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Sister Jean

Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt speaks to reporters during her 103rd birthday celebration at the Loyola Red Line station plaza in August 2022. The university renamed the plaza in her honor.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

Life, prayer and basketball: Sister Jean's new memoir spans 103 years of life lessons

The 103-year-old nun who’s credited with praying the Loyola men’s basketball team to the 2018 Final Four has written her first book.

Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt’s memoir, Waking Up with Purpose! What I’ve Learned in My First Hundred Years, publishes Tuesday. Well known to Chicagoans, Schmidt – better known as “Sister Jean” – is a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the chaplain for the Loyola Ramblers men’s basketball team.

WBEZ reporter Adora Namigadde sat down with the Chicago centenarian in her office at Loyola University’s Damen Student Center to talk about purpose, prayer, basketball and what prompted her to finally write a book (which was co-authored by Seth Davis). This interview was edited for length and clarity.

How are you doing, Sister Jean?

Schmidt: My day goes fine. Everyday goes fine. That’s because I wake up, as I say with the name of the book, with purpose. And I go over my schedule for the day after I pray. I first say, I thank God for the day, and ask him to help me do everything in his honor and glory.

Your new memoir is called Wake Up with Purpose!: What I’ve Learned in My First Hundred Years. What made you decide to write it?

Schmidt: First of all, when we went to the Final Four, and I got my reputation there, about six people called me and asked me to write a book. And I said, ‘I don’t have enough time. I’m too busy. I could never do that.’ And they said, ‘Well, you know, it isn’t that hard.’ But they never made it sound easy.

Then it was maybe a year ago I saw that Seth Davis [the co-author] called about writing a book. And I said, ‘Well, I’ve rejected about six other people.’ And he said, ‘Well, it isn’t that hard to do.’ He said, ‘All you have to do is talk. And then I just put your talk together. Then it’s printed.’

It was a good exercise for me to do that. And to talk about my family life, talk about our pets and talk about our schools and talk about basketball.

Sister Jean 2018 NCAA tournament

Sister Jean (left) greets Loyola-Chicago coach Porter Moser after the team’s 63-62 win over Tennessee in a second-round game at the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament in March 2018.

Tony Gutierrez

You mentioned earlier that part of how you wake up with purpose is giving thanks to God for your day when you rise in the morning. But what is your purpose? How did you find it?

I had thought first, maybe I just got a purpose when I was later in life. But then as I looked back on my own life, I thought ‘No, I, you know, I had a purpose all the time, without knowing that it was a purpose.’

I hope that people remember me as a happy person. And as one who is caring about myself and caring for them, and being interested in what’s going on in the world, so that I can help people. And if I can’t help them personally, then I can at least pray for them.

You’re known for cheering on your beloved college basketball team, the Loyola Ramblers. What drew you to basketball?

When I was in elementary school [Schmidt grew up in San Francisco, California], we didn’t have any sports. Our school was new and we just didn’t have any money for sports -- either for boys or girls. So when I got to high school, I saw them playing basketball. And then the girls got an invitation [asking] if they wanted to play. I wanted to do that right away.

In 1994, after Loyola University absorbed Mundelein College, the president asked me to work with the men’s and women’s basketball teams just to encourage them to get better grades. Then I was asked to be the chaplain of the men’s basketball team. And I said, ‘I never did that, but I’ll be glad to try.’ And so I’ve had it all these years now. And I’ve loved every team. People say, ‘What seemed like the best?’ Well, I can’t say that because I loved every one of them.

How has being a nun specifically impacted your basketball chaplaincy? I heard you say in a StoryCorps interview that you used to wear a habit, and that you’d never shot a basket because the article of clothing was confining. You no longer wear a habit. Why?

Well, we started to change after Vatican II, which was a turning point for everybody in The Church at that time [in the1960s]. The pope said we should dress more like our founders did in their time to be like society. So that meant we could go into contemporary clothes. It was a shock for everybody, and we gave the sisters a choice. We said you could change or didn’t have to change. And that was really wonderful. I feel it was a good move because people felt freer to talk to us.

Sister Jean

Sister Jean answers questions in 2018 during a news conference for the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament in San Antonio.

Brynn Anderson

How did becoming famous after the 2018 Final Four impact you? Do you like being this widely-known?

Well, it was sort of a shock. Because I woke up the morning after we were moving along and winning our first four games and the NCAA. And so I woke up the first morning and said, ‘This is not a dream, it’s for real. So I better get going.’ It was just something very new to me. But Loyola people helped me get through and said, ‘Just keep on, talk as you do when the reporters come and everything.’ So they encouraged me to do it.

People said to me, ‘Oh, it’ll go to your head.’ No. It hasn’t gone into my head. I’m the same. Basically, I’m the same. I’m happier. Because I’m affecting the lives of more people. And that makes me happy.

Do you have a favorite scripture passage or prayer?

My, I think one of my favorite scriptures is a reading we had the other day when Jesus and his apostles got out of the boat, walked on to the land. And they really wanted to go to a quiet place to pray. But then this, a woman touched Jesus’ cloak, and she had blood issue [a hemorrhage]. And Jesus felt power go from him. And he said, ‘Who touched me?’ The apostles were kind of upset. They said, ‘How could you ask that question when there’s so many people here?’ But then the woman said that she was the one who touched him. And he said to her, “Your faith has saved you.”

I liked that story because Jesus gives us examples of patience, that we have to be patient about things. We have to have faith. We have to have love for him.

What’s next for you? What are your immediate goals?

We don’t know the day or the hour as the God Lord calls us. So I’m 103, I’ll be 104 in August, and we’ll see if we make it this year. I’m healthy. I’ve really never been really sick, or had a really bad accident that would have incapacitated me except this shingles that kept me in a wheelchair. [Sister Jean broke her hip in 2017 and has needed to use a wheelchair regularly since. She contracted shingles the following year.]

But I still hope to walk someday. I’ll be happy when the Lord helps me do that. And when I die, I want to go to heaven. I don’t want to wait too long when I get there. And so that, that’s a big wish, you know. I want my friends to be there, too.

Adora Namigadde is a metro reporter at WBEZ. Follow @adorakn.

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