WASHINGTON — On March 13, the day before the 2023 NCAA men’s Division I basketball tournament officially tipped off, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt still had homework to do.
“I should have my bracket by tomorrow,” she said. “I’m in the process of working on it.”
To get ready for this annual practice, Sister Jean, the 103-year-old chaplain of the Loyola Ramblers, the men’s basketball team of Loyola Chicago University, watched hoops practically all day on March 12. This year, the Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary didn’t have to be nervous about the games since the Ramblers didn’t make it to the tournament, but of course, she’d prefer if they were one of the 64 teams in the Big Dance.
The March Madness tournament is something Sister Jean said she has loved for years, long before becoming Loyola’s team chaplain in 1994 and before the team’s Cinderella story of making it to the Final Four in 2018, when she gained instant notoriety as the “Basketball Nun.”
The woman religious, wearing a black Loyola jacket for a Zoom interview with The Tablet, said she has always liked this college tournament for everything about it: the teams, the matchups, and predicting how teams will do. “In earlier days, we used to have little bets going on; now I can’t do that because I’m with the team. I just do my own bracket,” she said.
She’s disappointed the Ramblers lost their chance to get in after losing on March 7 to St. Joseph’s University in Brooklyn.
“It was very close. We just couldn’t see the basket. It wasn’t to be,” she said of the loss, which she also attributes to the challenge the team faced this season playing in a new conference, the Atlantic 10.
Sister Jean is hesitant to say which team she thinks has a good shot at winning the championship title this year, but she already told a reporter in early March that the University of Kentucky might win it, and she is sticking to that for now.
Hedging her bets slightly, she added that she likes other schools too, “but I don’t think they’re strong enough to beat Alabama,” referring to the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.
Weeks before this year’s March Madness got in gear, Sister Jean had her own personal achievement: the Feb. 28 publication of her memoir, “Wake Up With Purpose! What I’ve Learned in My First Hundred Years.”
The book, told to Seth Davis, an American sportswriter and analyst for CBS’ men’s college basketball coverage, is almost a play-by-play story of her life. It weaves faith and sport in with her memories of growing up in San Francisco, living through the Great Depression and World War II, joining the religious order in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1940, and then her work as a sister where she was always teaching and often getting sports programs going at Catholic schools.
The idea of a book first came about in 2018 when at least six people said she needed to do it. Her initial response was that she didn’t have the time, especially because of her work with students, not just the team.
The door to her office in Loyola’s student center is always open, and students often come by to visit, talk, or take selfies with her.
When Davis talked to her more recently about the book idea and said she would just have to talk to him, read what he writes and correct it, she reconsidered after running it by the university and her congregation.
In the book, she says: “All I ever wanted to do was to serve God, and my way of doing that has been to work with young people to educate them, give them spiritual guidance and help them live out their dreams. I have seen so many changes over the last century, but the important things have remained the same.”
She also mentions that playing sports, like so much in life, require teamwork and that games are a way for so many to connect with each other.
About her chaplaincy, she said there were no notes on how to do it, so she just did what she always did when she got a new job: “dove in with full enthusiasm and good intentions.”
She wrote about prayers over the years for the team, including this frustrated one around 2011 before the team was getting its fourth coach since she had been chaplain: “Thank you God, for all our blessings and the chance to serve you. But goodness gracious, can’t we make March Madness just once?”
When people have asked her if it’s appropriate to pray for the Ramblers to win, her response is: “Of course it is! I believe God gives all of us talents, and it’s up to us to use them as best we can.”
And that’s why she likes praying with the players right before each game. First, she said they would “ask God to help us,” then she would give her scouting report about what they needed to watch for with the opposing team.
“I love those minutes with them, and I bless their hands before they play,” she said.
And like a good teacher, she follows up, sending the players emails after the game.
She’s no stranger to modern technology, saying her fame, which still surprises her, causes her to get about 170 emails a day. She tries to answer as many as possible.
“People say I’m influencing their lives and sometimes that really scares me, and I think, how did I do that?” She takes it all in stride and has fun with it, knowing that it is primarily because she is a sister “and you don’t see sisters doing this very often.”
But she also says she’s not alone in this ministry, pointing out that a sister was chaplain to Notre Dame’s football team, and sisters are chaplains for two other college basketball teams.
Sister Jean still loves her work and being with young people; both keep her going.
She writes: “I can never say this enough: I love being around young people. They keep me alive, healthy, and vibrant.”
She also gets her energy from her job.
“I wake up and know I want to go to work,” she said, adding that she advises students to be sure they have that same feeling.
“If you don’t like what you do, quit your job [otherwise] you’re a pain to everybody, including yourself,” she said.
And the sister, who no doubt had to get back to this work after the interview, got in the last word, buzzer-beater style, before signing off: “Just keep the Ramblers in your prayers. Please watch us next year!”