As recently as the 1970s, the B.V.M.s were about 2,300 strong, according to the order’s spokeswoman. Now there are only about 330 of the nuns, including Sister Jean on the Loyola campus and the roughly 180 retirees living here. Nearly all of the order’s nuns have trained at the Dubuque headquarters before going off to serve somewhere, whether in the United States or abroad. That means everybody in the order pretty much knows everybody else.
And everybody knows — and loves — Sister Jean.
Scouting reports from her fellow B.V.M.s on Wednesday included comments like “a worker, morning until night” and “a person who is influential, especially with young people.” Everyone marveled at Sister Jean’s ability to deftly answer questions on television, as if she was born to be on camera.
“How many young people would usually be interacting with a 98-year-old like this?” Sister Pat Donahoe, 86, said. “I think she’s enjoying it, and I think lots of people think it’s wonderful to hear what she has to say. This is a win-win situation.”
Still, some of the retirees wonder whether fame obscures what Sister Jean has done in a life of service to the core values of her order: freedom, education, charity and justice. One of her sisters, for example, started a clinic for leprosy patients in Ecuador, and another ran an orphanage in Omaha.
“There’s a lot of irony in this,” said Sister Carolyn Farrell, a former associate vice president of Loyola-Chicago who is also a former mayor of Dubuque. “We often like to talk about peace and justice and living in the margins and helping other people. And, of course, Jean Dolores did all of that earlier in her career. But now the camera isn’t on peace and justice, it’s on Jean Dolores.”
Sister Carolyn, who was once the subject of a People magazine profile, hopes fans can see Sister Jean as more than an endearing nonagenarian and overnight superstar.
“It’s like, hmm, you have a basketball star chaplain,” she said, “and at the same time we’re knocking ourselves out to help the poor.”
Sister Jean’s peers point out that she was a teacher for many years in California before moving to Chicago in 1961 to teach and then serve as administrator at Mundelein College, an all-women’s school founded and run by the B.V.M. order. The college was known for its activism and its work to advance women’s rights.
In 1991, Mundelein, suffering from dwindling enrollment and funding, was folded into Loyola.
“It was a very sensitive time,” said Sister Carolyn, 83, who was Mundelein’s president during that transition and then started the Gannon Center for Women and Leadership at Loyola. “The feeling always was, ‘We’d rather be dead than coed.’”
There’s no evidence that the history has cut into the sisters’ support for Loyola basketball. By all accounts, though, the Chicago Cubs’ march to a World Series championship two years ago drew a much larger audience in the community room.
Sister Kate Keating is the resident Cubs expert, who at the World Series parade told a reporter that she knew she was a Cubs fan before she knew she was Catholic. Still, before the N.C.A.A. tournament, Sister Bernadette had to tell her what a bracket was, and how to fill one out.
Other sisters recall annual trips years ago to see the Iowa girls’ high school basketball championship in Des Moines.
Sister Margaret McCulloch, 78, said she was a pretty good basketball player way back when. She also coached girls’ basketball and volleyball when she taught in elementary school, and even took one of her girls’ basketball teams to the Catholic Youth Organization finals when she worked on Long Island.
She said it had always bugged her to see men coaching women and girls.
“I wouldn’t feel too bad if I saw a woman coaching a man’s team,” Sister Margaret said, “but I haven’t seen that yet. So. …”
And she will never forget watching Immaculata University play in the 1970s, when the Mighty Macs were the first powerhouse women’s basketball program in the United States. The university, in Malvern, Pa., was founded by nuns.
“It was such a great experience,” Sister Margaret said. “All of the sisters were there, and they had drums and a variety of things.”
Now if Immaculata were in the tournament, maybe, just maybe, Sister Margaret would pick the Macs to win it all. Instead, her Final Four teams are Loyola, Villanova, Gonzaga and — one non-Catholic team — Clemson. After that, so much for her loyalty to Sister Jean. She chose Villanova to win the championship.
But that’s not half as bad as Sister Bernadette.
“I had Loyola losing in the first round,” Sister Bernadette said, explaining that she had picked the favorites. “Oh, yes, I’m hardhearted.”
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