Father Stu: Trading Gloves for a Cassock

The Catholic world has been abuzz recently with the anticipation and release of the recent movie Father Stu, produced by and starring Mark Wahlberg, as well as Mel Gibson. In case you haven’t heard, the movie follows the life and story of Stuart Long, a man who grew up in an agnostic family, pursued professional boxing, then a career in acting. And when, after falling in love with a Catholic woman, he got baptized, he felt an immediate calling to the priesthood.

He entered the seminary, and during his studies, he was diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, an incurable degenerative muscular disease that would eventually claim his life. As he struggled with this cross, he was ordained, assigned to Helena, Montana, and became one of the most sought-after priests for his spiritual direction and guidance.

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While in the seminary, Fr. Stu met the man who would go on to become his best friend, Fr. Bart Tolleson. Fr. Bart had a similar story to Stu in that they both grew up outside the Faith, and they were actually both baptized on the exact same day, one on the west coast, the other on the east.

Recently on The Cale Clarke Show, Cale had Fr. Bart on the show to discuss his relationship with Fr. Stu, the movie portraying his good friend, and the legacy that he left behind.

Of his time before Catholicism, Fr. Stu admitted that he was a rowdy kid. He grew up a wrestler, football player, and someone who didn’t shy away from street fights. He wasn’t involved religiously at all because he grew up agnostic and Fr. Bart retold the story of him being told by his football coach at Carroll College that the team would have Mass in the chapel. Stu turned to one of his teammates and said, “What’s a chapel?”

After football, Stu began boxing training with one of his professors who had been an amateur boxer, Fr. Sullivan. Stu took to the sport, upset at the outcome of his ventures with team sports, and became skilled in the ring. He went on to win the 1985 Golden Gloves heavyweight title in Montana. However, a broken jaw sustained from a fight changed his mind about going professional. Instead, Stu decided to do something even riskier: He moved to L.A. to try and become an actor.

As with many Hollywood hopefuls, the acting didn’t pan out for Stu, and he ended up becoming a museum manager in Pasadena. Following a near-fatal accident on his motorcycle, Stu began contemplating his life decisions much more clearly. He had been living fast, but he believed his life had been spared for a greater purpose. His girlfriend introduced him to the Catholic Faith and after RCIA, he decided to get baptized.

He was baptized at the Easter Vigil in 1994, and it was then that he felt the calling to become a priest. After being assigned to the seminary in Montana, he was contacted by Fr. Bart who was being transferred there. They eventually met in person, and even though they had very different personalities, they became great friends. “We really hit it off, I think because we were both converts and kind of came at faith in a similar way. We were very different in personality, Stu was kind of fearless and I was more prudent, but we both laughed a lot together and had similar senses of humor.”

Fr. Bart Tolleson and Fr. Stuart Long

Fr. Bart continued, speaking about Fr. Stu’s special devotion to Our Blessed Mother, stating that on several occasions including during his accident and during pilgrimages, Stu felt a loving presence that he believed to be Our Lady guiding him. Fr. Stu saw Mary as the one person who he could draw these common experiences to and as one of the best resources as the Mother of God.

On his pilgrimage to Lourdes, Fr. Stu made it known that he was very confident that he would be healed upon bathing in the pools there. After emerging from the waters, he expected to be free of pain and restriction, but he fell back into the water, still ailing. He was devastated and a bit upset at first. After going to confession, Fr. Stu went back to the waters to try again. Emerging from the water he said he was not physically healed, but he felt spiritually healed, and he received peace and knowledge that God would be with him through everything.

Later, they visited Notre Dame Cathedral and there he saw a statue of St. Joan of Arc. As he spoke to the pilgrimage group about her, he had a sudden momentary out-of-body experience. He said all of the pain and deterioration and weakness left his body. He said that while St. Joan was not speaking to him, she was communicating to him, “I carried the banner for France and died as a martyr for Christ. And you will carry a wheelchair as a banner for Christ. Are you willing to say yes to this disease to let Jesus Christ shine through you, as a slow martyrdom?” Of course, Fr. Stu said yes.

Fr. Stuart Long and Fr. Bart Tolleson were ordained on December 14, 2007

“He came back, pretty transformed interiorly by that trip,” said Fr. Bart. “As soon as he got back he met with Bishop Thomas who said, ‘You know, it was kind of a no-brainer after I offered it to Our Lady. I’m going to ordain you both. You and Bart will be ordained in December.” Fr. Stu went on to become a popular priest in the Diocese of Helena, famous for his attitude and attractive energy, as well as his spiritual guidance and advice. However, his declining health necessitated his transfer from parish to parish until he landed in the Big Sky Care Facility in 2010. He was only 46. For four years, Stu fought his disease, worked hard at the facility, and even helped out at Mass with Fr. Bart.

There was nothing that could stop Fr. Stu from performing his duties. As his disease worsened and his motor skills declined, people began to assist him with the sacraments. After he stopped being able to move altogether, people would come to him. All the healthcare workers around him began to convert.

There was something so supernaturally attractive about this man who refused to drop his banner of Christ. On Monday, June 9th, 2014, Fr. Stuart Long passed away at the age of 50 accompanied by his parents, having worked for the salvation of others until his last breath.

Father Stu was released on April 13th, 2022, and garnered a 7.1/10 on IMDb and a 95% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Tune in to The Cale Clarke Show weekdays at 5pm CT

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John Hanretty serves as a Digital Media Producer for Relevant Radio®. He is a graduate of the Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. Besides being passionate about writing, his hobbies include drawing and digital design. You can read more of his daily articles at relevantradio.com and on the Relevant Radio® app.