Who was Fr Stu?

Mark Wahlberg’s new film portrays the life of Fr Stuart Long, a boxer turned priest some think could be a saint.

The man

His route to the priesthood was unusual.

Father Stuart Long, who was a priest of the Diocese of Helena, Montana, pursued careers in boxing, acting, teaching, and museum management before discerning the priesthood.

An avid athlete, Fr Stu played football for Carroll College, and later pursued boxing, winning the Montana Golden Gloves championship in 1985.

Faced with reconstructive jaw surgery after a fight, Fr Stu gave up boxing and moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. Though he had some success with commercials and work as an extra in the movies, it was not the career he imagined.

While acting, he worked at a nightclub that was a comedy club and a bar. Finished with acting, he traded in the nightlife to work for the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, where he eventually became the manager for seven years. He would ride his motorcycle, an artifact of his acting days, to and from the museum.

“One day, I was riding home after work, and I got hit by a car, and I smashed into a car in the next lane with my head,” Fr Stu said in a 2010 interview. “The witnesses told the sheriffs and reporters that I was rolling down the road and another car ran over the top of me. And here I am.”

The accident proved pivotal in Fr Stu’s conversion, leading him to have what he called a ‘religious experience’ while in the hospital. Upon returning home and discussing marriage with his then-girlfriend, he entered RCIA. On the day he was baptised, he knew he was going to become a priest, he later said.

In 2003, he entered Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon. During seminary, Fr Stu had hip surgery wherein a fist-size tumour was discovered. He was diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, an inflammatory condition in the muscles for which there is no cure.

His body was already slowing down when he was ordained to the priesthood in December 2007. Sadly his condition meant he died just seven years later, but he left a remarkable impact.

The best friend

“Before I met Fr Stu he emailed me,” Fr Bart Tollerson recalls. Fr Toller- son was coming to town to investigate switching seminaries and Long had recommended a popular local spot to take the seminary director.

“So I got there and I suggested it, and they looked at me like I’d lost my mind!”

Fr Tollerson said. “I’d assumed it was a lunch spot but it was the roughest bar in the town! When I did meet him, I told him that and he hit the floor laughing.”

It was the start of a beautiful friendship and the men were ordained together in 2007 for the Diocese of Helena Montana.

A convert who had been a boxer, bouncer and actor, Long’s ordination was controversial but not for those reasons. Early in his time at seminary he was diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, a rare muscular disease similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease which has no cure. Increasingly frail, his bishop was unsure if he would be able to fulfill his duties as a priest.

“He would share with me how physically his body was getting weaker from month to month,” Fr Toller- son recalls. “Maybe the advantage he had is he felt he had nothing to lose, so he went for it every single time with every person who came into his life.”

At the time of his death in 2014, seven years after his ordination, he had become an institution in

Helena. Fr Tollerson recalls in the last weeks of his life thousands of people trying to get to the hospital to see him.

“He just had this gift and I think it was given to him by God, being able to speak to people into their souls where they could hear it,” he said.

“A lot of times that was tough love and tough talk. He could be relentless and he wouldn’t let you get away with this sin until you agreed to take this step. But sometimes it was quite compassionate. ‘I know you’re suffering. And that’s really hard. But you know what? God’s gonna get you through this.’”

“And how do you argue with a guy in a wheelchair who tells you that” laughs Tollerson.

“What he believed and what his life showed, and why I want people to see this film”, says the priest, “is that no-one is beyond the reach of the love of God.”

“No one is beyond the reach of redemption or healing or hope that God brings. And sometimes we just want to ignore that. But you find it’ll change your life.”

As for his abiding memory of his friend?

“You know I always think of him always snickering at me,” he said.

“Mark Wahlberg has a picture of him and he said the same thing to me! And I felt and feel sometimes that he’s pushing me into things, and I’m like, What’s going on here? And he’s just laughing and saying, just take the step forward. Don’t worry about it! I don’t know if he’s a saint, some do, but I know he’s there, pushing me on.”

The movie star

Mark Wahlberg is used to being pitched ideas for films in unlikely places by surprising people. But the pitch for Father

Stu caught him off guard. “I was at dinner with two of the priests from my parish,” he recalled. “And Father Ed keeps talking about this movie he wants to make with me. I’m thinking, you do your job and I’ll do mine. I wasn’t there to find the next script. I was looking for the things I needed for spiritual growth!”

But something about the story of Stuart Long stuck with him.

“The more I heard about Stu, the more convinced I was that I had to get this movie made,” Wahlberg says. “I asked Ed to tell me the story again from the beginning, and from that point on it was my mission to produce the film.”

Part of the reason Long’s story moved Wahlberg so intensely was that in some ways it paralleled his own life.

“As an actor, I’ve always looked for roles that have a personal connection for me,” he says.

“I transitioned from running the streets as a teenager and young adult to finding my faith.” In a time when many people are experiencing what Wahlberg calls ‘a deficit of hope,’ the actor and producer believes Long’s story needs to be heard.

“People in dire straits need a reason to believe. But how many times can you hear, ‘Just wait. Things will get better.’ Some things don’t.

Father Stu teaches us that your circumstances are all about your perception. When all the cards were stacked against him, he chose to see that stacked deck as a blessing. The grace with which he suffered gave comfort and inspiration to others in their own suffering.”

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