CHICAGO — Sister Jean of Loyola University, who stands atop Chicago’s A-list of celebrity clergy, waited until she was 103 to write her memoir. Clearly, she didn’t take the advice packed into its title: “Wake Up With Purpose! What I’ve Learned in My First Hundred Years,” out Feb. 28. Clearly, what she learned in her first hundred years was how to procrastinate. Certainly, she’s not alone in waiting until later in life to write a book. Laura Ingalls Wilder waited until her 60s before writing her first “Little House” novel. And Norman Maclean waited until his 70s, after retiring from the University of Chicago, before he wrote his first book, “A River Runs Through It.”
I guess Sister Jean was just a whole lot busier than Laura Ingalls Wilder, who spent several decades tramping around the Midwest, tending crops and building sod houses.
When I asked about her centurylong case of writer’s block, Sister Jean said, in fact, she really had been too busy to think about writing a book. In 2018, when she became a ubiquitous media darling just as her beloved Loyola Ramblers men’s basketball team reached the Final Four, several publishers approached her. She was busy. Now that she has written a book (with sports journalist Seth Davis), “it’s really been the busiest time of my life.” Lately, she’s blessing all of the dorms. She’s talking to Access Hollywood, NPR and Good Morning America. And that’s beside her main focus: the Ramblers’ season.
She said this with her signature twinkle.
But I wasn’t buying it.
Sitting in her office the other day a few hours before the Ramblers played the Saint Joseph’s Hawks of Philadelphia, I was determined to poke a hole or two in that beatific, saintly sparkle. In 103 years, had she ever been in a physical altercation? Physical, no. “Verbal, yes. Probably with brothers and sisters.” Is there anyone she doesn’t like? She looked at me as if she had never considered the idea. Or she just wouldn’t be sucked into this nonsense. In my defense, she wrote a memoir about a long life, and memoirs — think Prince Harry, Matthew Perry — air feuds, settle scores, talk trash, wallow in regrets.
No, she chuckled, shaking her head, unfortunately, she hasn’t known that kind of life.
But she does have a breaking point.
She will stop to take selfie after selfie (she wonders in her book if she has become a selfie machine). She will listen to your stories. She will let you lean into her face and talk to her as if she were a toddler in a pram. But do not talk to her when the Ramblers are playing. Do this and — without breaking her gaze from the court — she will wave a dismissive hand at you, ever so slightly, yet definitively, with the finality of a Mafia don.
Not that there’s nothing juicy about the memoir of a 103-year-old nun.
First of all, don’t call her a nun. Although the titles are often interchangeable, she prefers “sister.” A nun leads a life of quiet contemplation and relative seclusion, while a sister — at least this one — is more of a social butterfly. Second of all, while reading “Wake Up With Purpose!,” I stopped dead at the earnest way in which she related a weird, unexpected detail: Her family owned a monkey. But someone cut a hole in his cage and stole him.
“I wish we knew who stole our monkey,” she told me.
Who steals monkeys? I asked.
“I wish we knew,” she sighed. “My dad made a big cage for our monkey, which went in the yard. He made him slides and a swing. We had him five years. When he vanished, we asked neighbors, we put ads in the paper. Nobody came forward. His name was Jerry. We had a family friend who was an engineer on a cargo ship that traveled to South America. One night he was at the house and asked if we wanted him to bring back anything. We shouted ‘A monkey!’ I could see the look he gave my parents. Like, impossible. But in South America, they got word to bring back a female monkey for the zoo. That monkey gave birth on the trip back. He lived with us. My mother knitted him a red sweater to wear every night. In the morning he had coffee. Lots of cream and sugar. He would dunk his toast in the coffee. People ask what kind of monkey he was. I don’t know. I thought of him as an organ-grinder monkey. And we were so sad to lose him.”
Don’t feel too bad. After Jerry, the family got an alligator.
Sister Jeans speaks softly and steadily. She looks good for 103. She seems good. It’s wise she chose a less contemplative order: Her office is at the busy hub of the student center. Its door stays wide-open. Students drop into her chairs and complain about their day. She listens. Evidence of her fame is all over her office: Sister Jean bobbleheads, Sister Jean cookies, a bottle of Sister Jean beer (from Great Lakes Brewing Company), a bucket of Sister Jean pins. What’s missing are images from the years before her fame. You probably didn’t know her full name is Sister Jean Dolores Bertha Schmidt, or that she is the oldest of three children, or that she is technically a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which trains in Iowa. She grew up in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco.
Writing a memoir gave her life a shape, she said. Her first memory, for instance, is at 2 1/2 years old: “I was in a cemetery, my grandmother died, my brother had just been born but had whooping cough, which he caught from me. My mother was afraid to leave him with a babysitter. I remember the undertaker finding a chair for my mother. The next day my brother was fine. My mother said my grandmother asked God to take the cough away. From then I felt closer to God. It also helped me remember my grandmother.”
By the late 1920s, when she was 8, she had already decided to spend a life in the church. At 17, she applied to the Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She trained to be a teacher and was assigned by BVM to fifth grade at St. Vincent’s school on Kenmore Avenue in Chicago. It was 1940 and she found Chicago “sooty” and full of “heavy air” from the amount of coal being burned then. God was listening: Soon after arriving in Chicago, she was reassigned to Southern California, where she was a school principal for the next two decades. In 1961, she returned to Chicago, to the all-women’s Mundelein College, which, years later, became a part of neighboring Loyola University, where Sister Jean has been for the past 32 years.
The last few years have been less anonymous.
Vogue has written about her. People magazine, several times. When she travels with the team now, she brings an entourage, less for swagger than safety: security guards, a nurse, a handler. She couldn’t tell you how much official (or unofficial) Sister Jean merchandise there is, but it’s a lot.
All proceeds from sales of her memoir go directly to BVM.
On game nights, Sister Jean has to leave her office an hour before tipoff. It’s a whole production -- and it only partly has to do with her age. Tom Hitcho, senior associate athletics director, who has been assisting her around Loyola for nearly 30 years, helps her into a Ramblers zip-up sweatshirt and guides her wheelchair from behind her desk toward the court. An hour might seem excessive for a trip of roughly a few hundred feet, but there are students who want a selfie, students who walk backward in front of her with a camera held up, alums who want a brief word with Sister Jean, priests in training who angle for autographs. The crowd parts at her wheelchair, until one or two bold souls dive in, for a selfie, an autograph, a blessing. Then it’s a crush. The night I watched this, Sister Jean was pushed through a loud, bustling carnival called Jesuit Jam. A guy in a Spider-Man suit followed her to snap a selfie, but eventually gave up.
Hitcho turned to me: “It takes a while. She will not say no -- to anyone.”
About a half-hour before game time, she waits in her wheelchair outside the team locker room. She fingers a sheet of paper containing notes about what she wants to tell them. The players surround her and lean in. As team chaplain, she’s been doing this since 1994. Her guidance is a mix of faith and broad advice: Use your bodies, pass the ball, the fans and God are here to help. In a near whisper, she finishes with: “Go Ramblers.”
Next, just before tipoff, Hitcho rolls her to center court. Sister Jean gives a pointed prayer to the arena: She tells them the Saint Joseph’s Hawks beat the Ramblers last time, so she’s asking God for luck. She does the sign of the cross. The crowd follows.
Then she’s rolled into a tunnel at the end of the court. She watches the game from here.
Anyway, that’s the routine.
A couple of hours later, the Ramblers have lost; it’s been a so-so season. The day is over. But good days, bad days, after 103 years, they all start the same. Sister Jean lives in a retirement home. She wakes at 5 a.m., meditates, listens to a daily mass said from Toronto. She does her physical therapy. She prepares to go into the office. She catches up with the news. Sometimes she comes across one of those stories about someone who has lived an extraordinarily long life.
“The other day,” she said, “I think it was a story about a woman who was 114. Which made me think, ‘Oh, oh -- no.’ Now that is too old.” –––
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