Getting to know Sister Jean
An icon of faith, service, and basketball
She might be best known as a fixture on the sidelines, but on and off campus, there's much more to celebrate about Sister Jean
As she makes her way through the halls of the Damen Student Center, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, BVM, makes a point to say “good morning” to every person she encounters. Some students are busily typing out a text or paying attention to the music playing in their earbuds, so sometimes Sister Jean has to startle them out of their routine to get their attention. But when they see her unmistakable smile, they all stop and share a greeting in return. For Sister Jean, it is a perfect way to start the day: by spreading the joy she feels when she wakes up each morning.
“That's being a person for others by just being yourself,” she says. “That's the way I am. I have to be myself. I tell students that—you'll see people that you admire, you can do some of the things they do, but you have to be yourself. God made you the person who you are.”
It is safe to say that God hasn’t made too many people quite like Sister Jean. She’s remained incredibly active, taking to heart a saying from her mother: “It is better to wear out than to rust out.” And Sister Jean has certainly embodied that philosophy throughout her 103 years of life. “I keep saying that to myself,” she said in a 1998 interview. “Don’t let yourself sit around here and do nothing.”
In her time at Loyola, Sister Jean has become an iconic figure known and loved far and wide. She’s touched the lives of countless people, appeared in nearly every major media outlet in the country, and shaped the life of Loyola University Chicago and its campus, where she’s spent more than half a century. And still, she wakes up happy every morning, ready to experience another day.
Answering her calling
Much of that joy comes from living out the calling that she first discovered as a third grader at a Catholic school in her hometown of San Francisco. In the 1920s, it wasn’t uncommon for young Catholic children to say they wanted to be a priest or sister when they grow up. For most, however, other dreams would take over as they got older. But not for Sister Jean; her calling was clear, and she never looked back.
Born Dolores Bertha Schmidt on August 21, 1919, she was the oldest of three children in a devout Catholic family. Faith was ever-present in her world, and others in her family had already answered a call to religious life. But it was in that third-grade classroom where her future was set. Her teacher—a woman who modeled joy, kindness, and devotion—was a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (or BVMs for short). And to young Dolores Schmidt, that was everything she wanted to be. She would later say that when she would pray as a child, her prayer would be, “Please God tell me what I should do…but please tell me that I am to be a BVM.”
Following that call took her to many places: the BVM motherhouse in Dubuque, Iowa, where she received her habit and the name Sister Jean Dolores; Catholic schools in her home state of California, where she taught during the height of World War II; and finally to Chicago, where she landed on the campus of Mundelein College in 1961. Though working on a college campus was a new experience for her, Sister Jean was ready to take on the challenge and held numerous leadership positions during her career at Mundelein.
In 1991, Mundelein became affiliated with Loyola and Sister Jean, along with all other Mundelein employees, would have to fill out an application and go through a standard interview process if they wished to become a Loyola employee. It was a very different experience for a religious sister, who would normally be assigned a job by her community rather than applying for one, but Sister Jean was hired and given a new role working to ensure a smooth transition for former Mundelein students who transferred to Loyola.
But it wasn’t long after making the transition to Loyola that Sister Jean would take on an entirely new role—and the one she would be best known for.
A legendary Rambler
To people outside Loyola, Sister Jean became a household name in the span of just a few weeks in March 2018. When the Ramblers played their first-round game in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, announcers and reporters were eager to tell the story of the then 98-year-old chaplain sitting courtside to cheer on her team. In fact, if you Google the phrase “basketball nun,” you’ll find links to dozens of stories from CNN and the New York Times to People magazine and ESPN singing the praises of the Catholic sister who accompanied Loyola on their improbable road to the Final Four. But to members of the Loyola community, the rest of the country was just discovering what they’d known for a long time.
It began in 1994, when a 75-year-old Sister Jean was ready to retire from Loyola. But once again, she was called—this time to take on a role helping student athletes keep up their grades so they could maintain their eligibility to play. That evolved into a position as official team chaplain for the men’s basketball team, with her pre-game prayers and advice to players becoming a critical part of the team’s success. Her role with the team has also earned her numerous accolades, including a much-deserved induction in the Loyola Athletics Hall of Fame.
But make no mistake, Sister Jean is more than just a fan—she knows her basketball as well as anyone on the court. Upon arriving at Loyola, Coach Porter Moser got a scouting report from Sister Jean on every one of his players. “She still sends me an email after every single game,” Moser told the Peoria Journal Star in 2017. “There is no human like her.”
Although it may be true that basketball has brought Sister Jean fame, her true passion remains being a servant of God who has devoted a century to helping others. And whether it be through mentoring basketball players, following the mission of the BVMs to educate, sharing in a prayer with a group of students, or just saying hello in the hallway, it is maintaining that connection to college students that still brings Sister Jean the most joy in her life.
“That's because I love working with these young people,” she says. “I think that's what kept my heart young—not my body young—but kept my heart young all these years.”
Celebrate by giving back
Help Loyola Athletics honor Sister Jean with the Work, Worship, Win Fund, an endowment to support our student-athletes' success—in and out of the game. LEARN MORE