Skip to content

Meet Father Stu – the true story, and real priest behind Mark Wahlberg’s new movie

Here's the real story of Fr. Stuart Long.

Fr. Stuart Long. Credit: Diocese of Helena.

“I kept hearing the same message over and over again: ‘There is power in suffering, move him forward.’”

Back in 2007, Bishop George Thomas of Helena wasn’t sure whether to ordain Stuart Long to the priesthood.

Seminary formators had raised red flags about Stu, who had an aggressive and debilitating muscle disorder with a poor prognosis. A serious chronic illness didn’t seem like it fit with the ministry of a Catholic priest.

But Bishop Thomas of Helena believed that suffering is a gift in the Christian life — a gift Stu had received in spades.

That's a fundamental idea in Catholicism – Christ redeemed us through his suffering and death on the cross, and in a mysterious way our suffering, united to his, can be redemptive. That’s what Bishop Thomas remembered in prayer.

Ultimately, the bishop told The Pillar, it was because of Stu’s sufferings — and not despite them — that he decided to ordain Stuart Long a priest.

Bishop Thomas said God kept reminding him, over and over, that a priest is ordained to be like Christ, the Suffering Servant who hung on a cross.

Suffering, it turned out, would become the defining quality of Stu’s life, and the measure of his priesthood.

But most people who knew him before his ordination, or his conversion to Catholicism even, would not have predicted that.

He loved Bigfoot

An undated photo of Stu Long as a young man. Credit: Bill Long.

In his early 20s, Stu was a football player-turned-wrestler-turned-boxer who had serious aspirations of turning pro. He had a muscular build and a sharp intellect, and he treated arguing like a competitive sport.

Stu was an outgoing guy with a great sense of humor – the kind of guy that people like to be around.

Then he survived a serious motorcycle accident, had a major conversion, became a Catholic priest, and developed a progressive muscle disorder. And he did all that before he died in 2014, at just 50 years old.

The people who knew him and loved him remember that even as his body shut down, Stu was every bit as tough as he was in his prime.

And they said it was the Catholic faith – which he discovered halfway through his life – that gave Stu the strength to endure the crosses he would carry at the end.

“Fr. Stu” is a beloved figure among the people who knew him in Helena, Montana, where he served as a priest for seven years before he died.

But outside of Montana, Fr. Stu’s story was not well-known after his death – until Mark Wahlberg decided to make a movie about the priest.

Wahlberg heard about Fr. Stu while at a restaurant with a priest who had been friends with him. The actor decided he had to make a movie, and to pay for most of it himself.

Why?

“I just found it to be so inspiring and so comforting, so I really couldn't find a reason to not want to make the film,” Wahlberg told The Pillar.

Wahlberg added that the movie has impacted his own life, and that he’s made a “real commitment…to do more substantial, meaningful, parts of God's work.”

The film version of “Father Stu,” released April 13, might inspire millions more as it’s shown around the globe.

But Stu’s sister Amy says her brother would have found it “hilarious” to be depicted by Mark Wahlberg, or to see their father depicted by Mel Gibson.

Stu, Amy remembers, thought a lot of things were hilarious. His irreverent and quick sense of humor was a big part of his life, she said.

Friends remember that Fr. Stu loved movies, going to restaurants, and just hanging out, joking and talking with friends. He loved to argue, about anything, and just for the sake of arguing.

He also loved Bigfoot.

“He was pretty disarming because he appeared laid back, but pretty quickly, you could figure out this guy was pretty smart. He hid the smartness in just kind of an, ‘aw shucks’ kind of attitude,” said his good friend, Fr. Bart Tolleson.

“He was very persuasive – or stubborn, one of the two. You could never win a debate with Stu. Nobody. Ever,” said his sister, Amy.

Go-big-or-go-home

Stu was born on July 26, 1963 to Bill and Kathleen Long. He grew up in Helena, his parents’ hometown.

Wahlberg’s movie depicts a tense family relationship, especially in connection to Stu’s father Bill, who was portrayed as a tough and mostly unloving man.

But members of the Long family told The Pillar the film’s account was heavily dramatized. Bill traveled a lot for his job as a heavy equipment operator, but he always provided for the family, they said, and they were always thrilled to see him when he came home on weekends.

Bill and Kathleen Long. Courtesy photo.

But there were difficult moments for Stu’s family. His younger brother Stephen died suddenly of infectious meningococcus, just before he turned five. Stu was 9 years old at the time.

Stephen’s death was rough on the whole family, and led to some dark times.

But overall, Stu’s childhood was a very happy one, Amy said.

As a kid, Stu was active and social – a fun-loving kid with a certain disregard for rules. He would throw fruit at trains that would drive by the house, plucked from the apple tree in the yard for projectile duty.

He and his friends would cut through the local cathedral on the way to his grandma’s house, and play cat-and-mouse with one of the sacristans, trying to stay one step ahead while the sacristan shooed them out of the church.

One 4th of July, Bill came home with fireworks – the big kind that you couldn’t get locally. Amy was thrilled at the thought of the fireworks, but she was sick with bronchitis, so she had to stay in that night.

Instead of going out with his teenage buddies, Stu stayed home and lit off fireworks outside the front of the house – wearing a trench coat in the cold Montana rain – so Amy could sit on the couch and watch them.

“He lit off fireworks for me, so I didn’t have to miss out. It was that stuff that I remember that really stands out for me.”

To his little sister, seven years younger than Stu, her big brother was bigger than life. He taught her how to swear and how to box and how to be tough.

“I wanted to be like him. I emulated him…He worked at a video store, so I worked at a video store,” Amy said. “He was always my big brother. My hero.”

In high school, Stu started playing football and then got into wrestling.

He was an average student, his dad told The Pillar. Stu was bright, but wasn’t always motivated in school.

If Stu found a subject that interested him, he would learn it inside and out, and he could discuss it for hours. But if a subject didn’t hold his interest, he couldn’t be bothered to care.

Share the true story of Fr. Stuart Long. We think it’s cooler than the movie!

Brad Brazier and Stu were buddies in high school. Even back then, Brad told The Pillar, Stu was a powerful figure, with a large frame. He was strong and confident, with a bit of a swagger that stood out in their high school.

Brad and Stu became friends through wrestling. Brad was a sophomore when Stu was a senior. They would hang out after school and do the kinds of things teenage guys like to do, Brad said  — they’d drink and get rowdy and try to imitate Evel Knievel’s daredevil stunts.

“We’d get in trouble. But in our defense, it was creative fun…just yelling and hollering and shooting and fighting,” Brad told The Pillar.

Stu liked to win, and he worked hard to do it.

He had to work hard to keep in his weight class for wrestling, Brad said. He recalled watching Stu throw on sweats and head out the door after a two-hour practice.

“I’m going, ‘What are you doing?’ He’s going, ‘I'm going to run.’ I go, ‘For how long?’ He goes, ‘Until I can't. And then I'm going to walk’.”

Amy and her brother used to sneak into the local stadium, where Stu taught her how to do wind sprints and run stairs and bleachers.

“I remember the very first workout, and I got sick to my stomach. He's like, ‘All right. Are you ready to keep going?’”

But beneath his tough exterior, Stu always had a kind heart, Amy said.

“He was kind and loving to everybody. It’s funny how sometimes people say, ‘Do the right thing even when nobody’s looking.’ He would do the right thing, a lot of times, because nobody was looking. Because he tried to play this big, tough badass. But underneath it all, he was just one of the most kind humans.”

He was also generous, almost to a fault, Amy said – even before his conversion. He loved giving thoughtful gifts, even though he didn’t have much money, and he had a tendency to give away his own things if he thought someone else could use them. Once, someone gave him a laptop, because he needed it for school. A few months later, he gave it away.

When confronted about doing things like this, he would tell his family, “Someone else needed it more.”

‘When everything started’

After high school, Stu attended nearby Carroll College, right in Helena. He majored in English, but his real love was boxing, which he picked up while in college, his dad said.

Stu was a champion boxer and won the 1985 Golden Gloves heavyweight title for Montana. He thought seriously about going professional, until a fighter broke his jaw and Stu needed reconstructive surgery. That changed his mind.

In 1987, at 24, Stu moved to LA with the hope of becoming an actor.

Stuart Long’s acting headshots, late 1980s. Courtesy photo.

Stu got a few parts in commercials and as an extra in movies, but he never landed the big role he was hoping for. He worked at a comedy club, as a bartender, and as a nightclub bouncer, until he ended up - by surprise - working for years at the prestigious Norton Simon Art Museum in Pasadena.

One night in 1992, as he was returning home from work on his motorcycle, Stu was hit by a car. He was knocked down. Then he was run over by another car.

Stu had a concussion and brain swelling. One ankle was broken. So was his nose. He had road rash, cuts, and bruises all over his body, his sister recalled.

“He was pretty messed up,” his dad Bill told The Pillar.

“In fact, I think the hospital didn't think he was going to survive. But he did… And that’s kind of when everything started.”

Stu was convinced that he had been spared from death for some reason. He started asking big questions about life’s purpose.

Growing up, the Long family had not been particularly religious. Both parents had attended Christian churches, but left due to politics in the local church communities. They decided they would let their kids make their own decisions about faith when they got older.

Bill said after the motorcycle accident, Stu’s then-girlfriend Cindy “used the Church to help rehabilitate him, to try to get his mind back on track.”

Stu wanted to learn more about the Catholic Church; it probably didn’t hurt that he wanted to marry his girlfriend, and she wanted a Catholic wedding.

He signed up for RCIA, and he decided to get baptized.

And then something happened.

He was 30 years old, a new convert — the boxer-turned-actor-turned-museum-manager. And on the day of his baptism, at the Easter Vigil in 1994, Stu had a strong, sudden conviction that God was calling him to be a priest.

At first, Stu thought the notion of priesthood would fade, but it always came back.

He had undergone a radical conversion, but his go-big-or-go-home attitude hadn’t changed. If he was going to be a Catholic, he was going to be a priest.

Stu decided to teach at a Catholic school in Mission Hills, California, to mature in his faith, get used to being Catholic, and discern whether priesthood really was his vocation.

After three years of teaching and coaching the school’s wrestling team, he gave away everything he owned and moved to the Bronx in 1997, to discern life with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, the CFRs.

The friars sent Stu to Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, where he earned a masters degree in philosophy.

It isn’t easy to be a 34-year-old postulant in a religious community, but there Stu was.

Still, after about two years, the friars urged Stu to discern diocesan priesthood, to which he seemed better suited. He was accepted as a Helena seminarian by Bishop Robert Morlino, and sent to Mt. Angel Seminary in Oregon.

At Mt. Angel, Stu was a good student — mostly.

His close friend Fr. Bart Tolleson told The Pillar that he had seen some of Stu’s notebooks from his seminary days.

“If it was a class with a professor he admired and respected, he took very good notes. He had notebooks filled with notes and how things worked. I know moral theology was one of the classes that he took good notes in. But if he didn't like the teacher or whatever was being taught, you'd open up that notebook, and there'd just be doodles of butterflies and boxing gloves.”

‘The Pillar’ brings you the true story of a priest of Jesus Christ, Fr. Stuart Long, as no one else could tell it. Journalism like this matters, and our subscribers make it happen. Subscribe today:

Priesthood and pain

During his time at Mt. Angel Seminary, Stu started experiencing some physical problems.

At first it was a little bit of difficulty walking – a foot dragging or losing his balance. He put off going to the doctor. But the issues persisted, and eventually Stu had to get things checked out.

Doctors first thought Stu had polymyositis, a treatable condition. He was hopeful about getting the problem resolved and resuming normal life.

But when they started treatment, it became clear to his doctors that he had something else - inclusion body myositis, a rare progressive muscle disorder similar to Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Inclusion body myositis causes weakening of muscles throughout the body, resulting in a loss of mobility and strength. It affects walking, writing, lifting, gripping, and even swallowing. It progressively gets worse, until performing basic daily activities becomes impossible.

The condition has no cure. There is no treatment to slow its ravaging effects on the body.

Inclusion body myositis often leads to death by pneumonia. It sometimes leads to other respiratory failures, or even to death by malnutrition. Some patients die after they’re injured in falls. Inclusion body myositis isn’t exactly a terminal disease, but the prognosis for a long and healthy life is grim.

Family and friends were shocked by Stu’s diagnosis.

Their friend Stu was so strong he had seemed almost invincible.

“You couldn't almost believe it,” his friend Fr. Bart said. He remembered seeing the change in Stu after he was ordained a transitional deacon in December 2006.

“He was really struggling and we were supposed to go to dinner and see a movie the night afterwards. And he just said, ‘Man, I can't go. I'm too tired.’ And I was like, ‘Something's not right.’ He was big and strong when I first met him…and you could just tell he was fearless.”

Stu tried to be hopeful at first. He could look into experimental treatments, he thought, and maybe, if he could slow it down, some kind of cure would be developed some day. But as time went on, it was hard to remain optimistic.

“He was fairly despondent, on a couple of different occasions,” his dad recalled.

But there was another change in Stu after his diagnosis too, Fr. Bart said.

It was like someone had flipped a switch and given Stu a whole new kind of determination, especially to live the faith.

After he was diagnosed, Stu lived with a kind of urgency, Fr. Bart remembered. He seemed to realize his time was short, and every moment mattered.

Stu’s friends say that urgency continued until the end of his life.

If people asked Stu to talk with them or to meet with them – whether it was 2 a.m. or 6 p.m. – the answer was always yes. If he promised to pray for a special intention for someone, it wasn’t just a vague promise – he would stop what he was doing and pray, sometimes aloud, and always with an expectation that God would hear and answer his prayers.

‘Carry the disease for Christ’

Stu was ordained a deacon in December 2006. But despite his determination, it seemed that might be the end of the road.

Seminary formators had raised serious questions about whether Stu’s health made him suitable for priestly ministry. Stu might remain a deacon forever, rather than be ordained a priest.

When he heard that news, Stu was crushed. It was a rock bottom moment for him, Fr. Bart said.

Still feeling adamant about his call to the priesthood, Stu decided in 2007 to take a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, the site of a well-known Marian apparition and many miraculous healings throughout the centuries.

“He thought he would be healed. He absolutely believed 100%, he was going to receive a physical healing,” Fr. Bart recalled.

Stu went to Lourdes in a wheelchair. But he believed he would stand up and walk out of the shrine’s healing waters.

But when he did stand up, he nearly fell over into the water. He couldn’t walk. He wasn’t healed.

Stu was devastated. He thought God had abandoned him.

But a friend on the trip encouraged him. Stu went back to the Lourdes water a second time, a few days later, after he had gone to confession.

Whatever Stu said in that confession is unknown.

But “when he came out the second time, he had this sense of peace, just this real sense of peace, that wasn't there the first time,” Fr. Bart said.

“And he didn't experience the physical healing, but he had peace.”

On the way back home, the group stopped in Paris. They visited Notre Dame Cathedral, where Stu saw a statue of St. Joan of Arc.

Stu experienced what Fr. Bart described as “a kind of mystical encounter with Joan of Arc. And at that point he knew he was being asked if he would carry the disease for Christ.”

Stu accepted the call. From that moment on, he knew the disease would claim his life, but that it would be for Christ and for the Church. When he returned from Lourdes, Fr. Bart said, there was something different about him. He still had difficult days, and the biggest burden of his suffering was yet to come, but he had a peace and acceptance that lasted for the rest of his life.

When Stu returned from Lourdes, there was a surprise waiting for him — not the healing he’d prayed for, but maybe another sign of Mary’s intercession.

Bishop George Thomas, who was assigned to Helena while Stu was in the seminary, had decided to ordain Stu a priest after all, despite concerns at the seminary.

Bishop Thomas told The Pillar that he had prayed very hard about the question of Stu’s ordination.

“For a period of about a week, maybe even two weeks or so, I just kept begging the Lord for direction. I kept hearing the same message over and over again: ‘There is power in suffering, move him forward.’”

“Over and over and over again,” Bishop Thomas heard the Lord, he remembered.

“I saw in him, a man of considerable holiness and one who would impact the faithful. So I decided a strong ‘yes’.”

Deacon Stuart Long in December 2007, one week before his ordination to priesthood. Credit: Fr. Bart Tolleson.

Stu was ordained with his good friend Bart on December 14, 2007 at St. Helena Cathedral - the same cathedral that Stu and his childhood friends would use as a shortcut on their way to his grandma’s house years before.

‘We can all carry our crosses’

On the day of his priestly ordination, Stu was on crutches. Bishop Thomas said he remembered that Stu seemed very weak.

​​“He was quite fragile at the ordination. His mind was very lucid. His desire for priesthood was very strong, but his body was uncooperative.”

A photo collage from Fr. Stuart Long’s priestly ordination. Credit: Fr. Bart Tolleson.

Both new priests were expected to get up and address the congregation at the end of Mass. Bart stood up and gave a few remarks, thanking people for coming. Then Stu got up. His comments were blunt, to the effect of, “I stand before you as a broken man. Barring a miracle, I’m going to die from this disease, but I carry it for the cross of Christ, and we can all carry our crosses.”

People who didn’t even know Stu were in tears. Bart remembered it as a bold and courageous start to what would be an incredible priestly ministry.

After ordination, Fr. Stu was assigned to Little Flower Parish on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana. He had served previously at the parish during a summer as a deacon.

Fr. Ed Kohler, pastor of the parish, told The Pillar that the way Stu dealt with the effects of the illness was heroic.

“Stu was a strong man, and an upbeat kind of a man. He had a good sense of humor. He wasn't depressed. I didn't even see him as being sad. He was a fighter, and he was fighting with this thing.”

The people of the parish loved and embraced Stu as one of their own. Fr. Ed said they saw in the priest a reflection of their own tough-mindedness.

“We’re on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and our people have had a hard life. The Blackfeet are… fighting for survival, too,” he said. “They resonated with him.”

Plus, Stu was fun to be around.

“He was one of us. He was down to earth. You never knew what he was going to say,” Fr. Ed said. “And that energy he had was attractive. It's very much a man's man's energy kind of a thing. He was very masculine, but very generous and very life-giving, and he shared his faith.”

Stu was also known as a good confessor, Fr. Ed said.

“He had been there and done that. He knew the ins and outs of the realm of sin. He had a lot of compassion and mercy and understanding and forgiveness in his heart. He wasn't a legalist. He was the mind and heart of Jesus, and he was a welcoming presence…That was his strength. When you were with Stu as a priest, you knew you were there with somebody who accepted you. And that is a huge gift to people.”

But the parish had several steps leading up into the church, and as Stu’s condition progressed, he began to fall. Repeatedly.

“I've seen him fall down those steps at least three times,” Fr. Ed said. “But he was so tough. He could bounce down and get up and be embarrassed and all that kind of stuff, but he never broke anything.”

“We're talking going down seven, eight steps, just sliding down,” the priest remembered.

“I mean, he could take a hit still.”

The steps eventually proved to be too much for Fr. Stu’s declining health, and he was transferred after just one year to a different parish. He was there for a few years before the diocese decided he needed more care.

So in 2010, four years a priest and 46 years old, Stu moved into the Big Sky Care Facility in Helena.

He was now using a power wheelchair full-time. On the back of it, he had put magnets of some of his favorite saints: Joan of Arc, Maximillian Kolbe, and Padre Pio. There was also an image of Bigfoot.

The transition to the nursing home was a rough one for Stu. He was losing a lot of his independence. He could no longer drive. But friends say he embraced his suffering, and they almost never heard him complain, even though he was in near-constant pain.

His sister Amy remembers that even as Stu’s illness progressed, he remained selfless in little ways, rushing to hold doors open for other people.

Amy recalled one time, driving Stu to church as his illness was progressing. Although he struggled to walk at that point, he refused to park directly in front of the church, saying, “We need to leave that for people who really need it.”

Even in assisted living, Stu kept his sense of humor – he and another of the younger patients at Big Sky Care Facility were known to have wheelchair races and play bumper cars in the hallways.

Nearby, Fr. Bart had been assigned to St. Mary’s Parish. The church there had been configured for a priest in a wheelchair to get under both the altar and ambo. So Stu began to help out with Masses there, in addition to offering Masses at the nursing home.

It was while Stu was at Big Sky that his high school buddy Brad re-entered his life. Brad had gone into the Coast Guard after high school, and then had gone on to law school. The two had lost touch as their lives had moved in different directions.

But around 2011, Brad moved up to Helena to care for a sick uncle. He thought he would just be there for a few weeks, but it ended up being years. Once he found out that Stu was also there, he went to see him.

Seeing Fr. Stu after his ordination – and after his illness had taken a firm grip on him – was like seeing a whole new person, Brad said. Stu was in a wheelchair at that point and had difficulty controlling his body.

“It was weird. It was hard,” he said. “When your whole view of somebody your whole life has been this physical force, and that's gone…you're looking at the real person, without the façade.”

Brad wasn’t sure if he could handle seeing Stu a second time. But he decided that he had spent enough time in and out of nursing homes with his uncle that he had gotten used to it. And ultimately, he said, he knew Stu would do the same for him. So he continued visiting him.

“I would take him to the movies and stuff like that. I don't think a lot of people wanted to drive him around, because he couldn't control his body. If he squirmed, he could just tip over and that was it. Plus you had to help him go to the bathroom and feed him and stuff like that. He could use his arms a little bit when I first started out with him, and then it was just his hands, his neck up. But he had a hard time swallowing stuff.”

Seeing the physical transformation that Stu had undergone was challenging for Brad.

“It was hard. I don't respect a lot of people that can't kick my ass. Stu is one of the people I respected. He did it mentally at the end.”

While the progression of the disease was devastating Stu’s body, Brad said he never lost his sharp mind or his tough spirit.

“He worked harder than anybody I've seen…He worked up almost till the day he died. I remember other patients in the nursing home, and a lot of people who go in there don't leave, and they want their last rites.”

When Stu was no longer able to control his hands enough to do the Anointing of the Sick, Brad would hold his fingers and help him move them properly. He would take Stu to hear confessions. When Stu wasn’t able to leave anymore, people would come to him.

“The room was constantly filled with people. The people, the healthcare workers that worked for him, they all converted to Catholicism and really changed their lives around. That's just something I noticed as I was going in and out over the few years.”

‘The direction his life was going’

Stu’s ministry didn’t stop because he wasn’t in a parish. As people heard about a holy priest, his work probably intensified. There were frequently long lines outside of his room – people waiting for confession and spiritual counsel.

Theresa Quebedeaux and her husband met Fr. Stu through Fr. Bart, with whom they had been good friends since before his ordination.

Theresa, a retired nurse, said she was struck by how much fun Stu was – and also by how much of his life was devoted to serving others.

“We could see that Fr. Stu's entire life, his entire waking time was service. Everywhere he went, he was counseling, he was comforting. He was hearing confessions. He was just 100% on. In service, he had an urgency to his ministry because he always knew he was declining. He always knew death was the end result of his disease,” she said. “And so, he always was giving and he was always so patient, even though he was in pain and exhausted.”

Theresa told The Pillar she remembers thinking: “He looks so tired. Is anybody taking care of him?”

She and her husband started visiting Fr. Stu regularly. They got to know him. He became their friend.

Theresa’s hash-brown casserole became a favorite of Stu’s. He would ask her for some every few weeks. It was a simple recipe, she said. Frozen hash browns with sour cream, cheddar cheese, and cream of chicken soup. She would leave off the fried onions, because Stu hated onions.

“We wanted to make sure there was somebody there he could talk to and just be friends with, and not constantly just in ministry,” she reflected. “It was a very natural, easy thing because my husband and I have a little sharper sense of humor. And I think he enjoyed that. He still kept some of the fun things of his youth for sure.”

Theresa’s goal was to make sure Stu was well cared for, but she came to realize that Stu was helping her grow spiritually.

“There's just something about Father Stu, that he followed the way of St. Therese, the Little Flower, in [seeing that] it's all in the little things. It's the day-to-day sacrifices, not the big things. It's ‘What can I do this moment, that's small and simple to make me a saint and to help me help other people see that they should be called to sainthood?’”

Stu helped her understand how to integrate her life, she said, and to see that everything she did could draw her closer to Christ.

“I think that is how he impacted my life: that I'm not supposed to be bouncing around and then going to Mass on Sunday. The way I treat the grocery store clerk, the way I respond to what I think might be a slight to me is all important.”

Theresa had spent 15 years of her nursing career working in the ICU. She had seen her fair share of dying people. Stu completely accepted his impending death — that stood out to Theresa.

Stu knew what was coming, and he wasn’t scared, she said. He had a sense of peace.

He would be invited to give talks at conferences or retreats six months out, she said. “And he'd say, ‘You know, I'm not sure I'm going to be alive then.’ But it never came with an attitude of self-pity or fear or trepidation. It was just a matter of fact…He always knew that was the direction his life was going.”

Over time, Stu lost more and more use of his body. In 2011, when he got too weak to celebrate Mass, Fr. Bart trained a few people to help him.

“They would even move his arms and grab his hands and have him touch all the right things. They would give him communion so he could complete the sacrifice and everything. We kind of developed that system, and it was very successful, and Stu could just kind of dictate orders to whoever was helping him,” Fr. Bart said.

“And it became very powerful, his celebrations of Masses, because it was like watching someone who was crucified in a certain way, do the Mass. It really brought you closer to God.”

But Stu was continuing to lose his strength. He needed oxygen on and off. His voice was getting weaker. He needed to be given water more often.

“Once we closed the door and we could talk, Stu was pretty frank with me about, I'm just running out of gas, I'm getting weaker,” Fr. Bart said. “You'd see a little bit of that despair that was tempting him. He always fought through it, but it was tempting him. And I always pushed him not to give into it. And he took it as a challenge - when you gave Stu a challenge, he stood up to it, definitely.”

Stu celebrated his last Mass in late May 2014. He was barely able to get through the prayers.

Shortly after that, Stu was moved from his wheelchair into the care facility bed. He hated that bed. He said it was uncomfortable, and had refused to sleep in it for four years, opting instead to sleep in the recliner in his room. He had always said that when he went into that bed, he wasn’t coming out. Stu knew he was dying.

Fr. Bart Tolleson and Fr. Stuart Long in 2012, on the fifth anniversary of their ordination. Courtesy photo.

The last week of Stu’s life, Fr. Bart remembers, was like a circus.

“So many people felt like they had this huge connection with Stu. Even just one encounter with him, and you felt connected to him… There were people coming and going all the time, friends from high school, all these different people telling him goodbye.”

Fr. Stu died June 9, 2014, at the Big Sky Care Center. His mom and dad and a few close friends were there with him at the end.

His parents had both recently gone through RCIA and been received into the Catholic Church.

“I actually personally think that's what allowed Stu to let go,” Bill said. “He would've hung on had we not done that. And he was getting to the point where it was getting very difficult for him.”

Fr. Bart said Stu’s death left a gaping hole in his life, and it took him several years to process it.

“I have other priest [friends] and they're great priests around here. But to have that friend who is of your mindset, who is of your age, who is of your sense of humor. We were different, but we laughed at a lot of the same things, we kind of looked at life the same way.”

In his homily at Stu’s funeral, Bishop Thomas praised the priest’s constant giving of himself in ministry, even while in the nursing home, while also recalling his “unadorned candor and penchant for telling it like it is.”

“From the moment I met him, I observed that Stuart had a priestly heart, zeal for the gospel, and tender passion for the Church, and deep love for God’s people,” Bishop Thomas reflected.

Bishop Thomas said he has never once regretted his decision to ordain Stu a priest.

A lasting impression

The people who surrounded Stu during his life say he continues to impact them.

Fr. Bart said he hopes Stu’s life is an inspiration for those who feel far away from God.

“If Stu Long can become Catholic and become a priest, nobody is beyond the love of God. Nobody. No matter who you are, no matter what you've done, nobody is beyond the love of God,” he said.

“The next thing is don't be afraid to walk closer to God. Stu's life teaches us that there's not a certain way to do the Catholic thing. Stu did the Catholic thing the way Stu did it. And that was God's purpose.”

He also sees Stu’s life as a witness of suffering.

“No matter what sufferings you face, or uncertainties you face, God's love is there, and God's strength is there. And Stu carried it, and Stu embraced it. It wasn't easy, but he did it. He did it all the way ‘til the end, even though there were doubts in the very last days, and he was even afraid of those doubts, he shared those with me some years prior, but he did it all the way to the end. And I think God can strengthen us all the way to the end, no matter what we have to face.”

Fr. Bart said he reminds people frequently that they will have to carry crosses in their life, but they don’t have to do it alone.

He said he’s seen people go through an incredible and beautiful “transformation of mission” once they ask for Stu’s intercession in helping them carry their crosses.

“We have access to that grace that Stu had, we have access to that same grace as well. And so, whatever sufferings there are, carry them well, because you do it with Christ, and you do it for Christ.”

Stu’s sister Amy and his friend Brad both said he inspired them to see the Catholic Church differently. Amy said she has gone to Mass with her dad, and a few times by herself.

“I haven't joined [the Church] yet, but I really love seeing what the Church does for people and the community of it, and people assisting one another,” Amy told The Pillar, adding that she has become more active in volunteering at the local food bank.

Brad was baptized a Catholic, but hasn’t practiced his faith since childhood. He said some difficult relationships early in life had left him with a negative view of the Catholic Church. But Stu helped him view the Church through a new lens. The two would talk frequently about philosophy and religion in the later years of Stu’s life.

While Brad hasn’t fully returned to the faith, he said he’s begun to explore it.

“[His faith] affected me just by how it affected him. I can't always quantify it.”

Brad said Stu’s life taught him especially about the possibility of redemption.

“I started out the same ways he did, so I look at him as if it's available for you, it's available for me, you know?”

Both Stu and Brad knew numerous people who had chosen assisted suicide when faced with a difficult medical condition. At one point, Brad asked Stu whether he also would have considered that choice, if he were not Catholic.

In response, Brad said, Stu told him that “One of our whole points of being here is to serve each other. You can't look at it just as every time somebody gets old and can't produce a bunch of stuff that they're worthless. If nothing else, they provide an opportunity for other people to serve them. And that's important for the development of your soul and a lot of other things.”

This idea of serving others has made a lasting impression on Brad.

‘A perfect intercessor’

Other people who knew Fr. Stu say his influence in their lives has been more than inspirational – it’s been miraculous.

Allison Bell met Stu in 2010, when she decided to visit Big Sky Care Facility as a corporal work of mercy. They enjoyed each other’s company, and Allison ended up joining a small workout group led by Fr. Stu.

“You wouldn't think that a guy in a wheelchair would be able to put you through a very rigorous workout, right?” she laughed.

Allison was in decent shape and exercised regularly. But by the end of the first workout with Fr. Stu, she could barely move.

“You were up against the wall, doing wall sits and praying Hail Marys, while he's just tootling around the room in his electric wheelchair, and you're just like, ‘I'm going to die!’ But he didn't seem too worried about that. He always wanted you to be your best. He wasn't just going to take mediocrity.”

Over time, Allison became good friends with Stu. Her husband, Shannon, and their kids did too. They said the priest was fun to be around – and they also appreciated how he challenged them. He took the same intensity that he brought to workouts – even when he was leading them and not participating – and poured it into the spiritual life as well.

Fr. Stu was a great confessor, Allison told The Pillar, because he was compassionate, but he would also challenge you to do better. He didn’t have time for excuses.

Allison’s husband, Shannon, agreed.

“If he saw something that it would be good for you to change and fix, you just started to fix it right then and there. No beating around the bush, which I liked. He'd be like, ‘Okay, well, we're dealing with this, let's do this, this and this. And we're going to start right now.’… He was a tough guy. He was a fighter and I enjoyed that.”

The family was also struck by the way that Stu accepted the suffering in his life without complaining.

“He was super strong. A boxer, wrestler… And to see him where he was at, the fact that he had to come to terms with what God had allowed him to go through, which made him, in his own words, a better priest, a better man…It was a great example with what he was going through – losing all his physicality and having to be humbled to have people take care of him for everything,” said Shannon.

“For me, it was an absolutely wonderful example to see that there's a lot you could be complaining about, or you could be like Father. Just to see that struggle lived out was awesome.”

In 2013, Allison became pregnant with her eighth baby. She was ecstatic. But an ultrasound about halfway through the pregnancy showed numerous defects. Problems with the heart. Problems with the bowels. And no measurable amniotic fluid.

Without amniotic fluid, the baby’s lungs would not be able to develop. The doctors, the midwife, and the neonatologist all agreed – there was no chance that this baby would survive. If he managed to be born alive, he would slowly die within an hour or two afterward.

“It's just not going to happen. We've seen hundreds of these and they don't ever make it,” the doctors said.

Allison and her husband were crushed. But when she told Stu the news, he calmly told her, “It’s going to be fine.”

At first, Allison said, she was a little irritated by the response. She had lost a previous baby at the same stage in pregnancy, and with similar markers, making her experience all the more devastating.

“I was like, ‘What the heck do you know? You're a priest, you've never experienced this.’ Honestly, I was a little annoyed because he was so absolutely sure of how the pregnancy was going to go.”

Fr. Stu asked if he could anoint Allison’s stomach. He could no longer use his hands, so she had to help him place a stole around his neck and hold his hands in place for the blessing.

Allison didn’t know it, but at the time of every doctor’s appointment she had for the remainder of the pregnancy, Stu would gather a group of her friends and family to pray for the baby. And he remained confident that everything would be fine.

Then, at a follow-up ultrasound around 34 weeks, the doctors were amazed to discover amniotic fluid in Allison’s womb – just enough for the baby’s lungs to develop. What’s more – the heart defect was completely resolved. And the blockages in his bowels were gone.

The baby still had some cerebellar issues, but he was going to survive. When Allison told Stu, he was not surprised in the least.

“I asked him later…I'm like, ‘How did you believe when I didn't?’ Because literally, I was just kneeling down next to my bed at night, just praying for the pain to go away…And he was interceding for the life of my son. And he was like, ‘Because I believe in a God that’s so much greater than you or I and everything that he can do’,” Allison said.

“I found him amazing, inspiring, I guess, that despite what God hadn't done for him, as he had traveled to Lourdes etc., it didn't decrease his belief. I mean, his faith, it never wavered. He just bore his cross and still encouraged others in their belief.”

The Bells believe they experienced a miracle, through the intercession of Fr. Stu. And they’re not alone.

Montana Catholic Mary Emmons never met Fr. Stu. But she believes her family has also experienced a miracle through his prayers.

In 2018, her husband Chris was diagnosed with Grade IV glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer that has no cure. The prognosis was poor. With treatment, the doctors said, he would live for six months to a year.

Chris had surgery to remove the brain tumor. Then he underwent chemo and radiation. But about three months later, more tumors appeared.

“It was spreading even faster, I think, than we had anticipated,” Mary told The Pillar.

That’s when Fr. Bart, the priest at the Emmons’ parish, offered the couple a relic of Stu’s – a purificator that Stu had used at his last Mass. Fr. Bart prayed over Chris with the purificator and invited the couple to start praying for Stu’s intercession.

So they did. They prayed to Stu frequently. They visited the cemetery where he was buried and discussed the heavy cross he carried. They bought two matching key rings with little boxing gloves on them. They left one at Stu’s grave site and kept the other one.

“We felt he was a perfect intercessor for my husband because they had such similar personalities,” Mary explained. “I think that they were both fighters. They were both very funny and pranksters. They were both converts to the Catholic faith, also.”

Fr. Stu’s life was inspiring to Chris and helped him accept his own cross, Mary said.

“It certainly brought us closer to the faith and God.”

Two months later, Chris had another MRI. It was intended to show how much the tumors had grown. But they hadn’t grown – they had started to shrink.

And when he went back for a follow-up scan, the tumors were no longer visible at all.

Doctors had no explanation for what had happened. Glioblastoma tumors don’t just disappear. But Mary and Chris were confident that it was a miracle, obtained through Fr. Stu’s intercession.

“They disappeared, which is just miraculous. The treatment that he was on was supposed to hopefully slow down the growth because it's so rapid and aggressive, but his tumors completely disappeared,” Mary said.

For the next three years, he got to spend time with his family. He got to see two of his kids graduate high school and the other two graduate 8th grade.

He also kept working at his job as a supervisor at a local business.

“Once he finished everything he wanted to accomplish, he retired from his job,” Mary said.

“And that same month the tumor came back.”

Chris died September 12, 2021.

Mary said she believes a full cure was not part of God’s will for her family.

“But He gave us more time with Chris,” she said. “He lived almost three and a half years with glioblastoma, which is unheard of.”

Even though Chris died, Mary believes the three years they got to spend with him after his diagnosis were a miracle.

“That’s exactly what we prayed for, that he would be at peace, he would be able to accomplish everything he wanted to, and that, too, was just miraculous,” she said.

Chris had accepted the cross that he had been given, she said, but he was heartbroken at the thought of leaving his family so soon.

“He kept saying he wanted to make sure that we were okay, and we were in a good place before he left. He was able to accomplish everything he wanted to before he passed away,” she said. “It was miraculous. It was incredible. It was such a gift.”

‘Let things mature and see how the Lord works’

Mary Emmons thinks Chris received a miracle through Fr. Stu’s intercession. And she thinks Fr. Stu’s canonization cause could be opened some day.

In fact, several people who were close to Stu told The Pillar that they believe he is a saint. They think he suffered heroically up to the end of his life, and they believe they have seen graces in their own lives through his prayers.

Bishop Thomas said he thinks the opening of Stu’s sainthood cause is “a distinct possibility.”

“The kind of conversion that he underwent is unique. And it really does show the power of the Lord's work in ordinary people's lives,” he told The Pillar.

Still, he thinks it’s wise to “let things mature and see how the Lord works.”

Mark Wahlberg is also enthusiastic about the prospect of Fr. Stu being named a saint one day.

“Oh my gosh. That would be absolutely amazing. I know I would be there to support it and continue the campaign for him,” he told The Pillar.

“It'll be interesting to see what happens, but obviously I am a fan and I'm certainly doing everything I can for Stu,” Wahlberg said.

Opening a canonization cause requires, among other things, that a person have a widespread reputation of holiness that is “spontaneous and not artificially produced,” the Church says.

Fr. Bart said the “media swell” that comes with the release of a movie is not the best time to open a cause.

“In some ways I believe it will happen, but not right now,” he said.

“The saints are there and God has put them there to help us. And that's one thing that we kind of understand as Catholics, but we don't fully understand. And I think we're going to understand it in a deeper and more beautiful way in the days ahead, particularly with Stu,” the priest added.

Thinking that one of his best friends just might be a saint felt strange to Fr. Bart at first.

“Early on, I was asked to pray over people with things that were Stu's and to ask for Stu's intercession,” he said. “And that was a really kind of odd thing to do. It's one thing to hear about the saints and yeah, we'll ask for Saint-so-and-so's intercession. But Stu? You want me to ask Stu to pray for you?”

It was a weird transition, he said, and he struggled with it initially, until he started to see what he believes to be graces coming through Stu’s intercession.

On the third anniversary of Stu’s death, Fr. Bart celebrated Mass publicly with Stu’s old chalice for the first time.

“And people kept coming up saying, ‘I think I'm going to ask for Stu's intercession.’ And that was the first time I told them, ‘Yeah, you ask for Stu's intercession. I think that's good’.”

Before Stu died, Fr. Bart said, they’d had a conversation about heaven. Fr. Bart promised he would get people to pray for Stu, if Stu would promise to intercede for him and other people in the areas where they needed help.

“So I see Stu's intercession now, as he's kind of just keeping this promise he made. That's kind of God's economy and God's grace, that you’ve got people like Stu running around on the other side, doing things, which is pretty funny. Because as we go to heaven, we are certainly transformed, but our personalities aren't totally transformed. So I think I see a lot of Stu’s personality in some of these things, miraculous things that have happened through his intercession.”

One of the things that made Stu such a beloved figure, friends said, is that he was so human. Not only did he have checkered past, but even as a priest, he was imperfect. He was holy, but he was also human. In fact, a few of his friends said he could be a downright pain in the ass.

Stu was somewhat of a polarizing figure, Fr. Bart said, in part because he was so blunt. He made some people angry. But it was impossible to argue with him, because he was just so good at arguing that you could never win. And also because frankly, people feel bad arguing with a guy in a wheelchair.

“I think it's important for the world to know that, even in his urgency and his humility and his willingness to suffer greatly in order to bring the Lord to the world, he still made mistakes,” said Theresa. “He still wasn't perfect.”

Stu recognized his imperfections, and he was always ready to apologize and try to do better the next time, she said.

“I think that is something that I took away from it too…God is calling us to perfection, but the understanding is, none of us are perfect in this life. So just do better tomorrow, just keep doing better and asking our Lord for help in doing that. And he did that just as well as any human being I probably have known. And that's why I think people think of him as being a saint because he did it so well.”

‘He is laughing his butt off right now’

When Amy hears people talking about sainthood and miracles in connection with her brother, she can’t help but laugh.

“I think it's amazing, and I think it's hysterical. All I can think of is the stuff he used to do as a kid and I'm like, ‘Oh my gosh!’” she said.

“Same thing with the movie… Mark Wahlberg is playing my brother and Mel Gibson's playing my dad. Mel Gibson was one of his favorite actors. It's hysterical. It makes me just laugh out loud every time I think about it. Oh my gosh! His sense of humor was always first and foremost, all the way to the end,” she said.

“Everyone was saying, ‘He failed in Hollywood.’ And I'm like, ‘No. He didn't. Look, there's a major motion picture coming out with his name as the title. He is laughing his butt off right now.’ He didn't fail. He's been very successful.”

Asked what he thought about his son’s life being turned into a movie with Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson, Bill also laughed.

“I'm sorry, I just think the whole thing is funny as heck,” he said. “Well there's nothing about it that's not funny. If somebody had said something like this, 15 years ago, that this was going to go on, you'd wonder what in the world they were smoking.”

Ultimately, Amy said, it’s the Catholic faith that transformed Stu into the man he ended up being.

Amy was proud of Stu when he got ordained. But it wasn’t until Stu’s illness progressed that she realized how profoundly and completely his faith had changed his life. He came to realize – in a very intense way – that there is truly power in suffering.

“I remember thinking to myself – and I know this for a fact – finding his faith and finding the Lord saved his life,” Amy said.

“Because the Stu I knew growing up [was] very physically strong and proud. The disease would've killed his spirit. It would've killed his spirit if he hadn't found God. I know that, for a fact. There's no doubt.”

Comments

Latest