Closer Look

Sister Jean Turns 101: ‘God Must Have More Work for Me to Do’

Hanako Maki | The PhoenixSister Jean, pictured at the NCAA Tournament in March 2018, is set to turn 101 Aug. 21.

Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, BVM, beloved Loyola men’s basketball chaplain, said she never thought she’d hit 100 years old.

But she reached that milestone last summer. Now, she’s set to celebrate her 101st birthday Aug. 21. 

“I just can’t believe I got this far,” Sister Jean, who talked with The Phoenix ahead of her birthday, said. “Nobody else in my family has lived that long. And I think to myself, ‘Well, God must have more work for me to do that I’ve got still down here.’”

And work she does. Sister Jean — who’s been confined to her apartment at The Clare near Water Tower Campus since the coronavirus ramped up in March — said she spends her days sending emails, calling friends, writing letters and helping the university accomplish tasks involving fundraising and graduation.

“Well, God must have more work for me to do that I’ve got still down here.”

Sister Jean

“People say to me, ‘Aren’t you bored?’ and I say ‘No, I have so much work to do,’” the 101-year-old said. “Loyola keeps us so busy. It takes me sometimes two hours in the morning just to read and answer my email.”

Throughout her quarantine, Sister Jean has found joy in the little things, such as the sliver of Lake Michigan she can see from her apartment. The day she talked to The Phoenix, she said it was a deep, sparkling blue.

“Every morning when I wake up, I look out there,” Sister Jean said. “I own a little piece of the lake out there. I call it mine because I can just see it between two buildings. It’s so beautiful.”

Sister Jean became a household name when the Loyola men’s basketball team made it to the Final Four during March Madness in 2018, but her history at Loyola stretches back much further than that. 

Sister Jean advises a Mundelein College student in the 1980s.
Courtesy of the Women and Leadership Archives, Loyola University Chicago

She taught for several decades at neighboring 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 — and was around to watch the fabled 1963 Loyola men’s basketball team win the national title. She began to work at Loyola when Mundelein merged with the university in 1991 and joined the men’s basketball team as chaplain in 1994. 

Sister Jean is one of Loyola’s 10 team chaplains, The Phoenix reported. Chaplains serve as spiritual guides for student athletes and act as a support for anything from athletic performance to athlete’s personal lives.

Sister Jean prays with the men’s basketball team and with the fans at Gentile Arena before every game. She sends the players motivational emails with things they did well or things they could improve. Loyola men’s basketball Coach Porter Moser said her mindset of “positivity” and “purpose” is what’s kept her youthful.

Sister Jean prays with basketball players before a game.
Henry Redman | The Phoenix

“I’ll hear people in my profession say, ‘Oh, I’m going to retire when I’m 60 and do nothing and go on the beach,” Moser said. “I don’t think she’s ever used those words in her life. She has a purpose every day. She was emailing our guys all summer during the pandemic at 100 years old… it’s her mindset of purpose, her mindset of energy.”

Sister Jean said it’s because she loves what she does.

“I think when you love what you do, it’s never too hard to do anything for it,” Sister Jean said.

“I think when you love what you do, it’s never too hard to do anything for it.”

Sister Jean

Tom Hitcho, the senior associate athletic director at Loyola, said he’s worked in athletics since 1977 and has gotten to know Sister Jean well through the years. Hitcho escorted Sister Jean around in her wheelchair — a hip injury confined her to the wheelchair in 2017 — throughout March Madness in 2018, and maintains a close relationship with her. He said he’s talked to her on the phone nearly every day throughout the pandemic. 

“She always asks what we can do to help people,” Hitcho said. “She is constantly worried, concerned about people, helping people, caring for people, always. She puts everyone else in front of her whether it’s students, academics, playing time, emails.”

Hanako Maki | The Phoenix Tom Hitcho pushes Sister Jean in her wheelchair at March madness in 2018.
Hanako Maki | The Phoenix

Perhaps one of Sister Jean’s most notable qualities, according to many, is her memory.

“She has one of the sharpest memories of not only people’s faces and names but also of their characteristics, of things that they really do well, and also things that they could improve,” Janet Sisler, Loyola’s vice president of mission integration, said.

Sisler is a Mundelein alumna and was 18 when she first met Sister Jean.

Sister Jean walks in front of a parking lot at Mundelein College in the 1960s.
Courtesy of the Women and Leadership Archives, Loyola University Chicago

“She has been a constant mentor for me off and on over all these many years, as she has for hundreds, if not thousands of other people,” Sisler said.

Sister Jean is known for keeping the door to her office in the Damen Student Center propped open so students can come in and talk to her, and she said she “can hardly wait” to get back to campus when it’s safe again. 

“I want to go back to campus,” Sister Jean said. “I said to someone, ‘Well, if people have a right to stay home, I would have a right to go, to be there.”

“I’m so glad I was 100 last year because otherwise, I would have missed out on such great parties.”

Sister Jean

If she can’t make it to campus this year, she said she’s planning on calling students to talk to them as an alternative.

The university plans on holding virtual celebrations for her due to the pandemic and she said she’ll have fun attending those — but she said she got her fill of birthday love last year.

“I had 10 parties last year, one for each decade,” Sister Jean said. “I said to some of my friends already, ‘I’m so glad I was 100 last year because otherwise, I would have missed out on such great parties.’”

Sister Jean celebrated her 100th birthday Aug. 21, 2019.
Courtesy of Loyola University Chicago

This year’s celebrations will include a virtual birthday party and virtual cake and ice cream on social media Aug. 21, and a Mass of gratitude Aug. 26. More details can be found on Loyola’s website.

Sister Jean said “age is just a numeric thing,” and she doesn’t feel different despite being 101. 

“I have to say, I don’t feel different from 100, or from 99,” Sister Jean said. “I’ve had such a good life. I had a happy childhood. I loved every place where I taught elementary school. I thought I could never leave. I left a part of my heart in every place. Then …  to Mundelein and then to Loyola. Big parts of my heart are here.”

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