Opinion: Loyola’s Sister Jean has wish for her 101st birthday that would be gift for us all

Sister Jean has a few wishes for her birthday.

Wash your hands. Social distance. And, most of all, wear a mask.

“Everybody is supposed to do it, so just do it,” Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt said. “I don’t know why they find it so hard.”

Loyola-Chicago’s team chaplain and most adored fan turns 101 on Friday. While the COVID-19 pandemic makes it impossible to have a star-studded bash on the lakefront campus like last year – yet another reason to hate 2020 – there was no way Loyola was going to let Sister Jean’s big day go without a celebration.

There will be a virtual party Friday so students, alumni and fans can wish Sister Jean a happy birthday. She doesn’t know all of the details, but she has figured out one of the surprises.

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Sister Jean Delores Schmidt of Loyola University Chicago last year during her 100th birthday celebration. She turns 101 on Friday. (Photo: Quinn Harris, USA TODAY Sports)

“Even if they’re told, `Don’t tell Sister Jean,’ somebody always slips. So I know there’s going to be a video,” she said. “Who’s on it, I don’t know that.”

Loyola is also asking people to post photos of themselves with cake and ice cream, and will share them on its social media account. On Monday, there will be a Mass in Sister Jean’s honor.

One thing that will be the same as last year’s party, as well as every other encounter with Sister Jean, is the joy she’ll spread.

When Sister Jean became a national sensation during Loyola’s surprise run to the 2018 Final Four, fans were captivated by the nonagenarian nun’s spunk and vitality. But they were also drawn to her cheeriness. She could find good in anything. In anyone.

It was impossible to see or hear her and not feel good.

“I get joy out of listening to people. I get joy out of talking to people,” Sister Jean said. “I love to hear what their experiences are. I also listen to their sorrows and try to bring them joy in that time, too.

“I’ve always been a happy person. It just kind of goes with me, I guess.”

For everything the pandemic has cost us – more than 170,000 dead in the U.S. alone, millions out of work, isolation from family, friends and the things we love – it has not taken Sister Jean’s spirit.

Oh, she’d like to leave her apartment, where she’s been sequestered since March. She wishes she could be back on campus, where students dropped in for visits and encouragement throughout the day. She hopes somebody can figure out a way to make the college basketball season happen. 

Mostly, though, Sister Jean misses the human interactions we once all took for granted. The hugs from students. The enthusiasm of a child who’d gone searching for her while the rest of his family was busy on move-in day. Even the random encounters with people on Michigan Avenue as she did errands.

But ask how she is faring, and Sister Jean mentions the sunlight that is coming through her window and the piles of work she has on her desk. She tells of the phone conversations she has with students and the basketball team, and the many Zoom calls that now occupy her days.

(Yes, Sister Jean has learned how to Zoom. But she still prefers talking on the phone.)

She’s also been watching the NBA. And like pretty much everybody else, has some thoughts about the officiating.

“People think I’m bored but I’m not bored at all,” Sister Jean said.  

“My mother always taught us to be positive and to look at the bright side of life. During this whole thing, that comes to my mind so often,” she added. “I really haven’t let myself get down, because when you do that, you wear yourself out.”

There is joy to be found everywhere. Lessons, too. 

You just have to look.

“I figure there’s something good that’s going to come out of this whole thing. If doesn’t, I’m going to be very disappointed,” Sister Jean said. “I think we’re going to learn to get along better with other people, and we’re going to learn how to take care of ourselves.”

So wear a mask, wash your hands and stay 6 feet apart. That way, next year, Sister Jean can celebrate with the people she loves most, at the place she loves best. What a gift that would be.   

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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