Chicagoland

Marian’s Sister Mary Jo using newfound fame to talk about God

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
January 9, 2019

Marian’s Sister Mary Jo using newfound fame to talk about God

Before she was a sister, Sister Mary Jo Sobieck was an athlete.
Sister Mary Jo Sobieck and Marian Catholic High students talk to a man on the street as they delivered supplies to the homeless in downtown Chicago on Dec. 8. (Photo by Marian Catholic)
Springfield Dominican Sister Mary Jo Sobieck poses at Guaranteed Rate Field before throwing out the first pitch on Aug. 18, 2018. (Iron and Honey Photography)

Before she was a sister, Sister Mary Jo Sobieck was an athlete.

Sister Mary Jo, 50, started playing softball, basketball and volleyball in elementary school, and she was a three-sport athlete all through high school and her first two years of college. She dropped basketball for her final two years, but stuck with softball and volleyball.

So when the Springfield Dominican and Marian Catholic theology teacher was asked to make a ceremonial first pitch on Marian Catholic Night at the Chicago White Sox game on Aug. 18, 2018, she knew what she had to do.

She took the mound in her white habit with a Marian Catholic baseball jersey, bounced the ball off her bicep, caught it and threw a strike to White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito, who came out to receive the pitch.

“I was not about to get ripped by coaches and teammates from the past,” Sister Mary Jo said in a December phone interview.

She never considered making a shorter toss, she said. “This was going to be my chance. I’m totally going the distance. That’s what life is about. You have to go all in.”

A video of that pitch went viral, kicking off a series of invitations for Sister Mary Jo to call into or visit sports and entertainment talk shows that has slowed, but not ended. Sister Mary Jo has embraced the opportunities, she said, because it gives her the opportunity to expand her ministry of teaching and preaching beyond the halls of the Chicago Heights school where she has taught for the past 12 years.

Sister Mary Jo said she doesn’t feel like her profile at the school has changed too much — “I always felt like a celebrity there” — and she continues to teach sophomore theology and lead the Extreme for Jesus Mission Club, which takes field trips to downtown Chicago to feed and talk with homeless people and to events like the March for Life.

She has taken students on mission trips to Mexico and Haiti, and to World Youth Day in Spain in 2011. That trip included pilgrimages to Fatima, Portugal, and Lourdes, France.

“I feel famous with my class and with my friends and with the families that I work with,” she said. “I hope it’s my love for life and joy for the Gospel.”

Jen Pasyk, who teaches freshman and senior theology, said that joy comes through.

“Before, she was just kind of like that loud nun,” Pasyk said. “She’s kind of gregarious and outgoing. There’s this image that sisters are kind of quiet and reserved, and that was never her. She is very popular, because she makes it a point to meet the students wherever they are. She really goes out for those shy kids who just want to blend into the bricks. She will learn something about them, so someone knows something about them.”

She’s also known at school for her athletic prowess. She goes to her students’ games to cheer them on — and she’ll offer advice if she sees ways they can improve.

“That was my natural giftedness from God,” Sobieck said. “I was naturally coordinated, so I was always playing sports. I dreamed of being a professional athlete, even though when I was growing up, there weren’t professional sports for women.”

When Dan Kozlowksi, Marian Catholic’s vice president for advancement, approached her with the idea of a first pitch, she felt like she would finally have a chance to perform on that kind of stage.

She made the most of it. She tossed the ball to Kozlowski as a warm-up while she was on the field before being told she wasn’t supposed to do that. It was enough to catch the eye of White Sox bench coach Joe McEwing, who approached her and offered to introduce her to White Sox Manager Rick Renteria.

It wasn’t until later that night that she realized what a hit the pitch was. The White Sox broadcast a replay of the pitch during the game, and Major League Baseball posted the video to its YouTube channel.

Koslowski said that the school had done Marian Catholic nights with the White Sox for a couple of years, and were looking for more ways to get people interested when he asked if the school could send someone out for a first pitch. There was never any doubt that it would be Sister Mary Jo.

“We put her in a place to be amazing, and she definitely did that,” Kozlowski said.

But Sister Mary Jo didn’t know any of that when she was congratulated by Marian Catholic families and alumni in the suite the school had for the night, or those who stopped her on the concourse.

“That was not anything I was thinking about,” she said. “I don’t even know how going viral works. I mean, I do now, but I didn’t then.”

Then Kozlowski looked at his phone and told her, “‘You’re on CBS sports, you’re on Bleacher Report, you’re trending on Twitter, you’re on ESPN’s top 10,’” Sister Mary Jo said. “That was Saturday night. The next morning I got a text from a friend who flies for United Airlines at like 6 a.m., saying ‘I just landed in Hong Kong and your video is everywhere.’”

In the following days, she was taped in the gym at Marian Catholic for spots on Good Morning America, local Chicago television stations, and a station from Minneapolis, near where she grew up. There was a trip to New York to be on “Fox and Friends” — while she was there she phoned back to Chicago for an interview on Relevant Radio — and the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame called to ask if they could make her bobblehead.

“Those whole two weeks after, I would call people on my break from school, and from the airport. And my high school called me in October to throw out the first pass at my high school homecoming football game,” she said.

She’s trying to use her newfound celebrity to share the message of the Gospel.

“The best gift I can give now is to give a good example of what it means to be virtuous,” Sister Mary Jo said. “It’s transitioned to what happens on the field of life. I try my best and sometimes I fail miserably and I get back up and try again. You get up the next day and try again.”

Those are lessons she learned growing up in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, the youngest of 10 children. Her father died when she was young, but she was always close to her mother, who was a die-hard Twins fan who would listen to the games on the radio.

When she blew a kiss to the sky before making her first pitch, that was for her mom, who died seven years ago, she said.

She’s sure her mother was watching, because when she was walking around the concourse during the game, she was stopped by a mother and daughter who wanted a picture. She asked the girl her name and how old she was.

“She was in sixth grade, and her name was Louise,” Sister Mary Jo said. “Louise was my mother’s name. How many sixth-graders these days are named Louise?”

Most people, she said, are fascinated that she can be an athlete and a nun. She doesn’t see the two as incompatible.

“Religious life is a team sport,” she said. “I grew up in a team. I know what it means to be part of a team. I can contribute to a team goal. … We are all working toward building the Kingdom of God, my sisters and I, and they are pushing me to be my best self. There’s such a parallel between faith and team sports.”

The first pitch brought more attention to Marian Catholic than the school expected, Kozlowki said, but the school is not the only beneficiary.

“I think who really benefited from it are the women religious, those who have the devotion of being a Dominican sister or a sister in general,” Kozlowski said. “People are saying, ‘Oh, wow, sisters can have fun too.’”

For Sister Mary Jo, all the attention is part of God’s plan for her.

“I really am a person that believes in following the movement of the Holy Spirit in my life,” she said.

“There’s growth, and there’s transformation, and that’s good. This is just a springboard for what more God wants to use me for. I just said yes to an invitation and God did the rest.”

 

Topics:

  • catholic schools
  • chicago sports
  • women religious
  • teachers

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