A former Purdue biology professor said he would have had to go back to his hometown in Pennsylvania to support his mother and grandmother had a fellow colleague not given him the money to stay.
That colleague, Mary Stiller, one of only two consecrated virgins of the Catholic church in Indiana, was about to leave Purdue herself to go conduct post-doctoral research at the University of Chicago.
“She said ‘Oh, by the way, I don’t need all the money (the University of Chicago) is going to pay me ... whenever I get paid, I’ll send you some money. You stay here and don’t go back to Pennsylvania’ (and) I said, ‘Riiight, Mary,’” laughed Al Chiscon, who at the time said he was living on the half-time salary of a teacher’s assistant of about $1,500 a year.
Nonetheless, Chiscon said it was only about two weeks later when he received a check in the mail from Stiller along with a note that told him not to ever pay her back, but to someday pay it forward and help others in need.
Stiller, who died Sunday morning at age 81, dedicated her whole life to service, both to the Catholic Church and to Purdue where she earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and then went on to teach biology for 35 years.
A member of West Lafayette’s St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church since its foundation in 1950, Stiller felt called by God in 1974 to serve in what The Rev. Patrick Baikauskas is a very rare and “obscure” rite in the Catholic faith, the life-long vow and vocation of becoming a consecrated virgin.
“It has its expectations ... things not unlike being in religious life, as far living a life of simplicity and prayer,” Baikauskas said.
Stiller lived this simple life of religious devotion, Baikauskas said fondly. He saidheprayed with Stiller every day for five years and she always wore the same simple outfit, her “own kind of habit.”
Extremely devoted to her duties and roles as sacristan (the person in charge of making preparations for each Mass), reader, choir member, song leader and Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, Stiller also found the time and resources to give back to others at every turn.
“She was extraordinarily generous; I think that she did that very quietly,” Baikauskas said.”I never said anything while she was alive about just how generous she was. She had investments and she gave away everything she had, every year. She lived very simply in a tiny apartment two blocks (from the church) on Harrison.”
Stiller’s extreme sense of dedication, diligence and devotion seemed to permeate all aspects of her life.
Chiscon said, “I arrived in September of (1954) as a graduate student, and she was already diggin’ her heels in working as a preliminary graduate student ... she astonished not only me, but everyone who met her during that era because she had just received her bachelor’s from Purdue; we had arrived from all over the country from various institutions and she seemed like she was about to win the Nobel or something ... (while) we were all running around trying to remember what our names were.”
Known for running on gigantic economy-sized jars of peanut butter on bread, cups of black coffee, cigarettes and very minimal amounts of sleep, Chiscon said “talking about Mary usually takes days or months” and that she was “a legend of sorts.” She often went days without leaving the office or her lab to go home and still had time to further her own education and general knowledge.
“She had bought a whole set of encyclopedias that she kept in the lab, and she used them for casual reading,” said Chiscon. “She started with ‘A’ – it was like most people would read ‘Gone with the Wind’ or something. And every time we would see Mary ... we would ask ‘Hey Mary, what letter are you on?’ ... She (then) packed up the whole set of encyclopedias sent it to a brother, who was a Catholic missionary in Nepal, when she was done reading the things. I mean, it was all we could do to just to keep up with our reading assignments ... and she did this for light reading in between.”
Stiller also found time to be an innovator, constantly finding ways to further explore her science. Chiscon said Stiller thought scientists “couldn’t wait on the next multi-million dollar piece of equipment” and she often made her own apparatus out of whatever materials – empty milk cartons, drinking straws, paper clips, anything – she had handy.
Above all, everything Stiller did went hand-in-hand with her faith.
Baikauskas said, “She felt that all science even more clearly pointed to the existence of God. (It) didn’t make sense if we didn’t believe that.”
A memorial service for Stiller will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Thomas Aquinas with The Most Rev. Timothy Daugherty, bishop, and Baikauskas officiating. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the St. Thomas Aquinas Center.