During the 2018 NCAA Tournament, Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, BVM, became a household name as the Loyola men’s basketball team’s chaplain. Her pregame prayers and quick wit went viral shortly after Donte Ingram’s buzzer-beater sent Loyola to the second round.
But Sister Jean’s not the only team chaplain at Loyola.
Each team has its own chaplain. In total, Loyola has 10 chaplains for its 13 Division I teams because some work for multiple teams. Team chaplains are volunteers who are meant to be someone student-athletes can talk to about anything, ranging from their athletic performance to their personal lives.
Most of the chaplains are Jesuits or Jesuit scholastics, meaning they’re Jesuits who are working to become a minister. Two of them are “laywomen,” a female member of the church who isn’t ordained. Jesuit scholastics can only be team chaplains for two or three years, depending on how long it takes for them to complete their requirements.
Others, including Sister Jean, can stay on board as long as they’d like. But many of the other team chaplains don’t necessarily want to be as popular as Sister Jean.
“I don’t think any of us would want that, to be very honest with you,” men’s volleyball chaplain Lauren Schwer said. “In my mind, our job is to care for the student-athletes, and I know that all the men’s volleyball players know who I am. … That’s just fine for me.”
Loyola’s ‘Second-Most Famous Chaplain’
On the second floor of the Damen Student Center, Schwer sits at her computer as the CTA ‘L’ train speeds past every few minutes. The office is home to many religious books and some of Schwer’s decorations, included a cluster of spiritual quotes and three posters.
Two of the posters are from the teams for which Schwer was a chaplain — a 2018-19 Loyola women’s volleyball schedule and a men’s volleyball schedule. There’s also a women’s soccer schedule because Schwer helped the team coordinate a retreat.
Schwer, Loyola’s assistant director of Campus Ministry, is in charge of all the chaplains. Since she’s also the men’s volleyball chaplain, she said she introduces herself as the “second-most famous chaplain at Loyola,” only after Sister Jean. She spent five seasons as the women’s volleyball team chaplain.
A former volleyball player at Boston College, Schwer said knew she wanted to be involved in more than just Campus Ministry at Loyola. So she looked into the athletics department.
“I’m a former Division I athlete myself, so I cared about athletics long before I cared about ministry,” Schwer said. “When I got here, within my first year at Loyola, I was like, ‘How do I get connected to athletics?’ because my world view makes more sense in athletics than sometimes it does in Campus Ministry.”
Starting out at Loyola in 2010, Schwer was in charge of organizing retreats for the various sports teams at the Loyola University Chicago Retreat and Ecology Campus (LUREC) in northwest suburban Woodstock. She became familiar with several of the teams and began frequently attending their games.
In 2013, the women’s volleyball team was in need of a chaplain. Already knowing all of the players from the team retreats, Schwer asked to fill the position. But there was one big hurdle she had to conquer — she’s not a Jesuit, and she’s not a nun.
Since she’s a laywoman, Schwer said she had to get special permission to be a chaplain because a Jesuit coordinated the chaplains at the time. The coach petitioned to the athletics director and, after three months, she received the permission and later became the men’s volleyball team chaplain in 2015.
“The Chaplain Shouldn’t Say, ‘I’m a Fairweather Golfer’”
The chaplains don’t just come from different religious backgrounds — they also handle their roles however they want.
“We all kind of approach it differently,” Schwer said. “I think that’s probably a key part of this chaplain thing. The teams are all really different, so what they need is really different.”
Many of the team chaplains go to nearly every home game and interact with the athletes outside of team activites. However, attending matches is difficult for Alec Kenny, the men’s track and field and cross country chaplain, and Conan Rainwater, the men’s and women’s golf chaplain.
The golf and cross country teams only have one home event each in 2019-20. This has led Kenny and Rainwater to think of other ways to help their teams.
“I would say my style is one of presence,” Rainwater said. “Just being with the students in whatever capacity they want. Just showing that I actually care about what they’re doing. I want to get to know them.”
Kenny, who helps lead a Loyola-sponsored church called Agape and Ecclesia, said he has gone on day trips to Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Valparaiso University for single-day cross country events. He doesn’t go to away meets that span more than one day.
As for Rainwater, he attends the home golf matches in south suburban Flossmoor and traveled to Valparaiso Sept. 6-7, but he said he can’t attend more away matches since he is a full-time Jesuit scholastic.
Since going to events isn’t always feasible, Kenny said he tries to make an impact with his team by simply joining in on team activities. He’ll host team dinners and occasionally go on runs with the team.
“If they’re doing their shorter, slower-paced runs, I’ll go running with the team,” Kenny said. “I like to join in on their everyday life. I find that’s a good starting point for getting to learn who they are.”
Both Kenny and Rainwater stressed the importance of trying to appeal to all members of their respective teams. Being a chaplain is an inherently spiritual role, but they acknowledged that not every athlete shares the same spiritual beliefs. Because of this, they both try to relate to the athletes on an individual level, while leaving the door open for a deeper spiritual relationship if the athletes wish.
“Whenever I gather with the teams, especially over meals, I ask the question of, ‘What is your happy and what is your crappy for the week?’” Kenny said. “It starts with just having a context to be able to share what you’re going through in your life, and knowing that you’re not going to get judged or criticized.”
Rainwater, who golfed through high school and still plays occasionally, tries to attend some of the golf teams’ practices. Since Loyola doesn’t have a home course, he’ll drive out to see them — within reason, of course.
“[The golf teams] have to commute sometimes 40 minutes or so to get to practice,” Rainwater said. “Just showing that I care enough to go to practice even if it’s raining on the golf course. I’m going to try to be there as well. … The chaplain shouldn’t say ‘I’m only a fairweather golfer.’”
‘Someone to Listen’
Just as the chaplains want to relate to the student-athletes, the athletes also value having someone else they can talk to.
Maddy Moser, a redshirt senior libero on the Loyola women’s volleyball team, said she developed a close relationship with Schwer throughout her time at Loyola. In addition to playing Division I volleyball, Moser balances a heavy class load as a nursing student. She also missed the entire 2018 season with a torn ACL, a ligament in her knee.
Moser said she could turn to Schwer for help during that time. Their bond started Moser’s first year when she wanted to join a “small group” at Loyola but couldn’t find a good fit. So, Schwer helped her start a Christian Life Community, a network of faith-based small group that meet weekly, for athletics.
“Personally, I can’t imagine my time here without Lauren Schwer,” Moser said. “Whether it’s been someone to listen when I have a lot of things going on, especially with nursing and athletics, it gets to be a lot. … She’s always my biggest supporter and it’s awesome to have someone like that.”
The chaplains aren’t only there for the athletes though. They also collaborate with the coaches — men’s golf head coach Erik Hoops has interacted with the chaplains on both sides.
“Personally, I can’t imagine my time here without Lauren Schwer.”
— Maddy Moser, redshirt senior libero
Hoops golfed at Loyola from 2008-12, and said he didn’t “use” the chaplain program that much because he had a close relationship with his coach. Now, as a coach at Loyola since spring 2016, he said he meets with Rainwater regularly for lunch and sees the value of the chaplaincy program.
“[Rainwater’s] great because he’s a golfer, too,” Hoops said. “He’s been showing up to a practice like once a week and just asking guys how life’s going. … It’s just nice to have that added fresh perspective.”
Loyola isn’t the only university with team chaplains. Other universities including Villanova University, which won the national championship the year Loyola made the Final Four, have team chaplains as well.
But Loyola athletics director Steve Watson said he doesn’t know of another university that has chaplains for every team — which is why he said Loyola’s program is unique.
“You hear about a lot of schools who have a chaplain for a certain sport, but I’ve never heard of a school that has a chaplain for every sport,” Watson said. “I think … [it’s] a nice resource for our athletes and our coaches, and we’re real proud of what [Schwer] has done with the program.”