Sister Jean, Loyola Chicago's biggest fan, returns to March Madness

by Brian Roewe

Catholic News Service


Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt
Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, longtime chaplain of the Loyola University Chicago men's basketball team and campus icon, gives a thumbs up after the team defeated the Nevada Wolf Pack in the semifinals of the South regional of the 2018 NCAA Tournament March in Atlanta. The team earned a bid as a No. 8 seed for the 2021 NCAA tournament in Indianapolis. Now fully vaccinated, Sister Schmidt planned to be in Indianapolis. (CNS photo/Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

Editor’s update: Loyola University Chicago has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen by defeating Georgia Tech on March 19 and knocking out first-seed Illinois on March 21.

INDIANAPOLIS — A year after it was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA basketball tournament is back. And one of the sport's most beloved fans will have a shot at witnessing any buzzer-beaters by her favorite team in person, too.

Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt became the focus of a media frenzy three years ago when she accompanied the Ramblers of Loyola University Chicago on their underdog run to the Final Four at the 2018 men's tournament.

Sister Jean, a member of the Sisters of the Charity of Blessed Virgin Mary, has served as team chaplain since 1994. Her pious courtside presence quickly became one of the feel-good stories of March Madness that year.

In a March 13 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Sister Jean, 101, said she had asked university administrators for their blessing to attend the tournament, which instead of bouncing around the country will be confined to the Indianapolis area to minimize potential spread of the coronavirus.

Approval came March 16, as the Tribune reported that Sister Jean, who has been fully vaccinated, will travel to Indianapolis in time to watch the eighth-seeded Ramblers take on No. 9 seed Georgia Tech March 19.

COVID-19 precautions are limiting the number of fans into the Indianapolis basketball bubble, and teams are restricted to 34 people in their travel parties. All members of a party must have seven consecutive days of negative COVID-19 tests before traveling to the tournament and once there are required to take daily rapid tests.

"I have not lost hope in going," she previously told the Chicago newspaper. "I want to go so badly."

Sister Jean, in making her pitch to join the team, 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. Only recently was she able to meet with two other sisters in person. Like many sports fans, she has been unable to attend Ramblers games in person.

Still, Sister Jean has stayed in contact with the players and coach Porter Moser, sending them emails after games and even offering the team her signature pregame prayers and pep talks, including during the Ramblers' run earlier in March to the Missouri Valley Conference championship.

In a column for Yahoo Sports, Dan Wetzel made the case that the NCAA should do everything in its power to make sure Sister Jean is safely in attendance at Loyola's first tournament game, even if NCAA President Mark Emmert has to drive her there himself.

"Simply put: Free Sister Jean," he wrote.

"As long as a woman who has devoted her lengthy life to the service of others — and cheering on a low-major college basketball team — wants to be there to watch them in person, she should be allowed to be there to watch them in person," Wetzel said.

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Roewe is environment correspondent for National Catholic Reporter.

Sister Jean Schmidt

INDIANAPOLIS — A year after it was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA basketball tournament is back.