CHICAGO (RNS) — Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt entered religious life at 18 to become a schoolteacher, and though Bob Hope’s kids and a future cardinal were among her students over the years, when fame came — international fame, she’d remind you — it was as chaplain to the Loyola University Ramblers during the men’s basketball team’s improbable 2018 run to the NCAA Final Four.
Now 103, Chicago’s beloved Catholic sister, best known simply as “Sister Jean,” has added publishing a memoir to her list of achievements.
“Wake Up With Purpose!: What I’ve Learned in My First Hundred Years” not only chronicles Sister Jean’s long life — growing up in California, she remembers watching the Golden Gate Bridge being built and playing intramural basketball when the sport was “still quite young” — but also the wisdom she has accumulated along the way.
Among the proverbs she shares, always with a sense of humor: Having a consistent, daily purpose not only keeps her alive, but also young and vibrant. Teamwork is what life is all about. And “There’s nothing like hugging a sweaty basketball player after a big win.”
The sister doesn’t shy from controversial topics either, though she writes that she realizes to many people she sounds “hopelessly old-fashioned”: She voted for Hillary Clinton, but thinks too many people argued Clinton should be president because she was a woman; she believes abortion is immoral, but thinks it should be left out of politics; as a longtime educator, she doesn’t understand why anybody would want to “whitewash” history.
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“If we don’t learn about our mistakes, how will we learn from them?” she writes, matter-of-factly.
Sister Jean said she hopes readers will feel like she’s sitting beside them, sharing stories, just as she does with students in her office at Loyola.
“I would just like them to feel at peace when they’re reading it,” she said.
She spoke with Religion News Service about what keeps her young and what it was like to become an overnight sensation after 98 years. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You write, “That’s how it works with God. If you keep your faith, you never have to grow old.” What is it about faith that you believe keeps you young?
I think with faith comes hope and love. To me, they just can’t be separated, because if you believe in God, you certainly have hope in what he’s going to do for you and also you love him. My mom and dad — especially my mom — taught me early in life to love God: “Dad and I love you, but God loves you even more, and so you have to love God.”
I believe that when you have love for other people, you have a good heart, and you’re happy. And I think happiness has a lot to do with longevity — in addition to DNA, of course.
That lesson your parents taught you about loving and accepting other people is a theme that runs throughout the book. Why is that acceptance and inclusivity important? Do you feel like that’s something the church needs more of?
Oh, I feel it’s really important because God says, you know, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” So if they’re not loving other people, I don’t know what people are doing about themselves, because that, again, is so closely connected. We get all kinds of messages from Pope Francis that we need to do this, and he’s constantly now reminding us to remember the people in Turkey and in Syria. He never separates the two, and the two are certainly very different from each other.
I feel now, as I experience all the disruption we have with cultures and people turning people away and killing people of different cultures, I feel that my mom and dad and other moms and dads were way ahead of their time in the ‘30s and ‘40s. We just took people for granted.