Anyone who has followed NCAA March Madness this year has heard of Sister Jean from Loyola University Chicago. Decked out in her custom Nikes, Sister Jean has stormed the tournament news. The 98-year-old Catholic nun has a video, not one but two bobble heads (the first one issued by Loyola in 2011, the second crafted since the start of the NCAA tournament), has been interviewed by countless newscasters and is an “international” celebrity. And, if Charles Barkley gets his wish, Sister Jean will be hanging out with the Round Mound of Rebound at the Final Four, but not on the basketball court — her condition for agreeing to meet with him.
And whether Loyola wins or loses, we have embraced the lessons of the importance of working together, the power of prayer and the goodness of others that Sister Jean exemplifies. In this era when incivility runs rampant and politics are contentious, these lessons may be the most positive thing that comes from the “madness” of 2018.
There is no dispute at Loyola that Sister Jean, the diminutive chaplain of the men’s basketball, is a charming and vital part of our campus. But her charisma and influence extend far beyond the Joseph J. Gentile basketball arena. There are few students, faculty or staff, who have not been touched by this remarkably kind and gracious woman.
Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), entered the mother house in Dubuque, Iowa, when she was 18. She worked in elementary education for two decades where she coached girls’ sports, including basketball. She came to Chicago in 1961 to work at Mundelein College, now part of Loyola University Chicago, and never left. Her role has shifted over the years, but not her commanding spirit.
As Father Michael Garanzini, former president of Loyola points out, Sister Jean knows all the students’ needs and complaints and serves as spiritual guide and confidant. She is proud of the fact that she is unique: “We need to lead extraordinary lives. I don’t have to be like somebody else. I just have to be me.”
Through her storied career, her strength has been most evident in her one-on-one relationships with students. Always looking for ways to help students succeed, she helped open higher education to non-traditional students through Mundelein Weekend College and the School of Continuing and Professional Studies of Loyola.
As director of the Mundelein College Reading Clinic, she helped students gain teaching experience through tutoring primary and secondary students in the neighborhood schools. There are still letters on file from Mundelein College students thanking her for her guidance when she was an assistant professor, associate dean, acting dean, associate vice president for academic affairs and director of the Academic Advising Center.
She has counseled the United Students Government Association regarding many of its social justice initiatives, has helped establish the MAGIS scholarship for undocumented students and worked with student groups to prohibit the sale of plastic water bottles on campus. Sister Jean is a presence at orientation, where she counsels both students and parents on navigating Loyola. Her work continues to tie the Chicago community and students together with programs such as SMILE (Students Moving into the Lives of the Elderly), that matches students with senior citizens living in a high rise adjacent to the university’s downtown campus.
Beside her official functions, Sister Jean is always found mingling with students whether they are waiting for the campus shuttle or walking to class. She greets students from her campus office in the student center, offers encouragement during final exams, gives out small slips of paper with words to inspire, talks with faculty and staff about issues that are bothering them.
For someone so small, she often appears ubiquitous, showing up in the spaces she is most needed: “I love being with people, spreading God’s word. And you do that not by talking all the time, but just by your presence.”
When Sister Jean broke her hip in November, many worried that she would not recover her strength and spirit. We need not have been concerned. Even in the hospital, before she was able to get up and move around, she talked about how blessed she is and asked about others back on campus. She spoke about the blessings of being able to continue doing the work she loves.
Yes, Sister Jean is a star, but she has also been a guiding light in countless people’s lives. One does not have to be Catholic, or a student, or a basketball star; she will guide others’ spiritual and professional growth in innumerable ways. My life has been made so much richer because of Sister Jean. I am just grateful that now the world can share her amazing light.
Carol Scheidenhelm, Ph.D., is the director of the Faculty Center for Ignatian Pedagogy at Loyola University Chicago and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. With special thanks to Janet Sisler, director of Loyola’s Gannon Center for Women and Leadership and the Women and Leadership Archives for their assistance with background for this piece.
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