CHICAGO (RNS) — Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt entered religious life at 18 to become a schoolteacher, and though Bob Hope’s kids and a future cardinal were among her students over the years, when fame came — international fame, she’d remind you — it was as chaplain to the Loyola University Ramblers during the men’s basketball team’s improbable 2018 run to the NCAA Final Four.
Now 103, Chicago’s beloved Catholic sister, best known simply as “Sister Jean,” has added publishing a memoir to her list of achievements.
“Wake Up With Purpose!: What I’ve Learned in My First Hundred Years” not only chronicles Sister Jean’s long life — growing up in California, she remembers watching the Golden Gate Bridge being built and playing intramural basketball when the sport was “still quite young” — but also the wisdom she has accumulated along the way.
Among the proverbs she shares, always with a sense of humor: Having a consistent, daily purpose not only keeps her alive, but also young and vibrant. Teamwork is what life is all about. And “There’s nothing like hugging a sweaty basketball player after a big win.”
The sister doesn’t shy from controversial topics either, though she writes that she realizes to many people she sounds “hopelessly old-fashioned”: She voted for Hillary Clinton, but thinks too many people argued Clinton should be president because she was a woman; she believes abortion is immoral, but thinks it should be left out of politics; as a longtime educator, she doesn’t understand why anybody would want to “whitewash” history.
“If we don’t learn about our mistakes, how will we learn from them?” she writes, matter-of-factly.
Sister Jean said she hopes readers will feel like she’s sitting beside them, sharing stories, just as she does with students in her office at Loyola.
“I would just like them to feel at peace when they’re reading it,” she said.
She spoke with Religion News Service about what keeps her young and what it was like to become an overnight sensation after 98 years. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You write, “That’s how it works with God. If you keep your faith, you never have to grow old.” What is it about faith that you believe keeps you young?
I think with faith comes hope and love. To me, they just can’t be separated, because if you believe in God, you certainly have hope in what he’s going to do for you and also you love him. My mom and dad — especially my mom — taught me early in life to love God: “Dad and I love you, but God loves you even more, and so you have to love God.”
I believe that when you have love for other people, you have a good heart, and you’re happy. And I think happiness has a lot to do with longevity — in addition to DNA, of course.
That lesson your parents taught you about loving and accepting other people is a theme that runs throughout the book. Why is that acceptance and inclusivity important? Do you feel like that’s something the church needs more of?
Oh, I feel it’s really important because God says, you know, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” So if they’re not loving other people, I don’t know what people are doing about themselves, because that, again, is so closely connected. We get all kinds of messages from Pope Francis that we need to do this, and he’s constantly now reminding us to remember the people in Turkey and in Syria. He never separates the two, and the two are certainly very different from each other.
I feel now, as I experience all the disruption we have with cultures and people turning people away and killing people of different cultures, I feel that my mom and dad and other moms and dads were way ahead of their time in the ‘30s and ‘40s. We just took people for granted.
You were an educator for many years, and you write about how you don’t understand why people today wouldn’t want to teach children “the unpleasant realities of our past.” Why is that so important?
Well, I think they need to know the truth.
Sometimes people in this current age begin to talk about things as though this is a new thought that they’ve brought forth in the world. I’d like them to know we’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Generations before them have talked about this, and generations have been working toward unity and acceptance of various cultures. Sometimes they think that that hasn’t happened before.
You became an international celebrity as chaplain to the Loyola men’s basketball team during March Madness in 2018. What was that like?
I was never an international celebrity before — just Sister Jean, chaplain of the men’s basketball team. After we won the first game with that beautiful shot that Donte Ingram made, we knew we were on our way. I woke up the next morning, and I thought to myself, “This isn’t a dream. It’s for real, so get going.”
So I began talking to reporters and so forth, and it was a lot of fun because what we were all facing was something different. We were a Cinderella team, and we still kept our shoes on, and we played as well as we could, and then we got to the Final Four. That was such a wonderful experience, and we had support all the way through that. We were the underdogs all the way. People kept cheering for us.
Why do you think, in the midst of that run, you got so much attention?
I think, first of all, because I’m old. Secondly, because I’m a sister, and I don’t think there are too many sisters that are chaplains to men’s basketball teams.
And also I think I’m a happy person. People say, “Sister Jean, you bring a lot of happiness to people when the world is in such turmoil.” Most of the time, we’re in turmoil, or we hear such tragic things on the news every night, but we need something to boost our happiness and our love for people.
How do the Ramblers look this year?
Well, we moved into the (Atlantic 10 Conference). We hadn’t played very many of those schools before, so we have to learn how they play and what they do. It’s been a tough year for us, but we’ve been doing our best.
We knew from the beginning that it would take us a little while to get used to the new conference. That happened to us when we moved from the Horizon League to Missouri Valley. It took us two years then to feel comfortable, if you want to put it that way.
But they’re working hard, and they play well together, so we’ll get there.