94-year-old basketball chaplain puts the fun in nun

Written with Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, BVM 

A hush fell over Gentile Arena last night as I stepped up to the microphone and led the packed stadium in prayer.

“Good and gracious God,” I said, glancing up at a sea of maroon and gold, “yes, we all know the Shockers of Wichita State. Yes, we all know about their striving to the top of the NCAA in 2013. Yes, we all know that their efforts this season are even more determined than last. Yes, we know we are facing the Shockers tonight. And yes, we know that the Ramblers are going to play their best against this team.

“We do admire their spirit,” I continued, “but we also have spirit. We do admire the way they play, but we also like how we play. Tonight our Ramblers have a special determination to win…We ask you, God, for your blessing upon our fans. We ask you to bless our Ramblers and to look with favor upon us. Bless our referees as they make their fair calls on each team. We also pray to you, Our God, to protect our teams from injuries. Amen!”

The silence broke into echoes of “Amen” and thunderous applause. It was game time!

At age 94, I am honored to serve as chaplain of the men’s varsity basketball team of Loyola University in Chicago. Bopping around the sidelines in my Nikes and trifocals, standing 5 feet tall, I am towered by the athletes, but they treat me like a queen.

Our guys put up a good fight against the undefeated Shockers, whose faces had just appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but fell short 88-74. It was an intense game. When I got back to my on-campus apartment at 9:45 pm, I wasn’t tired. Adrenaline was still surging through me.

I never would’ve imagined what an adventurous life I’d now be leading back when I was 18, taking a ferry boat from San Francisco to Oakland and then boarding a train bound for Dubuque, Iowa, to enter the convent. I was armed with one suitcase, two girls from the class above me in school and a sense of possibility as the train headed to the heartland. We made lots of friends in transit, and we pretended we were going to college. We didn’t feel like fielding a barrage of questions about our decision to become nuns.

Deep down I was antsy, trying to mask the sadness within me. I knew I wouldn’t be seeing my family for some time. I was moving so far away. But I believed God would take care of me when I arrived at Mount Caramel, the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The BVMs had taught me since I was in third grade at Most Holy Redeemer School in San Francisco. Sister Mary Patrize used to tell us, “You’re not too little to be thinking about what God wants you to do with the rest of your life.” She was a joyful young woman, with her full habit, beautiful features and ready smile, and she spoke so lovingly of God. I think she influenced my life a great deal.

At age 9, I used to try to pull God’s leg. I’d pray, “God, please tell me what I’m supposed to do, but please tell me I’m supposed to be a BVM sister.” Being a sister and a teacher seemed like the ultimate, a perfect two-in-one. I wanted to teach people how to love God. How much better could it get?

Faith-filled & fearless

Growing up in a Catholic household with two younger brothers, I embraced my faith and sought adventure. In second grade, when it came time to exchange Valentines with classmates, I had the audacity to leave our room and hand deliver my Valentine to a cute sixth-grade boy named Charles D. I’d probably never talked to him but had admired him from afar during recess, where a big fence separated the girls and the boys. (Charles went on to become a Jesuit priest and serve as president of the University of San Francisco.)

As an eighth grader, I had saved up all my birthday, Christmas and First Communion money to travel to Chicago for the 1933 World’s Fair. When I laid out my plan to my parents, my mother responded with skepticism. “How are you going to pay for your lodging when you arrive?”

I didn’t bat an eye. “Oh, I’m sure the sisters there will be happy to host me.”

I wasn’t afraid of anything.

To me, it was a small Catholic world, connected by kind and honest people in every neighborhood, on every block.

Eight decades later, my worldview is largely unchanged. It’s true that the number of young Catholics entering religious life is much smaller than it was in the ’50s and ’60s – it seems that young people are putting off long-term commitments, be it religious life or marriage – but all you have to do is spend one day with the students here at Loyola and you’ll be filled with great hope for the church. They are so generous with their time and they are so smart. The 9 pm Mass in the Madonna della Strada Chapel here is packed.

The basketball players confide in me about, talking about bad grades or bad break-ups. “You should not run after her!” I tell them. I give straightforward advice when it comes to love, and I pray for them daily. On Tuesdays night I open my apartment up to students for prayer group. We reflect on the Sunday Gospel, a discussion that sometimes goes till 11 pm.

I rise at 5 am. There is much to do! I’m so busy chatting with students in the shuttle line, Googling the competition, praying in the chapel and gazing at Lake Michigan that I hardly have time to check Facebook.

These young people keep me alive. And I’m excited by Pope Francis, not just because he’s a Jesuit, but because he’s asking us to evangelize, to share our faith with other people and listen to their faith as well. He needs our help. We better give it to him! He keeps telling us, “God loves us. We may get tired of loving God, but He never gets tired of loving us.” To me that’s a great gift.

When I look back on the adventures I’ve had as a sister – teaching, coaching, serving as an elementary-school principal, helping as an academic advisor and resident-hall chaplain at college – I’m filled with awe. Religious life has been more than I ever could’ve dreamed of.

About Christina Capecchi

Christina Capecchi is an award-winning journalist from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. She is the author of the nationally syndicated column “Twenty Something,” which appears in more than 50 Catholic newspapers across the country. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, America, The Chicago Tribune, The Star Tribune and The Pioneer Press. She also provides contracted editing and writing services. She holds a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a bachelor’s from Mount Mercy University.