How do I remember Fr. Ludwig Francis Stiller (1928-2009) of the Society of Jesus – historian, teacher, friend – and Nepali citizen? It is not possible to remember him without referring to other Jesuits, especially his colleague in intellectual life, Fr. John Kerr Locke (1933-2009). And neither can be remembered without an image shaping itself in my mind: an image of doors opening. The two men, Lud and John, opened doors in people’s minds and hearts, mine included. They accomplished this through their rigorously scholarly books, their lucid lectures, their enlightening personal conversations, and sometimes, by their sheer presence alone.
The metaphor of doors opening is rooted in fact. On 2 September 1951, as a 17-year-old, I traveled by train from my home in Cleveland in northern Ohio to the small town of Milford in southern Ohio, near Cincinnati. It was the first step in realizing my desire to join the Society of Jesus. I walked up the steps of the imposing red brick building that was Milford Novitiate and rang the doorbell. A few seconds later, the door was opened by a young man. He welcomed me warmly and introduced himself as John Locke. He had come from Chicago with the same aim of beginning his training as a Jesuit, and had entered through that same door only a few minutes earlier. Thus began an association that began in the US, but continued and developed in Nepal, where we were both sent by superiors in 1958 to join Fr Stiller at St. Xavier’s Godavari School.
Fr. Stiller had entered the Milford Novitiate three years earlier, straight after serving in the US army as a military policeman in Manila. After two years of training as a novice, he pronounced his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in 1950, and began the second stage of Jesuit formation called the Juniorate. In those days, this two-year study program centered on the classics of Latin, Greek and English literature. The Juniors, as they were called, were enrolled in Xavier University in nearby Cincinnati, but never set foot on the campus. All the teaching was done at Milford itself with Jesuit professors. At the end of that period – in 1953 – Lud (and later John and I) received his first degree, a Bachelor of Arts with a Latin major.
There was strict separation between the Novitiate wing and the Juniorate wing at Milford. Novices and Juniors did see each other in the chapel and in the dining room, but there was separate seating in both areas. The only time Novices and Juniors interacted was on major feast days like Christmas and Easter, when we played against each other in football and baseball matches. As a result, John and I hardly knew that Ludwig Stiller existed. But whenever we noticed him, it was clear he stood out among the other Juniors with his military bearing and his serious, even intense, demeanor.
By the time John and I moved to the Juniorate wing, Lud had moved on to West Baden College (a part of Loyola University Chicago) in southern Indiana for three years of Philosophy studies. We reached that same stage of Jesuit formation in 1955 and found ourselves in the same community with Lud. We learned that he had been born on 24 August 1928 in rural Ohio and later moved with the family to Michigan, where his father worked as a machinist. The family eventually settled in the little town of West Lafayette in Indiana. Lud spoke of his father with great admiration because of his skillful and steady devotion to his trade, which in turn became characteristic of Lud himself. The Stiller family was a large one, with children from Lud’s father’s first marriage and also, after his wife’s death, children from a second marriage – including Lud. He retained a strong attachment to his siblings all through his life and would often speak fondly of his sisters Mary and Peg and his brother Tom. Both Mary, a professor at Purdue University, and Peg with her husband Bob visited Nepal to be with their brother.
Lud became a mentor to me during my first year (1955-56) of philosophy studies when Lud and I were both together. On our weekly free day from classes, he would call me to accompany him on long walks in the countryside around the little town of West Baden. He did most of the talking and there was nothing trivial about it. He expounded his ideas about life and elaborated his philosophical theories – and I listened. I was impressed by his intellect but felt awkward at not being able to understand much of what he was saying. There was really nothing I could add to the conversation, except to make occasional noises to show that I was giving him my attention. Nevertheless, I was grateful that he was taking me under his wing. Over the years I came to realize his tendency to monologue was characteristic of Lud, as well as his dislike of large groups. Though uncomfortable in crowds, he could be brilliant in one-to-one encounters. Small talk, however, was not his forte, and he could be outspokenly impatient with those who indulged in what he called (in my hearing and looking directly at me) trivial conversation.
Lud finished his philosophy studies and got his Master’s in June 1956. That same year, he was assigned to go to Nepal, along with Fr Bill Schock, for the three-year period of Jesuit training called Regency. This stage aims at helping young Jesuits to learn to work as a member of a team, usually at a school. For Lud, it was St. Xavier’s Godavari School, which had been founded by Fr. Marshall Moran in 1951. In 1958 John Locke, Charlie Law and I joined him at Godavari.
When Lud got the announcement that I too had been assigned to Nepal, he wrote me an encouraging letter of welcome. One sentence in particular impressed me at the time and has remained with me over the years. He wrote about his first experiences in Nepal and prepared me with this wise insight: “There are many physical hardships here but you will soon get used to them; the real problems are the same.” I take the reference to “real problems” to mean the difficulties of personal relationships and communication that every human being must face.
John, Charlie and I did not immediately start working with Lud on the Godavari School teaching staff. Our first and only task was to acquire the rudiments of the Nepali language through daily tutorials given by Pradhyumna Rana. But the three of us did come to know Lud better and admire him more through our daily interaction in the 11-member Jesuit community. It was soon evident that Lud was also highly admired by students of class nine and ten, to whom he taught Senior Cambridge Geography. With characteristic determination he had mastered the subject himself and knew how to communicate it to the boys. Discipline was never an issue in his classes. The students were in awe of him. Whether they knew or not of his background as a military policeman, they sensed he was a man firmly in control of himself and them.
It was at this time that our principal, Fr. Ed Niesen, decided that we Jesuits should keep in touch in an organized way with the growing number of our graduates who were now in college. Fr Niesen began this new work by renting two rooms in a Rana palace directly across the south gate of Narayanhiti Darbar. He appointed Fr Stiller to develop it into a place where college students could go for rest, reading, counseling and recreation. Because of Lud’s presence on weekends, many former students took advantage of the simple facilities and the opportunity to talk to him about themselves and their lives. It was the beginning of Godavari Alumni Association (GAA). As a visitor to the infant GAA clubhouse, named Xavier House, I was witness to this development in our work in Nepal and Lud’s abilities to influence those young men both intellectually and psychologically for their good.
Lud’s period of Regency ended in May 1959, and he was sent to St. Mary’s College in Kurseong in Darjeeling to begin a four-year course on theology studies, leading to ordination as a Jesuit priest. St. Mary’s was an exclusively Jesuit Institution with mainly Belgian professors and over 100 students from many countries, but all destined for work in South Asia. John and I went there in 1961, and we were able to renew our relationship with Lud, based more and more on our common commitment to the people of Nepal.
After ordination to the priesthood on 19 March 1962, Lud moved to St. Stanislaus College in Hazaribagh, then in Bihar, for his final year of Jesuit formation called Tertianship, before returning to St. Xavier’s Godavari in May 1964. He resumed both his teaching and his work with our alumni at GAA. He added to this the work of Minister (administrator) at Godavari, a work that involved caring for all the physical needs of the students and community members. This included the deployment and care of our dedicated group of workmen, both local and from Dolakha. Lud’s work in this capacity complemented his intellectual interests and abilities.
By now, Fr. Moran and Fr Niesen had both realized that someone like Lud could achieve much good for the people of Nepal if given further studies. So in April 1966, Lud was assigned to pursue his interest in the history of Nepal at Tribhuvan University (TU), where he earned a Master’s degree (1967) and a doctorate in Nepali History (1971). During the course of his studies at TU, he became a Nepali citizen on 9 February 1969, thus becoming the third Jesuit to receive it after Fr Moran and Fr Thomas Downing.
During the initial years of his university studies, Lud lived with Fr Eugene Watrin in a rented house near the GAA premises. Fr John Locke joined him in 1972 in the field of Nepali culture and the two of them formed the Human Resources Development Research Center (HRDRC), which set up residence first in Naxal and later in Gairidhara, Chakupat, and finally Sanepa. The wisdom of this new assignment soon became evident. Lud was the ideal student, brilliant in mind and disciplined in will. He began producing a series of publications that have proved invaluable for history students, for educated Nepalese who want to understand their motherland more deeply, and for expatriates who come to Nepal to help with development. His writings are based on rigorous research and expressed in lucid prose. He would spend months pouring over archives not only in Nepal but in Delhi and London, studying and interpreting documents which could lead to insights and solid conclusions about Nepal’s history.
Lud now turned to teaching history at TU. Among his Master’s degree students was Ms Jaya Karki, who later became his research assistant for many fruitful years. Lud’s great disappointment during the 10 years he taught at TU was the university’s unwillingness to give him permanency. He repeatedly asked to be made permanent and was repeatedly refused. The reason, he felt, had to do with academic politics. After giving the university an ultimatum, Lud regretfully submitted his resignation in 1981.
But when that door closed, other doors opened for him. Lud continued his research and writing about Nepal’s history but now added a new area for his talents and enthusiasm: development at the grassroots level. He became a one-man think tank for GTZ (recently renamed GIZ), the German Development Agency, during the mid-1980s. He pursued the idea and the ideal of people’s participation in development. His work focused on Dhading and small farmer development projects. Lud walked and talked to anyone and all in Dhading who would listen to him. He convinced GTZ that funds could be best used by giving them to local leaders for them to decide with the beneficiaries what the real needs were and how the funds should be used.
Meanwhile, the HRDRC expanded with outstanding researchers like Chandra Kant Adhikary and Uttam Dhakwa, with a supporting staff including Ms Jaya Karki, Ms Amrita K.C. and Ms Rita Thapa. These groundbreaking efforts towards effective, not just nominal, people’s participation expanded to Gorkha in time. At that point, Lud took up full-time residence in a simple rented room in the district. It was from Dhading and Gorkha that Lud developed his empathetic listening capacity. Living and interacting with the poor proved to be his true element. Lud eventually returned to HRDRC’s permanent headquarters in Sanepa and produced his last book, Nepal: Growth of a Nation (1993), an overall presentation of Nepal’s history. Subsequently as the last big academic project of his life, he produced a sixteen-lecture video series based on this book.
As Lud advanced in age, he became afflicted with mild Alzheimer’s disease. With his memory failing him, it became advisable for him to live in a larger Jesuit community, where caregivers could be available. His Nepal Superior decided to ask him to move to St. Xavier’s School in Jawalakhel. Some wondered if he could peacefully accept a transfer from his beloved HRDRC, which he had founded and nurtured for so many years. But it was in this situation that Lud showed he was a true Jesuit, imbued with the spirit of obedience that our founder St Ignatius saw as the distinguishing virtue of a member of the Society of Jesus. He immediately accepted the decision and took up residence in his new community with no complaint. He spent the last few years of his life there, a cheerful companion to us, and patiently enduring the diminishments of old age: his failing memory and his ailing heart. He died peacefully in Norvic Hospital on 10 March 2009, at the age of 80.
We Jesuits hold Fr Ludwig Francis Stiller in high esteem and honor his memory. We owe him a debt of gratitude for the example of his life. The people of Nepal owe him a debt of gratitude for his practical love of them and their history, and for his unwavering faith in their future.