Sisters of Sister Jean, used to working in the background, rejoice in attention she’s brought them
They are giddy. They are also unused to the attention.
They are sisters of Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the 98-year-old unlikely international celebrity and chaplain of another unlikely celebrity — the Loyola University Chicago men’s basketball team.
Until about a month ago, Sister Jean was beloved but largely unknown outside the university community, which also sort of describes the team.
Then Loyola began its improbable run in the NCAA tournament, where it now stands just one win away from the chance to play for the national championship.
Through it all, the unassuming Sister Jean has ridden her wheelchair like a surfboard on a global wave of popularity. In interview after interview, she somehow remains poised and articulate but enthusiastic. She’s confident yet modest.
The ensuing attention on the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Sister Jean’s order, has been overwhelming, joyful and poignant, said Sisters Diane O’Donnell, Peggy Geraghty and Mary Fran McLaughlin, who are also retired from the order, which is known as BVM. The attention also has helped the order in tangible ways.
Over the last two weeks, its headquarters in Dubuque, Iowa, has received “gifts to the congregation” from all over the U.S., spokeswoman Angie Connolly said in an email. “Many were made in honor of Sister Jean to support the mission of the BVM sisters,” whose core principles are freedom, education, charity and justice, Connolly added.
In addition, “a young lady” contacted the order a few days ago and started a crowdfunding campaign in honor of Sister Jean and the other sisters, Connolly said. All funds from the Sister Jean Final Four Charity will support the Big Shoulders Fund in Chicago, which gives Catholic school scholarships to inner-city Chicago children. Two-thirds of those recipients are from low-income households. Approximately 30% are not Catholic.
And at a game watch party Saturday, Nisei Lounge in Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood will be donating part of its beer sales to the sisters’ order.
Amid all that happy chaos, Sisters Peggy, Diane and Mary Fran sat in the immaculate flat Sister Peggy and Sister Diane share. The sisters, all in their mid- to late 70s, wore matching Loyola basketball T-shirts, printed with the slogan, “Powered by Sister Jean.” On the coffee table was a Sister Jean bobblehead.
“Our community is customarily in the background,” Sister Diane said. A grin spread on her face. “All of a sudden, this BVM is out there being interviewed internationally.” She broke into laughter, joined by her two sisters.
Added Sister Peggy: “For 24 years, she was in the background doing what she’s doing as chaplain of the team. And now, all of a sudden, she’s got this. But she’s never surprised at what comes next, I think. She just goes with the flow.”
The three women say Sister Jean is a model for women in religious life, someone who finally is being acknowledged for all she’s done over the years. That portrait is particularly compelling now for the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who played a prominent role in the Chicago area since arriving in the city in 1867 to teach.
Like many orders, the ranks of BVMs are declining, from nearly 2,500 in the 1970s to the current estimate of 330 nuns, including about 180 retirees residing at the order’s headquarters in Dubuque, about 175 miles northwest of Chicago. Their direct influence is waning, prompting heartfelt conversations.
“We talk about what is the legacy we’re going to leave in this world,” Sister Diane said. “It’s all the … thousands of people who we have taught who are out there carrying forth our mission to the world. So I don’t worry about our legacy because they’re all out there.”
Born in 1919 in San Francisco, Sister Jean played basketball in high school, although she was only 5 feet tall. As a third-grader, she knew she wanted to become a nun. After high school, she moved to the BVM convent in Dubuque, returning to California in 1941 to teach.
In 1961, Sister Jean accepted a job teaching at Mundelein College, the all-women’s school on the lakefront next to Loyola that became part of the university in 1991. She became the basketball team chaplain in 1994, providing prayer, support and scouting reports.
Sister Peggy and Sister Mary Fran were recipients of Sister Jean’s influence in the early 1960s, when they were students at Mundelein.
They recall her as a resourceful, gentle “rock” they always could rely on, someone who had a knack for making onerous tasks fun, like the time she persuaded Sister Peggy and other Mundelein students to clear the campus beach of alewives.
The fish “smelled bad and she wanted to clean up the neighborhood,” Sister Peggy recalled. “But she didn’t want people driving by seeing us. So we had to go out almost in the dark of night.”
Now, it’s Sisters Mary Fran, Peggy and Diane who support Sister Jean. They drive her to doctor appointments, stores and on other errands. They help her with tasks around her dormitory room on Loyola’s campus.
They marvel at her independence — she cooks for herself — her sensitivity to imposing on them and her mental acuity. The other day on a grocery shopping trip, Sister Jean was unable to get out of the car and handed the shopping list to her sisters. Then she told them exactly where in the store they could find the items.
“We were in and out of there so fast,” Sister Mary Fran recalled. “That’s the way she is — thinking ahead and organized.”
Sister Mary Fran is the only one of the three retired nuns who was a college basketball fan before Loyola and Sister Jean went on a tear. Now, all three have become ardent students of the Ramblers, planning their days around Loyola’s contests and gathering around the flat screen in their apartment.
They’ve navigated their viewing plans for the next game, on Holy Saturday. Sister Mary Fran is heading to Loyola to watch the game and then take in the Easter vigil service there. Sisters Peggy and Diane plan to view the game at home and have found an 8 p.m. Easter vigil service at a nearby parish.
Beyond those plans, all the BVMs have been discussing another objective in emails and phone conversations.
“Our sisters want to have their own basketball team now,” Sister Mary Fran said.
And they want to play the Ramblers.
Gregory writes for the Chicago Tribune.
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