Sister Jean: A Life of Purpose and Service

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

Sister Jean, the Loyola University Chicago men’s basketball chaplain, knew what she wanted to be when she was just eight years old. 

Writing in her memoir, “Wake Up With Purpose: What I’ve Learned in My First Hundred Years,” Sister Jean recalls that while attending Catholic school in her native San Francisco, she wanted to be just like her third-grade teacher, who was a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

As a child and the oldest of three in a devout Catholic family, Sister Jean, born Dolores Bertha Schmidt, would pray to God for guidance to help discover her life’s purpose. But young Dolores always knew that she wanted to serve God. 

The 103-year-old sister often prayed, “Dear God, help me understand what I should do, but please tell me that I should become a [Blessed Virgin Mary] sister.” 

 “I guess God listened to me on that one,” she later wrote, and on August 15, 1945, Sister Jean professed her final vows as a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

After teaching briefly in Chicago, Sister Jean taught at Catholic schools in southern California where she would encourage and challenge young people to grow, flourish, and thrive. One of her eighth-grade students was Cardinal Roger Mahony who later became the archbishop of Los Angeles. 

Sister Jean, who loved to watch and play sports as a young girl, understood the importance of competition in children’s development. “Sports are very important because they help develop life skills,” she told the AP during an interview. “And during those life skills, you’re also talking about faith and purpose.”

She established and implemented athletic programs at her schools so students could compete in sports such as football, basketball, and track. Sister Jean even coached the girls’ basketball and softball teams. Later, while working as a principal, she gave out homework passes to encourage students to attend sporting events and cheer on their classmates.

Although she was assigned to different roles in various schools, Sister Jean saw adaptability as her “superpower.” She saw change as an opportunity for growth and trusted that God would take her wherever He needed her.

This approach would serve Sister Jean well after she received her master’s degree at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and was tasked with a new challenge: teaching college courses at Mundelein College in Chicago. She arrived in 1961 and over the following three decades, served in numerous leadership positions including associate dean and director of academic services and associate vice president for academic affairs.

In 1991, Mundelein College became affiliated with Loyola University Chicago. Sister Jean joined the faculty as an assistant dean and an academic advisor and still works there today. She has had many responsibilities over the last 32 years, but few bring her more joy than her role as chaplain for the men’s basketball team.

Sister Jean meets and prays with the team before their games and watches the action from her wheelchair situated right next to the court. 

She still wakes up at 5 a.m. every day and works five days a week at Loyola University Chicago where she shares her knowledge, wisdom, and love for God with students. 

“All I ever wanted to do was serve God,” she wrote, “and my way of doing that has been to work with young people to educate them, encourage them, give them spiritual guidance, and help them live out their dreams.”

Sister Jean is an inspiration to all who seek to lead lives of purpose and service.