The annual NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is underway, and it turns out that the 103-year-old nun who’s become the tournament’s unofficial Cinderella-team mascot, Sister Jean Schmidt, grew up here in San Francisco.
The NCAA basketball March Madness tournament tipped off Thursday morning, as did the day drinking that comes with it. And over the last six years, a now 103-year-old superfan Catholic nun named Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt has enjoyed international fandom since her small-school Cinderella team the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers made waves in the 2018, 2021, and 2022 tournaments, even making the Final Four in 2018. That Loyola is a private Jesuit college in Chicago, but Sister Jean herself was born in San Francisco in 1919, and lived here until entering a convent in 1937.
Sister Jean discusses her San Francisco backstory in the opening chapters of her new memoir Wake Up With Purpose!: What I’ve Learned in My First Hundred Years, which just came out last month. It’s a very good, albeit highly Catholic memoir that details 1920s- and 1930s-era San Francisco issues of LGBTQ rights and homelessness that have striking parallels to today.
She grew up in The Castro (then called Eureka Valley) during the Great Depression, while Al Capone was jailed in Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge were both still under construction. Her book describes watching the Golden Gate Bridge being built while sitting at Crissy Field Sunday picnics, and how she was one of the people who walked across that bridge on its opening day in 1937 for a five-cent fee.
As a fellow born & raised San Franciscan - I’m proud to declare today #SisterJean Schmidt Day in San Francisco! We’re all rooting for a win for @LoyolaChicago’s @RamblersMBB most loyal & vocal supporter in the #FinalFour today! #MarchMadness #OnwardLU pic.twitter.com/l4CrmBAXHz— Mark Farrell (@MarkFarrellSF) March 31, 2018
Sister Jean entered Most Holy Redeemer Grammar School on Diamond Street in second grade ($2 a month tuition). Most Holy Redeemer Church (MHR) is still there today, and has been called the 'gayest' U.S. Catholic parish, very controversially welcomed HIV-positive parishioners in 1985, and still runs an AIDS Support Group to this day. But the elementary school doesn’t exist anymore.
“Unfortunately, we do not have any records from the school,” a church administrator tells SFist. “The MHR School closed in the mid 80’s and all of the records went with them. Also, there are no living clergy or teachers from that time.”
But the very much still-alive Sister Jean describes it in her memoir, and how Eureka Valley was the LGBTQ neighborhood even long before it became known as The Castro.
“There were a lot of gay men living in our community when I was growing up, although I’m not sure I understood exactly what that meant at the time,” she writes. “We were told that if one of those men followed us to school or tried to talk to us, we should report them to our teachers or someone in authority.”
“Many of those fellows would talk to us after school, and I thought they were very nice. One day I said to my dad, ‘You know, these guys are always talking to us but they seem okay.’ My dad replied, ‘If anyone tried to harm you, those men would be the first ones to help.’”
Sister Jean would enter St. Paul’s High School on Church Street in Noe Valley in 1933, and played on the girls’ basketball team. St. Paul’s does still have a school, though it is now a K-8 school. The church is instantly recognizable for its two giant steeples.
But St. Paul’s may be better known as the church seen in Whoopi Goldberg’s 1992 film Sister Act. (Though it’s called “St. Katherine’s” in the movie). While the interior shots from the movie were filmed at First United Methodist Church in Hollywood, there are a ton of exterior shots at Sister Jean’s San Francisco high school alma mater St. Paul’s.
Noe Valley is, of course, a nice and relatively upscale neighborhood. Though as an old SF Weekly article informs us, for the 1992 Sister Act shots, “the surrounding area was redressed to make it appear that the church was part of a poorer district like the Tenderloin or Bayview. Storefronts were recast temporarily and the streets were made to appear rundown, complete with abandoned automobiles and trash tumbling in the San Francisco fog.”
Sister Jean’s Loyola-Chicago Ramblers are not in the NCAA men’s tournament this year. For that matter, neither are any Bay Area teams, except Moraga’s St. Mary’s Gaels. (They play Virginia Commonwealth at 11 a.m. PT Friday morning, and are four-point favorites.)
But when Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt unexpectedly became a international sports media superstar in 2018, she did not pursue viral fame. Instead, she became even more thoughtful and introspective, doubling down on her San Francisco-born values of work ethic, modesty, and dedicating oneself to helping others.
And that’s how Sister Jean was in her 1919 SF beginning, is now, and forever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Image: ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 24: Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt celebrates with the Loyola Ramblers after defeating the Kansas State Wildcats during the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at Philips Arena on March 24, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. Loyola defeated Kansas State 78-62 (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)