In a Time of Need, We Turn to Sister Jean


CHICAGO — The emails from Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt arrived as they always do after a game, one for each member of the Loyola-Chicago men’s basketball team. The Ramblers’ hopes for an N.C.A.A. tournament berth had been dashed by a 1-point loss to Valparaiso in overtime in the quarterfinals of last month’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

Now Sister Jean, the team’s 100-year-old chaplain, had to help the players say goodbye to their season.

She wrote that she knew that they had given their best effort, and she also gave them an assignment.

Two years ago, during the N.C.A.A. tournament, Sister Jean became an international celebrity as Loyola made an exhilarating run to the Final Four. This year, she found a very different role as her team’s season ended without the possibility of a title.

She added: “This is a loss. It’s a big loss, and these kids that were supposed to be in the tournament, it’s not going to come back to them.”

For weeks, Americans have grappled with life without sports, including the N.C.A.A men’s tournament, which would have culminated Monday with the championship game in Atlanta.

Since the March 12 announcement that the tournament would not take place, coaches like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski have been forced to adjust how they run their programs. Staff meetings now take place over Zoom, while interactions with players have shifted to FaceTime calls.

Sister Jean often thinks back to 2018 and the string of dramatic victories that landed Loyola in a national semifinal against Michigan. Now she also considers how she and her beloved Ramblers would have felt if a global health crisis had erased the opportunity.

Her personal collection of memorabilia from that tournament, including her Final Four ring, has become a part of a gallery at the Loyola University Museum of Art that is dedicated to her life’s work.

For Sister Jean, a fan who has memories of watching the national tournament with fellow nuns in the 1940s, the cancellation meant an aching heart on behalf of the players and coaches who were set to experience the event, possibly for the first time. “Things had to be stopped,” she acknowledged, adding: “It was like the bottom of the bucket dropped out. It was like someone threw a bomb on us — there was not going to be anything.”

The reality also abruptly hit home for Krzyzewski, who says there has been a noticeable void in American life since sports were put on hold to help slow the virus’s spread.

“Not having sport — just not college basketball — but sport, you forget how inspirational it is for our country, and a diversion, too,” he said. “It’s inspiring, but it’s a diversion to things that happen to you in your life, your job.

“You miss it. Inspiration across our country is needed,” Krzyzewski added. “I think what will come out of this is a greater appreciation for not just someone who hits a home run or dunks but for the normal great people in our country.”

“Unless we do what we’re all supposed to do, we’re not going to survive,” she said, adding, “We’re going to win something out of this — we’ve already lost a lot, and people have suffered a lot, but I believe something good is going to come out of all of this.”

In the meantime, Sister Jean will continue to begin her workday at 7:30 a.m., when she tries to answer the emails she receives — sometimes 25 or 30 at a time. In her prayers, she says, she asks that the pandemic end.



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