Closer Look

‘I Don’t Really Know What Feeling Old Means’: A Century of Sister Jean

Nick Schultz | The PhoenixLoyola icon and basketball chaplain Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, BVM, celebrates her 100th birthday Aug. 21.
Click here to listen to Sister Jean on The Phoenix’s news podcast, The Byline.

Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, BVM, said eating well, sleeping well and praying well have helped her lead a long life — but it’s almost like it’s in her blood.

“My dad’s family … they all lived to be about 95,” she told The Phoenix in her Damen Student Center office. “When I got to 95, I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll do more than that.’”

She certainly did — the self-proclaimed “international sensation” celebrates her 100th birthday Aug. 21.

A Fixture on Campus

Sister Jean rose to international fame in March 2018 as chaplain of the Loyola men’s basketball team during its Cinderella run to the NCAA Tournament Final Four. Also a former academic advisor and chaplain of several residence halls on campus, she’s been a fixture at Loyola since 1991 when it merged with Mundelein College — an all-girls school run by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), an order of Catholic nuns based out of Dubuque, Iowa. In her 30 years at Mundelein, she was an education professor, student teacher supervisor and dean.

The many years she’s spent around college students has helped push her to the century mark, she said. 

She said she enjoys seeing students in her office in Damen, which is full of pictures of Loyola students and faculty members on the wall. She also has two bobbleheads on a shelf — her bobblehead from the Final Four and another one of Cardinal Blase Cupich, the head of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“I want to live just as much as I can,” she said. “I want to be with students and listen to their stories. I keep my door open all the time so they can come in. … I want to make myself available.”

Don’t just take her word for it, though. Janet Sisler, a Mundelein alumna and the current vice president for mission integration at Loyola, has known Sister Jean since Sisler was 18 years old. Her office is next door to Sister Jean’s, giving her a front-row seat to the students who stop by to say hello and take pictures with her neighbor on a daily basis. Whenever people stop by, Sisler said, it brightens Sister Jean’s day.

“Young people fill her with hope,” Sisler said. “Young people fill her with enthusiasm, with a will to engage. She has that little spark in her eyes when she’s meeting with young people. We’ve all experienced that.”

“I want to live just as much as I can … I want to be with students and listen to their stories.”

Sister Jean, Loyola men’s basketball chaplain

When she’s not mingling with fellow Ramblers, Sister Jean maintains her upbeat demeanor. Jane Neufeld, the vice president of student affairs at Loyola and longtime companion of Sister Jean, described her as “hilarious” and said Sister Jean was still humble after she went viral.

Neufeld mentioned a time when she drove Sister Jean to get her hair done during March Madness shortly after she’d been on Good Morning America.

“We drove like five blocks [and] she was talking about somebody at work whose husband wasn’t well or something,” Neufeld recalled. “I was like, ‘Sister, you were on Good Morning America this morning,’ and she was like, ‘I know. Anyway…’ It wasn’t just a day in the life, but she didn’t make a big deal out of it.”

Sisler said Sister Jean sees good in all things, but often pushes those around her to be better. Sisler added one of Sister Jean’s trademark sayings, “Worship, Work, Win,” is also a life motto.

“You know, ‘Worship, Work, Win,’ that’s more than just a tagline,” Sisler said. “That’s her life really summed up. … If she sees that you could improve someplace, she’s the first person to offer that, but in the most loving way. … She’s challenging, but also encouraging.”

The Mundelein Days

Sister Dodie Dwight, a fellow BVM, came to Mundelein in 1963 and has known Sister Jean ever since. 

Sister Dodie said she’s admired Sister Jean through the years for her “untiring energy and dedication.” As an administrator at the college, Sister Jean was often willing to step in and help whenever needed with jobs in the dorm and weekend classes, among other tasks.

“She had the wisdom, she had the knowledge and she built the relationships and she was able to hold things together more than anybody else.”

Sister Dodie Dwight, BVM

“She just kind of did whatever was needed in an emergency,” Sister Dodie said. “She stepped in and filled in.”

Sister Dodie told stories about the turmoil existing at the college and throughout the country in the 1970s, including backlash and anti-war protests after the Kent State University shootings and civil rights issues at Mundelein. Sister Dodie said Sister Jean kept a level head when dealing with conflict at the college, including a time when the faculty at Mundelein asked to strike. Sister Jean also gave students of color a student center in Piper Hall — which is now home to Loyola’s Women and Leadership Archives — after they laid out a list of demands, Sister Dodie recalled.

Sister Jean looks over paperwork with other Catholic nuns wearing habits in the 1960s.
Courtesy of  the Women and Leadership Archives, Loyola University Chicago

“She had the wisdom, she had the knowledge and she built the relationships and she was able to hold things together more than anybody else,” Sister Dodie said. “I think she was the glue because of not just her competence but her [willingness] to stand up for the truth as she saw it. She was able to make the peace and keep the peace.”

Rising to ‘International’ Fame

In 1994, three years after Loyola and Mundelein merged, Sister Jean joined the Ramblers’ men’s basketball team as its chaplain. Since then, she’s been a staple at Gentile Arena, leading pregame prayers and watching every game with close attention.

Sister Jean’s love for basketball has been nearly life-long. She said she played basketball growing up and used to watch basketball games at Loyola with other sisters from Mundelein. She recalled watching the 1963 men’s basketball championship game on a 11.5 inch television. When Loyola won, she remembered the men from Campion Residence Hall and the women from Mundelein’s then-Coffey Residence Hall running through the streets.

“Hardly anybody had a TV in those days, but one of the sister’s brother-in-law gave us a little black and white TV,” she recalled. “… the game was delayed because of television time. It was so exciting. At the end of the game … they marched all the way down the white line of Sheridan almost to Evanston.”

Loyola men’s basketball head coach Porter Moser hugs Sister Jean at a basketball game, 2019.
Nick Schultz | The Phoenix

Her in-depth knowledge of the team was displayed in 2011, when former Saint Louis University associate head coach Porter Moser was hired at Loyola. When Moser walked into his office for the first time, there was a manila envelope with his name on it. Inside was a letter from a then-91-year-old nun whom he’d never met — along with everything he needed to know about the players he was inheriting.

“There was a note inside it that said, ‘Porter, I’m Sister Jean. Welcome to Loyola. I’m the chaplain. Just thought I’d give you a little report on each of your returning players,’” Moser said. “And it was basically a scouting report — it was very broad. ‘Great kid, needs to work on his shot,’ ‘Great kid, needs to get stronger.’ It was really funny, it was neat.”

When the Ramblers made it to the 2018 Final Four, Sister Jean became an overnight sensation. The further Loyola advanced, the more media outlets came calling. 

Sister Jean’s face was everywhere — from CNN to ESPN and Access Hollywood. She said going so far in the NCAA tournament and becoming so famous was unexpected.

“I never dreamed anything like this would ever happen to me in my life,” she said. “When we went to the NCAA, we were so delighted to go. We thought that if we made it through the first bracket, we would be satisfied because we had never been on that big dance floor before.” 

The 100-year-old showed The Phoenix her new custom Loyola Nike sneakers.
Molly Gaglione | The Phoenix

Bill Behrns and Ryan Haley, two of Loyola’s sports information directors who handle media requests, had to keep up with the increased amount of people who wanted to interview Sister Jean. Behrns said the mania was worth it, even though he’d have to turn requests down on her behalf because “Sister [Jean] would say yes to everything.”

“Sister Jean has more energy than a lot of people half her age, but you also have to remember she can’t be doing interviews 22 hours a day and sleeping two hours a day, which is honestly what it probably could’ve been during that run in March,” Behrns said. “It was that nonstop. We almost had to protect her from herself, so to speak.”

In November 2017, about four months before the Final Four, Sister Jean broke her hip and has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. During March Madness, she was wheeled around by Tom Hitcho, Loyola’s senior associate athletics director of operations. Hitcho, a former athletic trainer, built a close relationship with Sister Jean when she started as team chaplain. He’d give her advice on any medical treatment and even drive her out to Hoyne Field for soccer games before her injury.

“Sister Jean has more energy than a lot of people half her age …”

Bill Behrns, Loyola’s assistant athletics director for communication

As Sister Jean became more popular, Hitcho wheeled her to more interviews. He said one of his favorite moments from the month was when she was interviewed by Coy Wire, a reporter for CNN, who told her he was nervous about interviewing her. In true Sister Jean fashion, she provided words of comfort.

“Sister [Jean] said, ‘What’s wrong? What’s the matter?’” Hitcho said. “He said, ‘Well, Sister, I’ve interviewed presidents [and] superstars throughout the world, and I’m very, very nervous.’ She said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll help you through the interview.’”

After her rise to stardom, Sister Jean has become one of the most recognizable people at Loyola — but there was a time when she wasn’t. When Steve Watson was hired as Loyola’s athletics director in 2014, he didn’t know who she was until his first athletics department staff meeting.

Shortly thereafter, he said he learned how important she was through a conversation with former Loyola president Michael J. Garanzini, S.J. on the intercampus shuttle. Watson told Garanzini he was planning to meet with him to talk about how he was settling into his new role and discuss the state of the athletics department. He joked Garanzini’s response made him feel “about [an inch] big.”

“I said, ‘Well, [we’re meeting] just to catch up and kind of let you know how things are going with athletics and how I’m acclimating and everything,’” Watson said. “And he said, ‘Well, if I wanted to know that, I’d just ask Sister Jean.’ It was so matter-of-fact and quick … but it was kind of who she is.”

‘She just doesn’t stop.’

Despite turning 100, Neufeld said Sister Jean hasn’t slowed down. In fact, she said her milestone birthday has re-energized her in a way.

“It’s so great to watch how excited she is,” Neufeld said. “I mean, she is coming to work almost every day. It’s an inspiration. She just doesn’t stop.”

After Sister Jean’s hip injury, Sister Dodie brought Catholic holy communion to her apartment at The Clare and spent time with her through physical therapy. She said the way Sister Jean handled therapy is the same way she goes through life.

“To hear the physical therapist say, ‘You really can stop and take a break now,’ and she would say, ‘No, I’m fine,’ and just keep powering through things,” Sister Dodie said. “That’s a little vignette to say that’s how she lived her life. Nothing stopped her. She just powered through.”

Although Sister Jean has become a household name on campus, Sisler said she hasn’t let it go to her head. She said Sister Jean says she’s no different than other BVM sisters and Loyola community members.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, she’s the chaplain for the basketball team,’” Sisler said. “But she’s so much more. She’s the chaplain for us all. She provides spiritual direction for so many people. So many people come to her for advice, for counsel.”

“She’s the chaplain for us all. She provides spiritual direction for so many people. So many people come to her for advice, for counsel.”

Janet Sisler, Mundelein alumna and current Loyola Vice President for Mission Integration

When asked her thoughts on Sister Jean turning 100, Loyola President Jo Ann Rooney described it as “extraordinary,” and said the nun has unique relationships with many people around campus.

She mentioned a framed prayer Sister Jean gifted her when she first started at Loyola from the late Father Pedro Arrupe, S.J. in which part of it says, “Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.” In a recent university video interview with Sister Jean, Rooney said she looks at the prayer on her desk every day.

As she prepares for a milestone birthday, Sister Jean said she remains upbeat and focused on being happy — which helps her maintain a youthful spirit.

“I don’t really know what feeling old means,” Sister Jean said. “I’ve lived with older people, I’ve seen older people, visited them, and some of them are just so down all the time or depressed about even living. I think that has not happened to me because I’ve been with young people all the time.”

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