By her own admission, “Sister Jean 101” could be the name of an introductory course taught at the University of Loyola at Chicago these days.
The only problem? So many already know the story of Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, who at the ripe age of 101 is still proving to be a force to be reckoned in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
A year after “March Madness” was cancelled in the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has resumed in Indianapolis, where the entire tourney is being played this month. And Sister Jean, who served in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for more than two decades as a parochial school teacher and principal, is back to help write a Hollywood screenplay in the making.
In 2018, the San Francisco native became the tournament’s national darling as the 98-year-old chaplain who accompanied Loyola of Chicago’s “Ramblers” during their Cinderella run to the Final Four.
But that was then. This is now, and the Ramblers have returned with two more wins in the first two rounds of the 2020 event — the eighth seed in the Midwest Regional with a 24-4 record, and No. 30 overall seed.
They followed up a 71-60 win over Georgia Tech in the first round with an improbable 71-58 win over the region’s top seed, Illinois, for the right to face another longshot, No. 12 seed and Pac-12 Tournament champion Oregon State in the Sweet 16 on Saturday (March 27).
Sister Jean’s inspirational words before the Sunday morning game against Illinois went viral right after the contest. So maybe it wasn’t so impossible to comprehend.
“As we play the Fighting Illini, we ask for special help to overcome this team and get a great win,” she reportedly said, before following the game from her wheelchair, parked in a box suite. “We hope to score early and make our opponents nervous. We have a great opportunity to convert rebounds as this team makes about 50% of layups and 30% of its 3 points. Our defense can take care of that.’”
That’s when the tournament took a mythical turn: Illinois shot just 28.6 percent (4 of 14) from 3-point range (while Loyola shot 40 percent) and were out-rebounded 30-27. Illinois also had more turnovers, 17-11, as Loyola never trailed and led by as many as 14 points.
Sister Jean, a graduate of Mount St. Mary’s College (now Mount St. Mary’s University in L.A.) before getting a Masters at Loyola University (now Loyola Marymount) in 1961, taught at St. Bernard’s in Glassell Park, St. Charles Borromeo in North Hollywood, and St. Brendan’s in Hancock Park.
When Sister Jean turned 101 during the pandemic last August 21, she celebrated with a virtual party from her apartment on the school’s Gold Coast campus.
At her birthday, she had a plea for students longing to go back to holding parties: “Don’t have any, and don’t disappoint me.”
Sister Jean, a woman religious of the Sisters of the Charity of Blessed Virgin Mary of Dubuque, Iowa and the team chaplain since 1994, was able to receive both COVID-19 vaccination shots and clearance on March 16 to travel to Indianapolis for this event, three days before the team’s first game.
The team is limited to just 34 people in their travel parties and all must have seven straight days of negative tests before traveling.
“I have not lost hope in going,” she previously told the Chicago newspaper. “I want to go so badly.”
She said she turned to Luke’s Gospel and the parable of the persistent widow who did not grow weary in asking a judge for a just decision. Like many women religious during the pandemic, she has been in lockdown for much of the past year and has kept up with her campus ministry work virtually.
Gonzaga, another Catholic school, from Spokane, Washington, is the NCAA tournament’s overall top seed with an undefeated record. If the Zags continue to win, and the Ramblers keep charging forward, the two have a chance to meet for the NCAA championship on April 6.