Before becoming a courtside celebrity, the 2018 NCAA Tournament’s most recognizable face was already a legend in LA’s Catholic school classrooms

Among the various mementos Cardinal Roger Mahony keeps in his residence at St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood is a most unique bobblehead doll, like those of professional players handed out at big-league ballparks.

Except this one bears the likeness of one of his favorite teachers: Sister of Charity Jean Dolores Schmidt, the nun who taught him (and nearly 80 other classmates) when he was in eighth grade at St. Charles School in 1950, and who this month has achieved international fame as the 98-year-old chaplain of the Loyola of Chicago’s men’s basketball team that on March 24 defied the odds to become only the fourth 11-seed team in NCAA Tournament history to reach the Final Four.

The doll shows Sister Jean holding a basketball, a reminder that she is not just a team chaplain but a former basketball player (in the 1930s at St. Paul High School in San Francisco), coach of girls’ basketball (in the 1940s at St. Charles) and a true student of the game who shares not just faith but scouting reports with Loyola’s players.

“She sometimes tells players what to do, and they listen because she really is very knowledgeable,” Cardinal Mahony noted with a chuckle. “She really is a delight.”

“I never dreamed it could happen,” Sister Jean laughed as she spoke by phone with Angelus News last weekend, just before a 78-62 Loyola win over Kansas State, guaranteeing a trip to the Final Four in San Antonio.

“In fact, the BVM motherhouse in Dubuque can’t keep up with requests. But it’s wonderful exposure for religious life and the Church.”

‘A lady of great warmth’

Loyola’s (and Sister Jean’s) emergence into the national spotlight has prompted many alumni of hers to recall their former teacher with great fondness, crediting her with instilling and nurturing their love for learning in a quiet but firm manner.

 “Sister Jean Dolores kept us in line, but she had a lovely, quiet yet forceful presence,” said Sister of Charity Mary Elizabeth Galt, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who during her religious formation attended Mundelein College near Chicago, where Sister Jean was assistant director of scholastics. 

“She walked with authority and authenticity in her bearing. You knew what she expected, and she didn’t have to shout or raise her voice.”

“A lady of great warmth,” said Father Tom Rausch, SJ, emeritus T. Marie Chilton professor of Theology at LMU and a member of St. Charles School’s class of 1955. “She had an engaging and friendly presence — a buddy, really, who went out of her way to help you do well. Her class was a wonderful place to be.”

Ken Martinet, one of Father Rausch’s classmates and now president and CEO of Catholic Big Brothers Los Angeles, remembers Sister Jean holding before-school drills for students preparing to take high school entrance exams.

“And it helped — I got into Loyola High School,” said Martinet with a smile. “But the main thing I remember is what a welcoming person she was. We had some celebrity families in our parish and some who weren’t, but it didn’t matter to Sister Jean where you came from. She made each of us feel special, even in a large classroom.”

Working with young people is what Sister Jean signed up for when she became a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1937. Her ministry began in elementary education, teaching at St. Bernard School in Glassell Park in 1940, then later, in 1946, at St. Charles Borromeo.

It was not uncommon, in those days, to have large numbers of students in a classroom, sometimes from multiple grade levels.

“Our eighth-grade classroom had 75 to 80 students, with some seventh graders,” said Cardinal Mahony. “And I don’t know how she did it, but she did. She made you enjoy learning, because she was so creative in presenting the subject matter. There was a great Catholic spirit in our school and our classroom, and Sister Jean was a big part of that.”

Sister Jean warmly recalls how the pastor of St. Charles at the time supported her request to begin a sports program in which she coached girls’ basketball. She also trained the altar servers, several of whom — like Cardinal Mahony and Father Rausch — went on to the priesthood. 

Several girl students later entered religious life, among them Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary Sister Mary Milligan, the late former provost of LMU and RSHM superior general.

An active retirement

After a stint at St. Brendan’s School in Hancock Park, Sister Jean was eventually sent east by her community to Mundelein College in 1961, where she continued to teach until 1991, when Mundelein merged with Loyola of Chicago.

“That’s when I theoretically retired,” she said with a laugh. “But then I was invited to work with the men’s and women’s basketball teams and help them with their studies. And for the past 25 years, I’ve been chaplain of the men’s team.”

That means not only attending summer practices, but even compiling and sharing her own scouting reports with them, offering last-minute pregame reminders to “watch number so-and-so” on the other team.

It’s a role she relishes, especially for the opportunity to talk regularly with the players. “The players can see me anytime they need to,” she said. “My door is always open. And these are wonderful young men.”

Sister Jean doesn’t hide her Loyola loyalty in the prayers she leads before every home game. “I pray with our fans and the opponents’ fans, although I put a little more emphasis on my prayers for the Ramblers. When people ask me why, I say, ‘You would too if you wore maroon and gold.’”

Encouraging words

After each game, Sister Jean sends emails of encouragement to the coaching staff, support staff and players and, ever the teacher, attaches a personal note to each. 

“I might say, ‘Where were all those three-pointers you made last game?’ or ‘How come you let so-and-so score so much?’ It’s part of the fun I have with the guys, and they seem to enjoy it.”

She is pleased that “our team learns more from our coaches than basketball. They learn about life, and how to handle success and adversity.”

Lately, it’s been much more win than lose (the Ramblers are 32-5), resulting in numerous emails and calls from Sister Jean’s former students, though many have maintained regular contact over the years. 

She exchanges Christmas letters with Father Rausch at LMU, sees Sister Galt at BVM meetings and has participated (in person or through Skype) in St. Charles class reunions.

And Martinet recalled fondly when he and his wife visited Sister Jean in Chicago, “and she introduced us to everyone in the place. She wants everyone to feel accepted and comfortable no matter who they are.”

Or what faith they practice. “A number of our players are not Catholic, but we pray together anyway,” said Sister Jean. “We’re blessed to be able to do what we do, and each person on the team is faithful in his own particular way. 

“And even if they don’t actively practice their faith, I know that at some point they’ll come back to it because they realize they need God in their lives. I’m not worried about them; they are good young men.”

Young men with a mighty good support system, that is. Sister Jean sees to that.