She was not famous. TMZ would never in a million years have been interested in hounding her to get her photo as she emerged from a trendy West Hollywood restaurant. A reality show based on her life would not have lasted two episodes.
She was one of those people that by the world’s meter, never managed a blip, but by a different kind of yardstick, she lived a heroic and profound life. It was a life of 82 years and it ended a few weeks ago. I didn’t know her all that well, but well enough to attend her funeral, and it was a celebration of a life that deserves more attention.
I just “knew” she had to be an ex-nun. She had that “look” about her. It was never mentioned and it was really none of my business anyway but I wondered why, since she basically lived as a nun — single, poor and totally dedicated to teaching children and helping others — why not just go all in.
At her funeral I learned she had indeed gone “all in” in a different time and was a nun. For whatever reason she felt compelled to separate herself from her order is again, none of my business, but the life she led afterward was kind of my business because she taught science and religion to my children at our parish school in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
She was a taskmaster, a stickler for detail and her yearly science fair projects would strike the fear of God in many a sixth, seventh and eighth grade student, not to mention their parents. For me, it meant nagging, cajoling and pleading with my children to get started on their projects. This was usually met with blank stares followed by my personal search on the internet for science projects that would “sizzle” while at the same time not endanger the structural integrity of our parish hall.
Besides being the driving force of our school’s science department up until her retirement last year, this teacher also inaugurated a very special social service program called “Angel on My Shoulder” (a program that lives on to this day). Students who joined this “club” spent the year collecting donations and “in-kind” supplies that would culminate in an early winter visit to the skid row section of Los Angeles where, true to the Gospel edict that this teacher took to heart, the students learned about doing for the “least” among us.
From the sheer numbers of students and former students who attended the funeral, the lasting impact of this teacher’s life came beautifully into focus.
I’ve never been a big fan of eulogists at a funeral Mass and when three people lined up for this one I was selfishly distressed. The first eulogist was a nephew of the teacher. He kept it short and sweet. One down, two to go. Then things changed.
The next to speak was a woman with a story more than 30 years old and I learned that indeed, this teacher had been a nun but had left her order. If you knew this teacher you would have guessed that her stubborn streak and independent nature would have driven more than one Mother Superior to daily confession.
I further learned from this eulogist that upon leaving her order the teacher pursued her passion for science and healing and became a nurse and decades past, when this eulogist’s little 10-year-old boy was diagnosed with terminal cancer, her family requested a hospice nurse and the teacher entered this family’s life.
The teacher, who was also a nurse, stayed with this family for nine months, taking care of the child, keeping him comfortable, tending to whatever medical procedure might ease his suffering and most important of all, letting him and his family know that, through her selflessness, God’s love was there in the room then and always.
All these years later, it was evident the mom of that little boy was still heartbroken over her loss but equally comforted and grateful for the love and compassion the teacher had shown for her family.
The last eulogist was the young niece of the teacher who recounted her last visit to her aunt who lay dying of cancer. The niece wanted her aunt to know that because of her aunt’s lifelong example, she had just been baptized into the Church and received her First Holy Communion. She delivered this news on her aunt’s deathbed not out of some sense of duty of being nice to her dying aunt, but because she wanted her aunt to know it was her life-long and beautiful example that ushered her in to the fullest expression of the faith — the Catholic Church.
The Mass continued, and as I watched the legion of students and former students and parents and professional colleagues come up for Communion I thought of all the lives this teacher had touched and how she was a conduit of God’s grace and love. She taught faith and reason to middle school kids. Not the stuff of legends, yet she exemplified how Christ uses imperfect vessels to help mend an imperfect world.
It was very clear at this funeral that the teacher followed in the footsteps of St. Francis who urged all of us to preach every day and only use words when absolutely necessary.
Rest in Peace, Ms. Toni Stollo.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry. He has been a contributing writer for the National Catholic Register for many years and has also been published in Our Sunday Visitor and This Rock.