The belle of the NCAA tournament ball is your average sister
Sister Jean’s dedicated work, prayerful wisdom, and joyful spirit illuminate characteristics shared by many Catholic sisters.
March Madness hit a whole new level of crazy this year—and I’m not even talking about the 16-seed upset. The dizzying array of action on the basketball court last weekend paled in comparison to the rise of the sports world’s newest star: a 98-year-old religious sister. For those who have been living under a rock since Thursday, let me repeat: a Catholic sister is the belle of the NCAA tournament ball.
Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, or “Sister Jean” for short, is a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). She has served as team chaplain for the Loyola University Chicago men’s basketball team for the past 22 years. With the 11-seed Ramblers in the midst of an improbable run to the Sweet Sixteen, the media can’t get enough of the smiling sister on the sidelines. ESPN reports Sister Jean is the most tweeted about person of any team in the NCAA tournament. She has been interviewed by ABC News, the Washington Post, and even Access Hollywood.
The way the Loyola players—and fans around the globe—are embracing a woman religious is making my heart melt. It’s about time the broader world learned what many Catholics have known all along: Women religious are a holy force to be reckoned with.
Beyond the adorable glasses and witty remarks, Sister Jean’s dedicated work, prayerful wisdom, and joyful spirit illuminate characteristics shared by many Catholic sisters.
Sister Jean’s resume includes stints as principal, teacher, coach, residence hall chaplain, academic advisor, and quite a few other leadership positions. Now serving as chaplain of the Water Tower Campus, Sister Jean is a staple around Loyola. She attends basketball games, meets with students, and greets people getting on the intercampus shuttle bus—all at 98 years young.
The word retirement is not in the vocabulary of most women religious. Sisters are generally active people, working tirelessly and selflessly in schools, hospitals, parishes, and countless other social agencies. A former classmate of mine, Sister Lisa, even serves as the kicking coach for a college football team!
Their hearts bend toward those on the margins. Sisters serve people who are poor, people with disabilities, people who are lonely or scared. Consider Missionary of Jesus Sister Norma Pimentel, who is being honored this year with the University of Notre Dame’s most prestigious Laetare Medal for her advocacy with immigrants and refugees. Or the Dominican Sisters and Sisters of Mercy who were arrested outside the U.S. Capitol last month for demanding safety for DREAMers. These sisters stand up. They speak out. A religious sister once told me that vowing her life to poverty, chastity, and obedience freed her to respond to immediate needs and be with the suffering in a deeply intimate way.
Sister Jean leads the Ramblers in prayer before every game. She beckons our “good and gracious God” to be with the players, to keep them healthy, and to lead them to “a big ‘W.’” By simply going about her routine, Sister Jean has catapulted prayer into the international headlines. Suddenly everyone wants to know what the wise woman in the wheelchair is saying to the One above! Earlier this week, she told the hosts on Good Morning America, “If you don’t have confidence in faith, then you might as well not be playing.”
Women religious gather to pray every morning, midday, afternoon, and evening in monasteries, chapels, houses, and street corners around the world. Prayer, both individual and communal, is central to religious life. Some pray the liturgy of the Hours together. Others pray lectio divina, an ancient practice of meditating with scripture. Some sisters I know enjoy centering prayer or the conversations with God that flow from being outside in the quiet of nature.
The Visitation Sisters, who minister from their urban monastery in north Minneapolis, believe prayer “provides a steady rhythm” for daily life. They say, “Out of this rhythm of prayer, we trust that Jesus is becoming more alive in us and in those who are part of our day.” The stability of prayer helps the sisters stay energized for their intense, often thankless, ministries. Prayer is also a great way to tap into the wisdom of God alive within.
People gravitate to Sister Jean, thanks in large part to the refreshing joy that radiates from her hair to her sneakers. Donte Ingram, the senior guard who hit the game-winning shot in the tournament’s first round, told ESPN, “I hope I’m like [Sister Jean] if I make it to 98. . . . She shines bright. Her spirit is so warm and loving.”
Many who have encountered a woman religious could say the same thing. In my years in ministry, I’ve seen college men eagerly sign up to do dishes with Sister Stephanie. Her compassion is contagious. I’ve seen rowdy high school students seek out coffee time with Sister Vicki. Her listening presence brings peace to even the toughest situations. I remember picking up our family friend, Sister Camille, for Christmas at Grandma’s each year. She’s been there for baptisms and funerals, homework help, and holidays. Her loyalty is treasured.
Last Thanksgiving, I spent a week living at a monastery. I was blown away by the hospitality of the sisters—and how much fun they have together. We drank wine, played board games, and celebrated a 90th birthday with the best German chocolate cake.
Every moment I spend with sisters—or watching them on post-game interviews—counters the popular myth that women’s religious communities are dying out. These women are bringing life, wisdom, and joy to a world thirsting for it. It’s true that there are fewer sisters today than 50 years ago—but it only takes one person to create change. Women religious have been making the world a better place since long before James Naismith nailed a peach basket to the wall. May the love of Sister Jean and all sisters throughout the world continue to inspire long after every bracket is busted.
Image: YouTube, Loyola University Chicago