Sister Jean discusses quarantining, basketball’s fate, life lessons ahead of 101st birthday

Her one birthday wish? “The best one that I could possibly imagine is that if I could leave [my apartment] and go to campus,” she said.

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Sister Jean cheers during a Loyola v Kansas State basketball game.

Sister Jean is celebrating her 101st birthday Friday with a virtual party hosted by Loyola.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

One year ago Friday, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt peered over a large birthday cake and blew out her special “1-0-0” candles burning in front of a crowd of several hundred at Damen Student Center.

It was the party of the century — at least in Sister Jean’s eyes. There was cake, appearances by Gov. J.B. Pritzker along with other prominent Illinoisans, and a star-studded video tribute featuring NBA legend Charles Barkley, Bears owner Virginia McCaskey and former Cubs manager Joe Maddon among many others.

But what made it extremely special, she said, was the opportunity to share her 100th birthday with the Loyola community of students, faculty and alumni.

“It was a wonderful day,” Sister Jean recalled.

Due to the ongoing pandemic, Loyola can’t do the same this year when Sister Jean celebrates her 101st birthday, a milestone she said she wasn’t sure she’d reach. But they’re going to do what she believes is the next best thing — hold a virtual birthday party Friday. And Loyola’s No. 1 fan is welcoming everyone to be part of her special day.

“I’m excited because I don’t know much about it,” said Sister Jean, the men’s basketball team chaplain since 1994 whose popularity skyrocketed during Loyola’s unimaginable run to the Final Four in 2018. “There’s going to be a lot of surprises, I think. The street talk is that they’ve made a video of people greeting me, and I don’t know who that is or what it is or anything. ... It’ll be just a lot of fun, I know that.”

Her one birthday wish?

“The best one that I could possibly imagine is that if I could leave [my apartment] and go to campus,” she said. “That’s the best one that I could do.”

Unfortunately, it could be months — and quite possibly not until 2021 — before that wish could be granted as the pandemic continues to surge throughout the state.

Sister Jean has been confined to her apartment since March. But it hasn’t been too bad, she said.

“Loyola keeps me plenty busy,” the basketball-loving nun said with a laugh.

Sister Jean starts each morning by checking her emails. It’s a task that usually takes more than an hour to complete.

After that, she spends the rest of her days talking with students and friends on the phone and scrolling through Facebook. Her schedule is also usually booked with meetings with various people and organizations at Loyola.

“I’m busy,” she said, “but I’d rather be busy.” 

Still, Sister Jean misses interacting with students. In fact, the lack of physical contact with people has been the biggest challenge for the centurion over the last five months. 

Washing hands? No big deal, she said. Wearing a mask? “It’s not too hard.”

“But that six-foot distance, that’s the hardest for me,” Sister Jean said.

“It’s hard for us because that Loyola Rambler hug means so much when you share it with someone. So that’s a big thing to give up that. ... I’ve had people come in and say, ‘Sister Jean, I need a hug. Can I have a hug today?’ And I always said, ‘Sure, because I need one, too!’ Some days, we do need a hug. You don’t have to say anything... But we don’t have that [right now].” 

Sister Jean was bummed when she learned the Missouri Valley Conference was postponing fall sports due to the pandemic.

“I wanted that so badly for us to have fall sports because I knew that would give students a lot of hope,” she said. “And ... I think we could’ve done it.

“Basketball, they’re going to let us know by the end of this month. And I hope they let us know that we’re gonna have it, because all these sports are a part of the college education.”

What will she do if there isn’t basketball this winter?

“Well, if we don’t have basketball, I hope they [replay] a lot of games on TV,” she said.

Happiness and positivity are two of Sister Jean’s secret ingredients to a fulfilling life.

“Some days, you’re going to have sad days,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we’ve lost our joy. We can still have that.”

She also believes the pandemic is bringing out the best in some people.

“I’ve learned to always think positively about whatever is happening,” Sister Jean said.  “So I believe that this COVID, there’s something good going to come from it. There’s so much suffering now, but I think that we’re going to respect people better, and we’re going to care for people [better].”

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