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Jaws dropped in Helena, Mont., when Father Stuart “Stu” Long was ordained a priest in 2007.
“I knew a Stu Long in high school, but it can’t be the same guy,” was the reaction of one former classmate. The Stu he had known growing up in Helena had muscled and gabbed his way through street fights, football games and boxing matches before becoming a bouncer and then a bit actor in Hollywood.
But Stu’s course veered radically after a near-death experience and spiritual conversion led him to seminary; it changed again when he was diagnosed with the degenerative disease that would lead to his death at age 50. The one-time terror of Helena spent his last years in a nursing home with lines of people outside his door waiting a turn for confession and counsel.
The life of Father Stu Long, who is the subject of a new film starring Mark Wahlberg, proves that God puts mischief makers to good use. A fearless, one-of-a-kind priest and member of Helena Council 844, Father Stu seems to have become a spiritual giant precisely because he was a loose cannon who eventually emitted light and hope amid suffering.
“It seemed like the more that was taken away from him, the stronger his faith got,” said Grand Knight Bruce Norum of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Council 10576 in East Helena, who helped lead retreats with Father Stu. “His faith was untouchable. It wouldn’t break.”
As a boy, Stu and his pals explored abandoned mine shafts and chucked apples at tour trains. In high school, he emerged as a star football player, wrestler and leader of a group of combative jocks known as the Capital High School wrecking crew.
“Everybody knew him,” recalled John Palmer, who knew Stu from sporting events and “cruising the drag” in the late ’70s. Back then, Palmer addressed the fearsome athlete with the deference one offers a mafia boss. “Stu was not a nice guy, not a guy you wanted to be on the wrong side of,” said Palmer, now a member of Helena Council 844.
Stu’s first exposure to Catholicism came at Carroll College in Helena, where he enrolled on a football scholarship and the coach required Mass for players. With fascination and horror, Stu stared at the church’s stained-glass depictions of angels and demons. He saw the priest in clerics and immediately thought of Johnny Cash.
The seed of faith had been planted, but Stu continued to live a rambunctious life. One of his professors, Father Jeremiah Sullivan, believed the lad was hindered by anger and encouraged him to channel his rage into boxing. Stu excelled in Golden Gloves tournaments and sought to go pro until a jaw injury halted his career in the ring. Later, as a bouncer in Helena, he continued to earn his rough reputation, but heroically. People still talk about the time he decked a bar patron who was harassing a woman.
Stu’s mother wearied of her son’s moping about the house. “Why don’t you go to Hollywood and try to get into the movies?” she suggested. Stu took the advice and eventually found some footing in show business, working as an extra in advertisements and playing a murderer in a TV movie. He started to live large, riding a motorcycle and frequenting parties.
The most dramatic change in his life started with two events. First, he crashed his motorcycle. He was lucky to survive — a car rolled over him — and he began to think more about life’s real purpose.
About the same time, his live-in girlfriend, who was Catholic, went to confession for the first time in more than a decade. Stu was struck by her newfound, radiant joy as well as by her no-nonsense terms: If he were ever to marry her, she said, he’d need to become Catholic. He complied, surely becoming one of the parish’s more memorable RCIA students, asking numerous and outlandish questions.
While Stu’s faith was growing, his relationship was faltering. A clergyman meeting with Stu and his girlfriend said he feared the union would be troubled. “Why?” Stu asked. “Because you’re in it,” the priest retorted.
In 1994, Stu was baptized and confirmed. Like a repentant St. Peter who responds to his sins by eschewing all half measures, he suddenly knew he was called to go all in and be a priest. He investigated a religious order in New York and studied philosophy. But eventually, superiors told him he seemed cut out for diocesan priesthood instead, and he entered formation for the Diocese of Helena.
Sitting just outside of a quiet, tiny German Catholic town, Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon was not sure what to do with the clever Montana wild man who swore so freely. His future became even murkier when doctors diagnosed Stu with inclusion body myositis, a rare condition with symptoms similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease. His muscles, which had carried him through life for so long, were wasting away.
Seminary officials recommended against ordination, but then-Bishop George Thomas of Helena felt he should take a chance.
“I asked the Lord, I asked Our Lady, ‘Please guide me, tell me what to do,’” said Bishop Thomas, who is now the bishop of Las Vegas. “I kept hearing over and over again in my prayer: There is power in suffering. There’s power especially in redemptive suffering. And he exemplified that.”
Bishop Thomas never regretted his decision to ordain Father Stu in 2007.
“He was deeply in love with the Lord. It was a beautiful thing to watch,” he said.
Father Stu served briefly in two parishes after his ordination. But a few tumbles convinced everyone that he needed closer tending. In 2010, he moved into room 227 of Big Sky Care Center in Helena. In that room — which came to be dubbed “Parish 227” by the residents — his most profound ministry began.
Friends and family acquired a creaky van with a wheelchair lift and drove Father Stu to schools, parishes and prisons across the region. Wherever he went, he would talk straight about his fatal condition and hold forth about God. Folks started calling the van the Holy Roller.
“He had that way of conveying the love of God and adapting to the people with whom he associated in a way where you’d feel special, you’d feel loved,” said Father Sean Raftis, pastor of St. Richard Parish in Columbia Falls and chaplain of Columbia Falls Council 7009.
Father Raftis recalled seeing Father Stu in his wheelchair praying with his brother Knights near a Planned Parenthood abortion facility.
“That image — the image of Christ standing there witnessing to women in need, children in need, the unborn — it was beautiful,” Father Raftis said. “Father Stu was one of the most vulnerable at the end of his life, so he had that natural affinity to be able to stand up for the unborn.”
Though his body had weakened severely, Father Stu desperately wanted to celebrate Mass and went to do so at places like Carroll College.
“He could not even lift the weight of the host at the elevation,” Bishop Thomas said. “So one of the students would hold his hand up. And I thought, ‘There’s a man who simply would not give up.’ He loved the Lord so deeply and loved his people so deeply.”
Attempting to raise the chalice, Father Stu would hold his hand as still as possible and lean his body far to the side, almost to the floor.
Father Bart Tolleson, his ordination classmate, marveled at the sight. “What an amazing image of raising the blood of Christ by lowering himself,” Father Tolleson said. “And the lower he got, the higher Christ was.”
As Father Stu’s condition declined, he stayed closer to the care center. Those who’d been inspired by Father Stu on his journeys started coming to visit for confession, advice and chats that could be one moment hilarious and another moment penetrating.
One of the people who visited was Allison Bell, a wife and mom from Helena. The two enjoyed droll arguments, like whether Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford is the better actor. But when Bell had a complicated pregnancy, their talks turned serious. Doctors said the baby boy was likely to die.
“And Father was like, no, that’s not going to happen,” said Bell. Unbeknownst to her, Father Stu was assembling a group to pray for her and the unborn child each time she went to the doctor. After young Max was born prematurely, he not only survived but thrived.
John Palmer, who had once feared Stu in high school, returned to Montana after a corporate career and joined the group that went to Father Stu for Mass and confession.
“He asked the most in-depth and concerned-for-your-soul questions,” Palmer said. “He was very insightful and reminded me of Padre Pio in the way that he looked into your soul.”
Sam Prestipino, a member of Helena Assembly 589, which had sponsored Father Stu through the Order’s RSVP program, recalls mailing $100 monthly checks to Stu at seminary. Many years later, when Prestipino’s wife fell ill, he returned to her hospital room one day and found Father Stu there in his wheelchair, having sat with her for several hours.
Yet even in his waning years, something of the old rowdy Stu could break out. He and another fellow in an electric wheelchair would periodically square off at opposite ends of the hall and then barrel down at full speed until they collided, a kind of nursing home joust.
After Father Stu became ill, he urged his parents to join the Catholic Church, which they did shortly before he died.
“When his father made his profession of faith at the Easter Vigil, I looked over to Stu and I could see a tear falling down his cheek,” said Bishop Thomas. “That was, I think, a pivotal moment that gave Stu permission to go home to God.”
His father, Bill, said people were drawn to Father Stu’s acceptance of his situation and his hope. “He just said, ‘We all need to suffer,’” explained Bill, who spent long hours caring for his son. “You have to go through some suffering in order to attain the ultimate goal.”
Father Stu had often told people that while he wished he were healthy, getting sick may have been the best thing for him.
“As our bodies start to betray us and break down, and as our minds start to fail, that is an opportunity for us to make our peace with God,” Father Stu stated in a 2011 interview. “The struggle of this disease helped me learn to live the way I should have been living all along. It has helped me overcome some of my prideful ways. It’s taught me a little humility. It’s taught me about dignity and respect for others.”
Father Stu died June 9, 2014, and is buried at Resurrection Cemetery near Helena. The film Father Stu is slated for release on April 13.
ED LANGLOIS is managing editor of the Catholic Sentinel and its Spanish-language edition, El Centinela, newspapers of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon.
Please note: Father Stu is rated R for strong language throughout. For more information on the film, including group tickets, please visit fatherstumovie.com
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