Review: Sister Jean, everyone’s favorite courtside nun
Writing a memoir is no mean feat at any age, but it is perhaps most impressively done at 103. The famous Jean Dolores Schmidt, B.V.M., beloved chaplain of the Loyola Chicago Ramblers men’s basketball team, has written a book about what she has learned in her first 100 years. The memoir is a collaboration with Seth Davis, an award-winning college basketball analyst for CBS.
Billed as “part life story, part philosophy text, and part spiritual guide,” Wake Up With Purpose! follows Sister Jean’s 103 years from humble beginnings to international fame when Loyola made an incredible Cinderella run to the 2018 Final Four. The book is imbued with Sister Jean’s trademark sense of humor and good-natured observations about her century of life. She jokes, “It only took me 98 years to become an overnight sensation.”
Sister Jean was born Dolores Schmidt in 1919, just months after the end of World War I. She was, she admits, “kind of a ham, even back then,” with an early love for teaching and being in front of a classroom. A beloved third-grade teacher who was a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary set a young Dolores’s heart on joining the order herself.
Sister Jean: “It only took me 98 years to become an overnight sensation.”
A particular standout of Sister Jean’s childhood was her family’s pet monkey, Jerry, who disliked men and “was a teetotaler.” He lived in a cage in the yard, where he subsisted on toast and coffee. The monkey took his coffee with sugar, then dunked his toast in it before eating each slice.
Sister Jean entered the B.V.M. motherhouse directly after high school, taking vows in 1940. At the time, the sisters were not allowed to drive, wore a habit they sewed themselves and were not supposed to have their pictures taken. These requirements were lifted in the ’50s and ’60s, but it is safe to say that Sister Jean at the time would have been startled to see her 2018 self stopping for selfies.
The amount of history the memoir encompasses is staggering, from the dropping of the atomic bomb to Black Lives Matter protests. Throughout the book, Sister Jean intersperses lessons and advice that helped her meet a century’s worth of challenges and change. She preaches tolerance, diversity, open dialogue, face-to-face communication, morning prayer and waking up with purpose. They are her secrets to a long life well-lived, easy and applicable to anyone looking to have a life even half as long, full and meaningful as hers has been.
But her biggest secret and strength, she writes, is her students. As a Loyola alum, I can attest that it only takes one look at Sister Jean as she walks around campus, eats at the late-night Finals Breakfast or celebrates honor society inductions to see how being around students brings her to life. Working with students has been her life’s joy, and she says it has kept her young at heart.
In the decades before Sister Jean was at Loyola, she was a teacher and administrator at several schools. One early assignment was at an elementary school, when Catholic school tuition was $1 a month and “God Bless America” was newly recorded by Kate Smith. When her students were having trouble with a math lesson, she swung the class troublemaker upside down in front of everybody to teach about inverting fractions.
Wake Up With Purpose! is at its best when Sister Jean is talking basketball. At nearly every school she was assigned to, Sister Jean started or coached sports teams. When she played basketball herself in high school, the sport was barely over 40 years old. The rules held little similarity to today’s, with the court divided into three zones and only forwards allowed to shoot. When the first-ever N.C.A.A. championship was held in 1939, Sister Jean had already entered the B.V.M. community. Who could have guessed then that her love for the sport would take her to primetime on ESPN, CBS and “Good Morning America”?
When Loyola’s 1963 men’s team won the school’s first national championship, Sister Jean was teaching at Mundelein College, a women’s college that shared a campus with and would later merge with Loyola. Sister Jean and the other B.V.M.s crowded around the single tiny TV to watch the Ramblers win their first title. It was a particularly memorable win because their championship run included the famous “Game of Change,” in which Loyola broke racial barriers in college basketball by violating the unwritten rule that no more than two Black players could start at a time.
Sister Jean: “I hope to do what I’ve always done: use my words to help others learn, grow, serve God, and serve each other."
Sister Jean wouldn’t become chaplain of that same team until 31 years later in 1994, at the young age of 75. Supposedly her “retirement,” that chaplaincy would be the defining assignment of her life and one of the most iconic parts of Loyola’s incredible and unlikely run to the 2018 Final Four.
Like any good Loyola alum, I own plenty of Sister Jean merchandise. I have both bobbleheads, the “Sister Jean for President” pin, the “Worship, Work, Win” rally towel and the T-shirt with her face on it that was given to students who trekked to the Final Four. But more than any merch or meme, Wake Up With Purpose! brings us close to the fierce, funny, faithful woman at the center of it all.
Sister Jean still keeps the door to her office open, in the heart of the Damen Student Center at Loyola, for students to drop in and chat. She is still active as the team chaplain, emailing scouting reports, encouragement and advice to each of the players. And she still opens every home game with a prayer, in which she urges the refs to make good calls, the players to share the ball and God to nudge the Ramblers to a big W.
In the prologue, Sister Jean sets out her hopes for the book: “I hope to do what I’ve always done: use my words to help others learn, grow, serve God, and serve each other. I hope when people read this book, they will be able to wake up the way I do. I want them to wake up happy. I want them to wake up with purpose. And I want the Ramblers to win.” With warmth and wisdom, that’s what Wake Up With Purpose! accomplishes.
As Sister Jean says to end every courtside prayer, “Amen and go Ramblers!”
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “America’s favorite courtside nun,” in the March 2023, issue.