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ND Women’s Basketball

Breyan Tornifolio reflects on role as women’s basketball chaplain at Notre Dame

| Monday, August 31, 2020

“Hallowed ground” is how Breyan Tornifolio, the chaplain of the Notre Dame women’s basketball team, describes being in the locker room before a game. “[It’s] this sacred space where not very many people get to be.” 

Certainly, she has experienced many incredible moments during her time as the chaplain. She vividly recalls the 2018 national championship.

“Being on the court in Columbus, and watching all the former players that coach [Muffett] McGraw has coached come onto the court, talk about Notre Dame family, talk about the importance of family, that was one of the most incredible nights to watch that all happen and unfold,” she recalled.

She remembers watching as the banner was dropped in Purcell Pavilion to celebrate McGraw’s induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, and when Niele Ivey, who was named as McGraw’s successor this summer, was inducted into the prestigious ring of honor in 2016.

Courtesy of Breyan Tornifolio
Irish women’s basketball chaplain Breyan Tornifolio, center, poses with former head coach Muffet McGraw, left, and former assistant coach Beth Cunningham, along with the 2018 National Championship trophy.

Just as impactful, however, if not more, are the smaller moments she gets to share with players, and the relationships she has built with them.

“Some of my other favorite moments are when it’s more intimate with the team, being able to be in the coaches area before a game, and just being in that space,” she said.

A rector for seven years, she bonded in particular with the players who lived in her dorm, and got closer to those who were recovering from injuries.

“Whether it’s sitting and talking to them before the game started, I think about Mikayla Vaughn or Brianna Turner, these are two incredible, incredible women, that I feel like through them being injured, I’ve gotten to know them a little bit better. That has been a blessing through unfortunate circumstances of injury,” she said. 

“I feel like I have a really great relationship with the coaching staff,” she said. “Watch them, the way that they are able to adapt and adjust to the different strengths of the team, it is really beautiful to be able to watch the incredible talent the coaching staff has.”

In addition to the relationships, it is the small moments that make being a chaplain so special. Before each game, the coaches and support staff all line up, in a specific order, and high five the players as they run onto the court. McGraw usually stood directly behind Tornifolio, but before one game, she lined up in front of her.

“I have this moment of “Do I tap her on the shoulder, and tell her she’s in the wrong place, what do I do?” So I said, ’Coach, you stand behind me. You can’t be in front of me, we can’t screw it up before we start!’ She laughed, and I laughed, and I got in front of her,” Tornifolio said. 

Notre Dame has always been an important part of Tornifolio’s life. Growing up Catholic in the small town of Follansbee, West Virginia — the same hometown as legendary Irish coach Lou Holtz — people cheered for two teams — West Virginia football and Notre Dame football. So when the top ranked Irish faced the third-ranked Mountaineers for the 1988 national championship, it was a big deal.

“I remember sitting in church, and our priest giving a homily on what we should do for that game, and it was serious,” Tornifolio recalled. “For one half, you will sit on one side of your living room, and you will cheer for Notre Dame, and for the other half, you will sit on the other side of your living room and you will cheer for West Virginia.”

The Irish ultimately prevailed to claim their 11th national title.  

“[I’ve been] a fan of Notre Dame for as long as I can remember. It was around sports, and certainly around the football team, and then as I got older, I knew of Notre Dame for its excellence in academics, for ways in which it continues to serve the church, and so as I grew my knowledge of Notre Dame grew as well,” she said. “When I was ultimately offered a position here, in some ways my family’s dream came true, that I was going to come out here and work at this Catholic institution.”

Tornifolio first came to Notre Dame after hearing about a job opportunity to be a rector.

“I met this wonderful woman by the name of Sister Jean Lenz, and she was in charge of hiring rectors,” Tornifolio said. “She told me, when I asked her, “Sister Jean, can you tell me a little bit about what a rector is, and she said, “Bre, being a rector means sharing life. You share life with the students, you are with them in their things that are happening that are really great, and you walk with them when they’re experiencing things that are really hard.” And how beautiful it is, and what an amazing witness it is, and how humbling it is, to walk with them on that journey.”

She began as the rector of Pasquerilla East Hall in 2006, where she stayed for three years, before moving on in 2009 to become the first rector at the newly opened Ryan Hall, where she lived for four years.

“That time as a rector, was probably the most blessed time that I’ve had,” she said. 

She said being a rector, in many ways, is quite similar to being a chaplain.

“We talk about this in rector world, and I think it holds true now. A ministry of presence, to be there, to be around, in some ways, to be prepared if you might be needed, to be present, physically present, if I can be there,” Tornifolio said “I’m at the games, I’m in the locker room, I lead prayer with the team before every game. The prayer will vary depending on what’s happening in our world, or what’s happening with the team. I get to be around, and I’m grateful for this, when the women have a recruit come in, I get to meet the recruit, I get to meet their families, which is really lovely and a great way to welcome our students before they even come.”

Courtesy of Breyan Tornifolio
Breyan Tornifolio, center, with former chaplains Sr. Sue Dunn, left, and Sr. Sue Bruno at Purcell Pavilion

Tornifolio was first approached about the chaplaincy by Sister Sue Dunn, the chaplain of the team at the time, who wanted to add a co-chaplain.

“I ended up going to lunch with Sister Sue, Coach McGraw, their director of [operations], Stephanie Menio, and one of their newer assistant coaches, Niele Ivey, we went over to Legends to have lunch, and we talked. We got to know one another, started to form a good relationship, I got to know them, they got to know me a little bit,” she said. “[I] started going to the different games with Sister Sue. Building that relationship with them, and then finally, after being around, and knowing them, ‘Okay, let’s do this, lets have two chaplains here, more resources, more women to be around,’ which I thought was beautiful. Sister Sue and I served as co-chaplains, for about two or three years until she left Notre Dame, and took on a different position, and I have been doing it solo ever since.” 

Tornifolio said she has grown from the experience.

“It’s something that actually has really awed me and inspired me about this women’s basketball team, and that is the way that it’s a family, it is a Notre Dame women’s basketball family,” she said. “When you are around this team, you realize that the relationships extend beyond just the players and the coaches, but I have been so inspired by the dedication that coaching staff and the players have to the community. It all comes back to the Notre Dame family. I think Sister Jean’s words to me of sharing life in so many ways is how I feel like I’ve lived out my time at Notre Dame, now starting my 15th year here.”

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