Sister Jean: The 98-Year-Old Nun Turned Face of March Madness

 by Armen Grigorian

 

Every March millions of people, diehard college basketball fans and casual onlookers alike, tune in to watch the NCAA Division 1 College Basketball Tournament, dubbed by many, as “March Madness.” Audiences not only love watching the games, but also making their own brackets trying to predict which underdog will make a deep run in the tournament. This year that underdog is Loyola Chicago, as they became just the fourth eleventh seeded team in history to make it to the Final Four. Perhaps though, for the first time, the team itself that is making the run isn’t the biggest story. Instead, the biggest story of the tournament so far is Loyola Chicago’s team chaplain, the 98-year-old Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt.

Better known as Sister Jean, she has been the team’s chaplain for almost 25 years and has been a member of the Loyola Chicago community for over 50. She is a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin (BVM) and according to Loyola Chicago’s website has been for 81 years. According to CNN, she joined in 1937, earned several degrees in Los Angeles where she then taught and coached basketball. Then in 1961, she transferred to Mundelein College in Chicago, which in 1991 merged with Loyola Chicago. 

 

Despite her age Sister Jean does more than just watch from the stands. Before every game she leads the team in prayer, and even offers the players scouting reports of the other team. Before their game against number three ranked Tennessee she told the team, “Don't let those Tennessee team members scare you with their height," she said. "Height doesn't mean that much. You're good jumpers. You're good rebounders. You're good at everything. And just keep that in mind."

 

Her scouting reports and team prayers, while previously unknown to the national media, have been a part of Loyola Chicago basketball for years. Clayton Custer, the team’s point guard recalled his first game for Loyola Chicago and his first encounter with Sister Jean saying, "The way she prayed just stuck out. In the middle of her prayer there's a scouting report mixed in. She tells us who their best players are and what to watch out for. Sometimes she'll pray for the referee to make the right calls. And at the end, she'll literally pray that we come out on top."

 

Even this past year, when Sister Jean had a hip injury, she still stayed involved with the team, emailing the coach encouragement after both wins and losses, and writing personal notes to the players giving them advice. Her extensive basketball knowledge and dedication to the team are all part of the reason why many nation media outlets have dubbed her Loyola’s secret weapon.

 

Outside of the court around campus at Loyola Chicago, she’s also a beloved figure. CLXF Resident Director Matt Razek, who went to Loyola for his undergrad, says of her: “Sr. Jean has been a campus celebrity for as long as I’ve known Loyola. Whenever someone would see Sr. Jean they would yell her name and run up to her to have a conversation. And even though she’d interact with hundreds of students a day, she had a way of remembering each one individually. That’s special and shows her joy in the work she would do as a minister and conversation partner.”

 

Sister Jean is taking her newfound March Madness celebrity status in stride. She arrived at the Ramblers most recent game wearing custom “Sister Jean Nike Air Force Ones,” and has agreed to let Loyola Chicago license her name and image for bobble heads and t-shirts. One of the bobble heads is already on its way to the basketball hall of fame. When asked about her new national profile, Sister Jean corrected the reported saying, “No, we’re international.”

 

As Loyola Chicago prepares for their Final Four game in San Antonio, Sister Jean is already preparing her next scouting report, and is not backing down. Despite picking Loyola to lose in one of her brackets, she said, "I have Loyola in my second one, which I call…a Cinderella dream bracket. And they're going to the top."    


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