This is a big week for nuns. For a triumvirate of reasons.
First, it's Holy Week. It's the church's version of March Madness, when those who make their living draped in the cloth must brace themselves for the annual flood of parishioners who suddenly attend services -- the folks who only show up for Easter (and Christmas). It's the spiritual equivalent to seeing the gym filled with people working out the first week after New Year's. Of course, all are always welcome.
Second, the biggest star of the men's NCAA Final Four is a woman of the cloth. Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt is the chaplain for Loyola-Chicago, the team that's seeded 11th but ranks No. 1 in America's hearts, largely because of the 98-year old nun who rolls alongside the Ramblers in her wheelchair.
"When people say, 'Why do you do this? You must be awfully tired,' I say, 'What difference does it make at 98, whether, I'm tired or not?!'" Sister Jean said during the NCAA tournament.
That brings us to the third pillar in the enormity of this week. It's MLB opening weekend. Nuns love baseball. Ask anyone who attends big league games in the cities of the Midwest and Northeastern corridor. Every ballpark has at least one row of women in habits who can't break their hardball, well, habit.
Over the last month, we've all learned what Sister Jean has known for years. She has spent her time in the spotlight telling us repeatedly: Nuns love sports. Not all of them. But the ones that do, like Sister Jean, really love sports.
Fans of the Golden State Warriors are also fans of Sister Regena Ross, who just one week ago met her favorite player, Andre Iguodala. She wears his No. 9 jersey to games, having become his biggest fan after reading about his devotion to the technology of nearby Silicon Valley. She is the tech director at St. Elizabeth Elementary School. Now she has the sign she took to Warriors games, autographed by Iggy, laminated and hanging in her office.
Gonzaga didn't make it back to the Final Four, but if the Bulldogs need inspiration for the work they'll need to make another deep tournament run, they needn't look any further than their own campus. That's the frequent training ground for Sister Madonna Buder, aka the Iron Nun. She has competed in 300 triathlons. In 2012, she set the record for the oldest woman to ever complete an Ironman triathlon. She was 82.
When weather forced the Cincinnati Reds to push their annual MLB season opener to Friday, no one was more bummed than Sister Mansueta Martineau. She lives at St. Anne's Convent in nearby Melbourne, Kentucky, in a room that's decorated with Reds memorabilia. She loved the Nasty Boys of 1990 and she's irritated that the team traded away her favorite player, Todd Frazier, in 2015. She thinks that Sister Jean seems like a fantastic young woman. That's right. She said young woman. Sister Mansueta turned 104 on March 3. When the convent threw a surprise party for her 100th birthday, Mr. Redlegs showed up.
Fans of Sister Jean's Loyola-Chicago are likely already familiar with another Sister Jean. Sister Jean Kenny, aka the Psychic Nun or Super Bowl Sister, rose to fame when she won a local sports radio contest held in conjunction with the legendary '85 Chicago Bears and their run to the Super Bowl, penning a song titled "Hurricane Perry," an ode to William "Refrigerator" Perry.
Before her retirement 15 years later, Sister Jean Kenny appeared everywhere from Monday Night Football to "The Tonight Show," predicting the winner of every big game and writing poems to explain her reasoning. At last check, her winning percentage was just shy of 75 percent. Her favorite non-Bears game? Super Bowl XLIII. Why? No, not because she correctly picked the Steelers over the Cardinals ("Welcome to the Sunshine State. Watch Mike Tomlin's Steelers dominate. The defense birds are dealt their bridesmaid fate. The rowdy Steeler nation goes on to celebrate ...") It was because of the halftime show. She's a big Springsteen fan.
Chicagoans might also know of Sister Kathy Sherman. She lives in the Windy City and during the 2016 World Series placed a wager with her friend and fellow member of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, Sister Theresa Hafner of Cleveland. When the Cubs' prayers were answered and the Indians were sent back into baseball purgatory, Sister Theresa had to pay up ... in beer.
With all due respect, even had she won the bet, she wouldn't be the most famous Indians fan to have taken her vows. That honor will forever belong to former Sister Mary Assumpta, who garnered national attention and local (sorry) cult status in Ohio because of her loyalty to the Indians, including a cameo in the movie "Major League" and a tongue-in-cheek role as a CBS News World Series correspondent. The cookies that she baked for the team became a sensation, spawning a charity-fueled business, Nun Better Cookies, baked right in the convent kitchen.
When Albert Belle threw one of his infamous tantrums in the Cleveland clubhouse and used his bat to flatten a table full of Sister Mary's goodies, he was called out by teammate Omar Vizquel, who said, "Oh man, you can't do that." When Belle wanted to know why not, Vizquel replied, "You know who baked those cookies?" Belle said he did. Vizquel then said, "Don't you know who she works for?"
She has lived in Oregon since 2013, when she requested a dispensation of her vows just shy of her 50th anniversary in the order. Now back to her birth name, Maryhelen Zabas, she serves in a different way, working with the Sacred Art of Living ministry to assist the dying and their caregivers. When the Indians made their run to the 2016 World Series, the media tracked down the former Sister Mary Assumpta. They do the same whenever "Major League" hits the anniversary of its April 7, 1989, release. It's a chance to let people know, even indirectly, about the good works done by Sacred Art of Living and organizations like it.
If handled correctly, the fame and attention garnered through church workers' love of sports can go a long way toward supporting the causes to which they have dedicated their lives.
Loyola's Sister Jean herself explained that earlier in the week: "I feel that what I'm called to do is to minister. I want to do that. I talk very honestly with the young men on the team. I talk honestly with everybody."
Just this week, a convent of Capuchins Sisters in Poland posted a video of themselves in the midst of their own type of, ahem, CrossFit. It included some Rocky-style moves in the boxing ring, all done in the hopes of garnering support for "their fight" to raise the $100,000 needed to repair their old, decaying orphanage.
Being a fan of sports among the religious is certainly not limited to nuns. Priests, preachers, rabbis and mullahs love sports, too. Sometimes, too much. Remember the priest who stalked the sidelines during the glory days of The U? He of the legendarily foul mouth when things went bad for the Hurricanes? Perhaps you've seen the Faster Pastor races, when rural American short tracks put men of the pulpit behind the wheel of stock cars to see who might survive. "I've never heard so much begging for forgiveness at the end of a race," a short-track promoter texted when asked about his attempt at the event.
But even those who temporarily forget a commandment or two in the heat of competition, they all know what Sister Jean knows. These people of the cloth being affiliated with sports is a chance to educate, both ways. That's a tradition that has lasted as long as sports and the church have shared playing fields and gymnasiums.
There's Brother Paul Shanley of North Carolina's Belmont Abbey College, one of the Benedictine monks who lives on campus who now serves as the school's sports photographer after decades as teacher, cross-country coach and sports information director. There's Boys Town in Omaha, which annually serves as a practice facility for the teams of the College World Series, on the same fields where founder Father Flanagan hosted the barnstorming teams of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Sister Jean's "opponents" -- Villanova chaplain Father Rob Hagan and Father Ben Hawley of St. Mary, located on the University of Michigan campus -- have had stories written about them this week. And this might be a good time to dust off that copy of "Chariots of Fire," as team chaplains across the country are known to do at the start of every sports season.
"I talk about sports all of the time, because they represent such a formation in my life," says Sister Miriam James, 41, a nun at the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, located just two hours south of San Antonio, the city where the Final Four is taking place. "It's such a lesson in virtue, doing the right thing, and showing up even when it's difficult. It's about the discipline it takes to become excellent at something."
Sister Miriam played volleyball at Nevada and also survived a battle with substance abuse and addiction before taking her vows. She uses those lessons during her frequent public-speaking engagements.
"Obviously, you can live sports in a very despotic way, which a lot of society does, when it becomes God," she says. "Sports are not God, but as John Paul II said, when done properly, sports are an avenue for virtue. You learn how to become humble, how to make someone else shine. You learn how to lead, how to follow, how to show to life. You learn that things take time. That's parallel to anything else in your life, whether that's love or your job or whatever you do. If you practice excellence you become excellence. That's what sports can teach us. That's what sports can be."
They can also be fun. A lot of fun. Just check out @onegroovynun on Twitter, where followers receive plenty of wisdom from the Good Book, but also sneak a peek at the sisters as they watch college hoops, especially through the eyes -- or more accurately, the silhouette -- of Sister Mary, a die-hard Kansas fan who leaps and shouts and, yes, prays, during every Jayhawks game.
"She's our version of Wilson, the next-door neighbor from 'Home Improvement,'" Sister Miriam explains with a laugh. "But yeah, our convent is full of Kansas fans. No offense to Sister Jean, but I've already had to watch Nevada lose to her team. If Loyola-Chicago plays Kansas on Monday night, sorry Sister Jean, we appreciate all you have done this March, we'll be rooting against you."
But before Monday, there's a bigger issue to solve.
"We haven't yet figured out how we're going to watch the semifinal games," Sister Miriam says. "We're going to be a little busy around here. It is Holy Saturday, after all."