At 98 years old, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt has become the international star of March Madness. Fans of Loyola’s men's basketball team, which plays in a national semifinal this weekend, can snatch up socks, bobbleheads and T-shirts with her face on it. All of a sudden, she said, she began hearing from people all over the world, including long-lost friends she hadn't heard from in years.
"It all happened so fast," she said. "It was like a big balloon burst in the world.
Leading players in prayer from her wheelchair as chaplain for the No. 11-seeded Ramblers, Sister Jean has garnered attention during the team's Cinderella-like run through the tournament.
"A number of people have said it's what the country needed because it's such a mess," she said of her fame. "Some people have told me that their faith has been restored."
How does she feel about seeing herself go viral?
"I don't know if you saw on Facebook or Twitter the picture of me dunking the basketball into the basket," she said. "Someone said to me, do you find that offensive? No, I find it a fun thing. . . . I've seen other things go viral. It's bringing a lot of people happiness."
Many Americans have a soft spot for Catholic sisters, said the Rev. James Martin, a priest and editor at large at America, a Jesuit magazine.
"On the one hand, it's terrific that people are touched by her," Martin said. "But it's irksome people are surprised that a sister could be so much fun."
Some expect people to be more self-centered as they get older, but Sister Jean defies caricatures about age and about her role as a sister, said Michael Garanzini, who hired Sister Jean when he was president of Loyola Chicago.
Garanzini gave her an apartment in a freshman and sophomore residence hall and said she served as his unofficial informant, keeping him in the loop on what students were thinking. She was very popular with the students and would talk with them in her office in the student union building.
"There's as much as the grandmotherly as there's the strict disciplinarian in our images of nuns," he said. "We have activists, pacifists, prayerful - it's a very broad stereotype."
Catholic orders across the country have been grappling with the number of women becoming religious sisters plummeting in recent decades. There were about 181,000 religious sisters in the United States at their peak, in 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. In 2014, there were about 49,000 sisters.
While nuns and sisters are both called "sister," the Catholic Church distinguishes between the two. Nuns typically reside and do their work and ministry within a monastery while sisters live under an order or congregation of sisters and tend to do their ministry out in the world.
In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council, intended to address the church's relationship in the modern world, set off a series of reforms in the Catholic Church, including encouraging sisters to go into the world and help the needy. They began to modernize their habits and shortened their skirts, which Sister Jean said she welcomed. She became a sister in 1937, and around 1967, she said, she was given the choice of whether to wear a habit.
"Taking off the habit and putting on contemporary clothes makes us more available and gives people freedom to talk a little more," said Sister Jean, who is now often seen wearing her Loyola jacket and a maroon and gold scarf.
Nuns who wear traditional habits are sometimes portrayed in Hollywood or media outlets as "cute" when doing normal activities, like going to baseball games or eating at McDonald's, said Gail DeGeorge, editor of Global Sisters Report, a project of National Catholic Reporter. By contrast, the image of tall basketball players leaning down to embrace a tiny woman in a wheelchair is striking for a lot of people.
"Sister Jean is more than a 'cute nun,'" DeGeorge said. "She's everyone's grandmother or aging aunt. . . . We hope it translates into broader recognition what Catholic women religious did to build this country."
A 2012 Pew Research survey of Catholics found that they have a largely favorable view of nuns and sisters; 83 percent of those surveyed said they are very or somewhat satisfied with the leadership the sisters provide. By contrast, 70 percent of those surveyed said the same thing about bishops.
Catholic sisters have been the target of controversy at times. In 2012, the Vatican's powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Benedict XVI cited "serious doctrinal problems" while seeking to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group that represents the leaders of 80 percent of American Catholic sisters. The reform process ended under Pope Francis in 2015.
Religious sisters in Sister Jean's community, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, take vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience to God. During women's liberation, said Rebecca Sullivan, a women's studies professor at the University of Calgary, there was so much focus on sexual and reproductive freedom that nuns became anachronistic by the early 1970s.
"Americans saw women who were incredibly well educated, well traveled because they were off on missions, running these major institutions and out of the box of what's expected of women in the mid- 20th century," said Sullivan, who is the author of "Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism, and American Postwar Popular Culture." "They were among the most liberated women in every way but sex. We have no space in our imagination for independent women who didn't have sex."
In movies like "The Sound of Music," "Sister Act," "Dead Man Walking" and "Doubt," Hollywood has cycled through different portrayals of the religious figures, such as singing nuns, sexy nuns, serious nuns and lovable nuns. But even fun stereotypes are dangerous, Sullivan said, because they can diminish the many accomplishments of these women.
"They're not adorable mascots," she said. "They're women of experience and passion who have fought through some serious battles and emerged stronger than ever."
Before becoming face of Loyola Ramblers, Sister Jean helped women's college through 1970s student protests »