Skip to main content

Sister Jean’s office door in the Damen Student Center on Loyola University Chicago’s campus remains open during her weekday office hours for students to pop in whenever they want to speak with the 103-year-old.

Students rush in asking for selfies, advice or to hear any bit of wisdom they can from the chaplain. The students can even take a souvenir as she has a bowl full of “Sister Jean Superfan” buttons donned with a cartoon figure of her.

Sister Jean became an icon in the college basketball sphere four years ago when the Loyola Chicago men’s basketball team completed one of the most memorable Cinderella story runs in recent history when they reached the Final Four in 2018.

The then 98-year-old stole the hearts of fans all across the nation as she attended every game sitting in her wheelchair sporting her maroon and gold, cheering on the Ramblers. She was attracting more media attention than most of the teams in the field that year.

But how did Sister Jean get there? What led the now 103-year-old to basketball stardom?

Sister Jean said she never did any of the interviews or public appearances for personal gain—she wanted to help put Loyola on the map.

“What this [fame] all did to my life, I just went with the flow, I guess, and did everything that people were asking me to do,” Sister Jean says. “If it’s doing some good for my congregation and for Loyola, then I’ll go for it. And, if it isn’t and if we shouldn’t do that or if it’s going to cause a political problem or something, I wouldn’t do that.”

Sister Jean offers a look into her 103 years of life in her new book Wake Up With Purpose! What I’ve Learned in My First Hundred Years, which comes out Feb. 28, that she worked on with CBS Sports’ and The Athletic’s Seth Davis. She talks about her childhood, including growing up during the Great Depression and World War II, her time in the convent along with her Catholic beliefs and with her long-term teaching career in various Catholic schools. She ended up at Loyola in 1991 when the previous college she worked for, Mundelein College, became affiliated with Loyola in Chicago. She’s worked as the men’s basketball chaplain for Loyola since ’94, in which she’s the team’s primary clergy member. “We covered 100 years in 10 months,” Davis said regarding the book writing process.

She was first approached to write the book back in 2018 after Loyola’s historic run. She claims she was approached by six different writers, to which she all promptly said no to.

“During the Final Four about six people called me and said would I write a book? I said, ‘Uh, I don’t have time for that. I have too much to do. That’s impossible,’” Sister Jean says. “And each one would say, ‘Oh, it’s not that impossible, all you have to do is talk and we write.’ And I said no.”

Sister Jean admitted Davis must have been “convincing” because she finally decided to give the book a shot a few years later. It helped that Davis would be doing all the physical writing, and Sister Jean would just have to talk and remember stories from her life, which wasn’t difficult for her as Davis admitted Sister Jean is “mentally sharp” and “incredible” at recalling details.

The first time the two met was in Chicago on Loyola’s campus. They spoke for around five hours in their first meeting. Sister Jean said she enjoyed talking about these experiences from decades ago, especially since some of the stories she hadn’t thought about in just as long.

Davis jokingly admitted she “wore” him out after each talk. They mostly had conversations over the phone since Davis worked in New York at the time. Sister Jean sent emails every week, including one every Sunday, with her detailed schedule for the week.

Sister Jean was very involved in the book writing process as she often would correct Davis on certain details when she would read the manuscripts.

“There’s nothing she likes better than to sit with a lot of pages with words on them with a pen and correct grammar and move some things around,” Davis says. “She was extremely attentive, very detail oriented. But, the best thing is her memory, you can tell, is just incredible.”

“Purpose” was a word that stuck out to Davis while speaking with Sister Jean. However, Sister Jean had never used this word when thinking of her daily life until it was pointed out to her. Now, she realizes “purpose” is something she’s lived by without even thinking about it.

“I’m sure people are going to say to me, ‘Oh, what do you mean, wake up with purpose?’” Sister Jean says. “I’ll say, ‘Well, I really think I did that even when I was in high school not using the word purpose.’”

She continues to live her life with purpose, as the book details. Sister Jean hopes people can walk away inspired by her life story after reading the book.

“As I look now at what I hope the book will do is that they will learn the lessons, that they will appreciate my opening up about my family and my religious vocation and my teaching career and my fun with sports, just the fun I’ve had with life,” Sister Jean says. “And to realize that I’m grateful to God every day for waking me up and getting up at 103 it’s even more important.”

Sister Jean is not just a casual college basketball fan. She also doesn’t solely watch Ramblers games. She stays attentive to the sport as a whole, providing her thoughts on teams whenever someone asks. She completes scouting reports for virtually every game. When Porter Moser, the men’s basketball coach from 2011 to ’21, left for Oklahoma a couple of years ago, Sister Jean gifted him with printed-out copies of every email and scouting report she had ever sent him in those 10 years. She keeps tabs on every opponent Loyola has. However, she never wants to share her scouting reports with anyone outside of the team because she is afraid they will give them to the opponent.

Sister Jean speaks with ESPN’s Joe Lunardi about once a week as he asks her thoughts on the previous week’s matchups. She’s read his books, such as Bracketology, and loves to hear him talk about his process of creating the mock brackets. She admitted she doesn’t fill out her brackets anything like Lunardi does, though.

“It’s fun reading how he does this every week and moves the teams along,” Sister Jean says. “I could never do it that way. But, I will look at what he says.”

Yes, Sister Jean also fills out March Madness brackets. And, this isn’t a recent hobby for her. When asked how long she’s been doing this, she quickly responded, “Oh, forever, forever, forever.”

“We used to do it all the time in convents where I lived,” Sister Jean says. “The final game, we used to visit another convent and watch it together. In those days, I’m talking about the ’50s, St. John’s was winning a lot.” She even recalls watching Loyola Chicago win its 1963 title on a small, black-and-white television. She worked for Mundelein College at the time in Chicago, and she distinctly remembers seeing people rush the streets of Sheridan Road, where the campus is located, after the win as hundreds of people celebrated the Ramblers’ big accomplishment.

Even though the Ramblers didn’t bring back a national title to Chicago in 2018, Sister Jean said it felt like they had when they returned to campus.

It was nothing like she’d ever experienced before, and something she admits she probably won’t experience again anytime soon as Loyola recently left the Missouri Valley Conference to join the Atlantic 10 Conference, and the competition has been tough for the Ramblers. They currently rank 15th in the A-10.

“We just had a lot of fun; I hope we go back again,” Sister Jean says. “We won’t go this year, though, because being in a new conference makes a difference in our lives.”

While working with Davis for Wake Up With Purpose! the two often dived into the fundamental details of college basketball. Sister Jean doesn’t hold back her thoughts on certain games, and especially doesn’t filter her thoughts about the referees. Davis said he often tries to play devil’s advocate for the referees, but she won’t hear any of it.

“She’s all over it; she knows what’s going on,” Davis says.

Sister Jean loves to see her Ramblers win, so much in fact that she prays to God before every game to ask for help to let them win. She also prays with the team before every tip-off as she works as their chaplain.

“She’s always praying for the Ramblers to win,” Davis says. “I said to her, ‘Is it really appropriate to ask God to help your basketball team win? Like, is that O.K.?’ And she looked at me like I had three eyes. She said, ‘Of course.’”

Sister Jean does not have a pick for the winner of this year’s men’s NCAA tournament, though. She admitted there have been “too many upsets” recently for her to make a clear decision just yet.

Loyola Ramblers team chaplain Sister Jean in attendance before the semifinals of the 2018 men’s Final Four.

Sister Jean before the semifinals of the 2018 men’s Final Four.

Sister Jean has been a pioneer in the sports world, launching athletic programs at almost every school she worked at—if they didn’t already have one.

She didn’t start playing sports until high school since her elementary school didn’t have a sports program. But Sister Jean always knew the value of sports in a child’s life. She would take up club basketball when she entered high school in 1933. From there, she began her casual basketball career. When she entered the convent after graduating high school, she would play pickup basketball with her fellow sisters.

When she became a teacher, she began to notice that every school she taught at didn’t have a sports program. She didn’t want the kids of the next generation to miss out on athletic opportunities as she did, so she worked to implement these programs into each school she worked at. The first school she accomplished this launch for was St. Charles Borromeo, located in North Hollywood. As a teacher, Sister Jean spoke directly with the principal and the pastor about starting a sports program for the students. The pastor told her if she was in charge of the implementation of the program, he was on board. The school joined a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) to place the teams into divisions to compete with other schools in sports such as basketball, volleyball and track.

Later in her career, she once again implemented a sports program when she was the principal of a school. The issue there was convincing students who weren’t competing in the sports to attend the games. Sister Jean realized she needed a way to influence them, and she thought of just the thing: homework passes.

“If they came to a game, I haven’t told this for a long time,” Sister Jean says, laughing. “I used to give them homework tickets. The homework ticket was an excuse for them for one subject if they were too busy going to the game.”

Sister Jean then noted how times have certainly changed. Now, she sees students line up for nearly two hours before games just to get a good seat. The games are so loud she said you can hardly hear someone speaking next to you at specific points of the game.

Fans might get to see Sister Jean at the March Madness men’s tournament this year as Davis admitted he’s trying to get her out to some games, possibly even the Final Four in Houston. However, logistically it’s been difficult as Sister Jean is 103 years old.

Even if she doesn’t make it to the games in person this year, you can bet she’ll be watching from home on television while keeping track of her bracket.