Basketball chaplain is 97-year-old nun

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CHICAGO — Religious and clergy alike do their part to help the Ramblers' men's basketball team at Loyola University Chicago.

The team's chaplain since 1994 has been Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is now 97 years old. She also is the newest member of Loyola's sports hall of fame after her induction in late January.

Sister Jean has become a fixture on campus, even getting her own bobblehead day before a game in appreciation of her service. She keeps an office in the Student Center where her door is always open, and she lives in a dorm with 400 undergraduate students, where she also serves as their chaplain. 

She leads the team in a pregame prayer. A writer for ESPN who listened in before one game characterized it as a mix of prayer, scouting report and motivational speech. She begins each prayer with the phrase "Good and gracious God."

"I love every one of them," she said. "I talk about the game to them and then they go out and play." In addition to the team, Sister Jean also leads the entire crowd in a prayer before tip-off.

The 5-foot nun can be seen at every home game of the men's team. She's most often decked out in Loyola gear and wearing her trademark maroon Nike tennis shoes with gold laces that have "Sister" stitched onto the heel of her left shoe and "Jean" stitched on the heel of her right shoe.

Born in San Francisco in 1919, Sister Jean played six-on-six girls' basketball in high school. Returning to California after entering the convent in Iowa — she joined the order in 1937 when she was 18 — she taught elementary school and volunteered as a coach in public schools in Los Angeles when she was teaching in that city. She coached everything from girls' basketball, volleyball and softball to Ping-Pong and the yo-yo. She told ESPN she had her girls' team play the boys to "toughen" them. 

Two of Bob Hope's children were Sister Jean's students, and the children of Frank Sinatra and John Wayne also attended the school, she said.

In 1961, Sister Jean took a teaching job at Mundelein College, the women's college that prepared its students to teach, which was located next to Loyola in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood. She remembers when, two years later, the Loyola Ramblers beat the University of Cincinnati in the NCAA men's basketball championship game.

"That night, another nun and I watched it on a TV about this big," she told ESPN, depicting a television roughly the size of a toaster. "It was a (tape) delay thing. Of course, we didn't have cellphones, so nobody told us we won the game." 

Mundelein merged with Loyola in 1991, and she moved along with it. In 1994, Sister Jean became chaplain of the men's basketball team. She has missed only two home games since then. 

Before home games, Sister Jean waits for the team and sits on a bench near the entrance to the court where the players come in. Students stop by to say hello. Referees come over to hug her. During games she sits up behind the home bench intently watching the action.

After games she emails each player pointing out what they did well and what they can work on. When Loyola Coach Porter Moser took the job in 2011, one of the first people he heard from was Sister Jean, who gave him a scouting report of all the players. 

Off the court, she reviews the stats of Loyola's next opponents online and confers with the players and the coach. One testament to her longevity is that Sister Jean is now on her fifth coach.

She recalled the time when she was near the scorer's table as the opposing coach approached to submit his starting lineup. "Oh, do you want me to do your lineup for you?" Sister Jean asked. The coach agreed. She provided the jersey numbers for four of the players the coach had planned to submit, then turned back to him and said, "The fifth one's on you."

Contributing to this story was Joyce Duriga, editor of the Chicago Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017