s Basketball Head Coach Porter Moser hands Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt a number 99 basketball jersey to celebrate her 99th birthday in the Damen Stduent Center on Tuesday, August 21, 2018. Courtesy of Lukas Keapproth

She served in numerous leadership roles during her three decades at Mundelein, both within its education department and as the college’s academic dean.

In 1970, while serving as acting dean, she bore witness to student-led protests following the Kent State University shootings, where the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students in May of that year amidst anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.

In a voice recording provided by Loyola’s Women and Leadership Archives, Sister Jean recounts deciding to let the students protest in peace in the form of a “Student Strike” on the curb of Sheridan Road.

“It was hard for the students; it was hard for everybody,” she said. “But we gave the faculty and the students the opportunity to do what they wished.”

Sister Jean became a Rambler in the early ‘90s when Mundelein merged with Loyola. She served as an academic advisor to students until she retired and accepted the chaplain position in 1994; she’s been praying with the team before each home game ever since.

Loyola’s vice president of Student Development, Jane Neufeld, said she’s known Sister Jean as a colleague and friend for at least two decades. She spends a lot of time escorting her around campus as students and visiting families all stop to say hello.

“People are usually hesitant, like ‘Do you think she’ll take a picture?’” Neufeld said. “If you don’t take a picture, she’s going to ask you ‘Don’t you want to take a picture?’”

Neufeld said the Sister Jean she knows is quick-witted with a deep memory and a keen eye for personal details. She doesn’t take herself too seriously and almost laughs off her fame.

She’s got a propensity for conversation and really understands the value of striking up a chat, according to Neufeld.

“She’d go [to Mass] early, I think on purpose, because she knew she would run into people she wanted to talk to,” Neufeld said.

Neufeld said after her father met Sister Jean the two became pen pals. She even sent Neufeld’s dad a birthday card.

While she’s less mobile now after a hip injury in 2017, Sister Jean’s door was always open when she sat in Loyola’s Alumni office in the Damen Student Center. When she lived in Regis Residence Hall, she held a weekly prayer group for students. When she fell and broke her hip, Neufeld said Sister Jean’s main concern was students missing out on the prayer group that week.

She started a program at the university called the SMILE (Students Moving into the Lives of the Elderly) Program, which develops meaningful relationships between Loyola students and seniors living in the Clare, an assisted-living home adjacent to Loyola’s School of Communication.

She’s also got her fair share of awards over the years.

In 2009, she received an award to honor extraordinary Loyola leaders, the Dux Mirabilis Award. She received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Loyola in 2016 and was inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017.

On Sept. 12, she’ll be presented with the Sword of Loyola at Founders’ Dinner as this year’s Spirit of Loyola award recipient for her decades of service at the university and for her embodiment of Ignatian values.

Tom Hitcho, a Loyola Athletics official who became noteworthy during the March Madness tournament for his role rolling around Sister Jean in her wheelchair, said Sister Jean embodies the Ignatian ideal of the Person for Others.

Hitcho goes almost everywhere with her and said “she never says no to talk to people … She wants to accommodate everyone.”

In June, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon requested Sister Jean lead Mass for him and his players. A service is offered for Cubs players and staff each Sunday when the team plays at home.

Neufeld said Sister Jean had her remarks for the Founders’ Dinner written before anybody even had a chance to help her.

Asked to describe what the speech would entail, Neufeld just said it was “so Sister Jean.”

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