CHICAGO (RNS) — Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt starts and ends every day the same way.
With joy and gratitude.
It’s a practice that has been serving Chicago’s beloved Catholic sister, better known simply as “Sister Jean,” for a century now.
“God’s been very good to me, keeping me as healthy as possible and keeping me active and keeping me thinking a straight way and keeping me able to help people,” said the 100-year sister, a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who became a celebrity while serving as chaplain to the basketball team at Loyola University Chicago during its 2018 run to the Final Four.
“All those things I think have helped me live to this age.”
In a birthday celebration Wednesday (Aug. 21), held in Loyola’s student center, Sister Jean was joined by Loyola President Jo Ann Rooney, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other city, county and state officials.
Pritzker proclaimed it “Sister Jean Day” in the state of Illinois.
And Rooney announced more than $31,000 had been donated to the university’s Sister Jean Worship, Work and Win Fund, which supports Loyola student athletes and athletics. An additional $250,000 from an alum, matched by the university, had been donated to establish the Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt BVM Endowed Scholarship Fund for Loyola students, she said.
“You have touched the lives of generations of students at Loyola,” the university president said.
“In recent years, you have become a touch point of faith and optimism, of spiritual wisdom and of course, basketball expertise — and not just for us, but truly for people around the world.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Sister Jean was hard at work at the university’s freshman orientation, where she made sure to tell new students “how important they are to Loyola,” she said.
She was “overwhelmed” by all the well wishes shared in a video by those who couldn’t be with her in person to celebrate: Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, the Loyola basketball team, her fellow BVM sisters and even NBA legend-turned-commentator Charles Barkley.
“I have a lot more to live up to, so I better live a little longer," she said.
So far, she said, 100 years old doesn’t feel much different from 99.
Wednesday’s party — which included a cake and performance of “Happy Birthday” by the university’s Loyolacapella group — was part of a month of celebrations that already has included the unveiling of a 2 1/2-foot-tall Lego statue in the sister’s likeness.
Loyola also will commemorate her birthday at Mass on Sunday (Aug. 25) and a block party next Thursday (Aug. 29).
Sister Jean said she wanted to become a BVM sister “all my life.”
Since entering religious life, she has been a teacher, administrator, dean and academic adviser — but it was her role as Loyola’s basketball chaplain that skyrocketed her to fame during the Ramblers’ improbable March Madness run, cheering courtside in her maroon and gold scarf.
That’s “international” fame, she’d remind you.
She’s thought about why her presence — offering prayers and advice to Loyola’s basketball players — captured people’s attention the way it did, she said.
It’s probably because she’s a sister and many people “have never seen a sister so active in sports,” she said.
“I'm going in just trying to be myself and just trying to be a happy person. I think in order to have an impact on people, we have to be happy ourselves,” she said.
Sister Jean is the “heart and soul of the school,” according to Loyola student government president Kathleen Meis.
Meis said she had “celebrity shock” the first time she met the sister on campus. The student said she wanted to ask Sister Jean for advice during that first meeting.
And she wants to make the sister proud.
“I want you to know that there are hundreds of students who you don't even know but who want to make you proud each and every day,” she told Sister Jean.
None of it has gone to Sister Jean’s head, the sister assured reporters after the celebration.
“I think if it went to my head, I'd stop working,” she said. “And I haven’t stopped working, so, to me, that's a pretty good criteria.”