The media darling of the annual men’s NCAA basketball tournament is most likely a player who is tall, fast (or tall and fast) and scores a bunch of baskets.
It could be a coach who sets a record for the number of wins or inspires his team to perform better than expected.
In 2018, the star of the show was Sr. Jean Dolores Schmidt, BVM, chaplain of the Loyola Ramblers, a team that made it to the Final Four. No, nobody expected that to happen (except the guys on the team).
As the Ramblers progressed in the tournament, the attention garnered by their chaplain also grew. She isn’t your typical men’s basketball chaplain: religious sister, files scouting reports with the coach, advises the players on what they should do both on and off the court, leads a lot of prayers.
Of course, she also is 98 and after taking a tumble last year navigates the world in a wheelchair. And her other job is being a resident chaplain in the dorm she shares with 400 students at Loyola University, Chicago.
As one young fan told Sr. Jean during the basketball tournament, “you’ve gone viral.” But as ZENIT learned when talking with Sister a few days ago, there are eight decades of a fascinating life before the Final Four. Here, in this Zenit exclusive interview, is a taste of her remarkable story…
The story of my vocation starts in the third grade in a Catholic school in San Francisco. My family lived too far away from the school when I was in first grade and I would have had to cross Market Street by myself – the busiest street in town – and my mom didn’t want that. So I had to go to public school. In second grade I went to the Catholic school but had a lay teacher. Then in third grade, I had a sister as a teacher.
She was just great with us. She was young and everybody liked her. She was a good teacher – and it was her first year teaching. And she told us that even as young as we were, it wasn’t too soon to start thinking about our vocation in life.
In those days, it was normal for the priest to come in and ask the boys how many plan to be policemen, doctors or maybe priests. And they would ask the girls how many planned to be, oh, teachers, housewives, whatever.
I wanted to be a teacher. And I had aunts and cousins on both sides of my family who were religious sisters and teachers. So, God willing, I could be a religious and a teacher.
I prayed to God every day: Please let me be a sister – a BVM – those were the sisters who taught us. They seemed happy and spent lots of time after school with us talking about God. So, I prayed that God would agree with me; He did, and I never really changed my mind.Sr. Jean explained that in those days the career choices for women were limited: nun, teacher, nurse, secretary, store clerk, housewife. For her that didn’t seem to matter; she was always going to be a teacher.
Her inspiring third-grade teacher was transferred to Chicago, where the BVM province was headquartered, but she and young Jean corresponded. After all, Jean had told her she also was going to be a Sister and a teacher.
A few years later, the Provincial from Chicago visited Jean’s school in San Francisco and asked to see the young student (the Provincial had been tipped off by Jean’s former teacher). She asked if Jean still wanted to be a BVM and was told: “of course.”
As time moved along, Jean’s chemistry teacher (a BVM) asked if the prospective Sister had written for information to the order’s motherhouse, Mount Carmel, in Dubuque, Iowa. Jean replied that she just figured when she was done with high school she would pack up and go.
Her teacher explained that the process was a bit more involved and suggested she write a letter, apply, get recommendations – all of which she did.
On Easter Sunday of her senior year of high school, she told her family of her vocational plans. They were hardly surprised and blessed her calling.
My mom told my brothers and me that God loved us; we need to talk to Him. And in addition to my third-grade teacher, I’ve had many role models, including many BVMs, Jesuits at Loyola, students I’ve worked with and members of my own family. That’s why I don’t name names for fear of leaving someone out.
And the most rewarding part of my religious life is my prayer life. In the novitiate, we learned to pray and meditate. My prayer life is very important to me.
Sr. Jean’s first teaching job was at St. Vincent’s in Chicago. Her students came from large, poor, immigrant families. From there she moved to Los Angeles and taught for 20 years. Her students came from affluent – and sometimes famous – families. And being in Hollywood, she got her first break in television.
It was 1957, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was operating an educational channel. They asked Sr. Jean if she would do a course on civics. She would be on a set like a classroom with a few of her students. They would record the first segment at the studios at the University of Southern California, which was giving the archdiocese some help.
In those days, you couldn’t have white clothes when you were on television or it caused the picture to shimmer, so instead of white shirts, the kids on the show with me had to wear blue – and I had to dye my white habit blue.
Unfortunately, when they got to the studio they learned there had been a major equipment failure and they couldn’t record. Sr. Jean, undaunted, called the father of one of her students to see if he could get them some studio time. He was glad to help.
That dad was comedian Bob Hope. Sr. Jean taught his kids, as well as Frank Sinatra’s. And although she didn’t have them in her class, John Wayne’s children attended her school.
By teaching in Chicago and Hollywood, Sr. Jean encountered students from remarkably different circumstances. But she said in both environments the kids were good, the parents loved them and they wanted them to have the Catholic faith.
Sister admits that much has changed over the years – in education as in every other part of life. But she has never doubted her love for Christ and His love for her. When others left religious life and even the Church, she persevered.
I never felt like leaving. I was there to be a teacher and to do things in the Church.
When Holy Father talks about going back to our roots as religious, he means being faithful to what we do. In case of BVM we are teachers and when we’ve tried other things it didn’t work out so well.
Biggest surprise and joy is being successful at teaching, working with young people, seeing them grow up and be successful. Just watching these young people develop now in college and advising them.
I don’t tell the college students in my residence halls that they are doing something wrong – I do tell them when they make a mistake. The first thing I ask is “does your mother know about this?” Of course, they say no and I remind them that mothers know everything. I live with 400 young people and my vocabulary continues to change. Of course, some of their new words are just coming back from the ‘20s.
Two things instantly come to the fore in a conversation with Sr. Jean. First, it is hard to believe she is nearly a century old. She is youthful, intellectually challenging, passionate about the young people she lives and works with. Perhaps this is the result of the second thing you sense very quickly: this is a woman who loves Jesus and knows he is her closest friend.
Photos courtesy Loyola University Chicago.