A few months before Stuart Long was ordained and officially became Father Stu in 2007, he made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, where he was convinced he’d be healed by its “miraculous” waters.
Long was suffering from inclusion body myositis, an incurable, progressive muscle disorder that presents symptoms similar to ALS, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis.
“He was using crutches at that point. They put him in the water and he thought he would walk right out. That’s how much faith he had,” his friend, Father Bart Tolleson, told The Post. “He took one step forward and fell in the water. This was a moment of complete abandonment by God. He was angry and despondent.”
But after being coaxed by a travel companion, he bathed once more in the waters where many have claimed to be healed ever since the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared there in the 19th century. While he was not physically rehabilitated, he did emerge with an overwhelming sense of peace — and renewed conviction in his faith. “He wrote about it personally. He said, ‘I know this disease is going to claim my life. And I also know it will be for God’s glory,’ ” said Tolleson.
Long didn’t like to give up. A former rough-and-tumble boxer and failed actor, his remarkable calling has echoes of a saint’s backstory. Now, his unlikely journey to the priesthood — in his youth, Long was known to curse and get into street fights — is the subject of the new Mark Wahlberg movie “Father Stu,” which premieres Wednesday in theaters.
As Long’s health deteriorated, his spirituality grew. On December 14, 2007, the Catholic convert was ordained and became a diocesan priest in his native Helena, Montana, where he inspired countless parishioners and fellow clergy as he continued to say mass while losing the use of his limbs.
“Every time I went to his mass, I cried. Tears would pour out. People described it as they could see his suffering and he was close to God,” Long’s sister Amy Trisdale told The Post. “I am not Catholic, but there was something to that.”
‘Larger than life’
The new film, which also stars Mel Gibson as Long’s father Bill, took over six years to make and was largely financed by Wahlberg, who gained 30 pounds for the role. The Boston native, 50, learned of Long and his unlikely path to the priesthood while dining in Beverly Hills with the priest’s friend, Father Ed Benioff.
“At first, Wahlberg was rolling his eyes, like ‘even my priest is pitching me,’” said Tolleson.
However, the devout Catholic actor was intrigued. In 2017, he scheduled a meeting with Long’s father, Bill Long, and Trisdale, who initially thought it was “f–king hysterical” that a Hollywood superstar wanted to make a movie about her brother.
“Stu was always larger than life but that was just him. He was tough, funny and super intelligent. He taught me how to protect myself. He taught me how to swear.”
As Trisdale spoke to the actor, she noticed parallels between the two.
“Mark is down to earth and doesn’t put on any airs. That was totally Stu. He never judged anyone by their station in life. They both had confidence and great smiles. And their pasts — both have interesting pasts,” said Trisdale. (Her brother was busted for a DWI in college while Wahlberg was a wayward youth with numerous arrests for violent crimes.)
Born and raised in Helena, Long did not grow up Catholic or religious, but he was devoted to sports, including wrestling and football (he rooted for the Cowboys and later the Bills). The athletic Long attended Carroll College, a Catholic institution where he played football for two years and met Father Jeremiah Sullivan, who taught him to box. But other than his relationship with Sullivan, “he thought Catholicism was a joke,” said Tolleson. In 1985, he won the Golden Gloves heavyweight title in Montana but he quit after an invasive jaw surgery.
He then moved out to Los Angeles to pursue acting.
“He was going out there to be a movie star. Stu loved movies. We used to watch and quote ‘Rocky.’ He was a big Mel Gibson fan. And every time you went to his house in California, ‘Dumb and Dumber’ was on,” said Trisdale.
But he got little traction, landing mostly work as an extra while toiling as a bouncer at night. He left the business and started managing the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. He also began dating a woman named Cindy who was Catholic. But it was a terrible motorcycle accident that “opened his heart to becoming a Catholic,” said Tolleson.
“He could see himself out of his body over the LA freeway. He knew he was spared.”
A true calling
Encouraged by Cindy, Long joined RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). After he was baptized, the course of his life would change.
“According to Stu, he didn’t hear a voice but he knew he was going to be a priest,” said Tolleson.
Still, Long fought his calling. Though he ultimately ended his serious relationship with Cindy, he continued to date. “Finally, one girl got really mad at him and said, ‘You want to date me but you are talking about becoming a priest. Why don’t you do it?’ ” said Tolleson.
Long taught at a Catholic school for a few years but after hearing a Franciscan friar speak, he sold his belongings and moved to New York City to study with them. He earned his master’s degree in philosophy in Steubenville, Ohio, and entered into the seminary in Oregon.
While preparing for his vocation, he had a benign tumor removed from his hip and later started to experience episodes where he described his energy rolling out of his body.
In the beginning of 2007, Long was officially diagnosed with inclusion body myositis. As his disease progressed, he never lost his sense of humor, his will to debate or his zest for physical fitness. Though confined to a wheelchair, he led intense group exercise classes at a local Helena gym.
“Here is this guy, dressed as a priest in a wheelchair, screaming at this group of mainly women, having them do all kinds of squats and crawls. He had them tossing medicine balls back and forth. Then he had them doing medicine ball dodge ball and someone put a big hole in the wall. The gym owners weren’t happy. Stu had to talk them down from kicking them out,” said Tolleson.
Despite losing the use of his limbs, he continued to say mass, even while living in a nursing home. To ensure he could perform all parts of the services and administer sacraments, Long had a group of laymen who moved his arms and hands for him.
He died in 2014 at age 50.
Tolleson said watching his friend’s humor, faith and tenacity was profound — and worthy of the big screen.
“Everyone has their Stu story to tell and some of them are just amazing. It was like the church hadn’t seen anything like this guy coming,” said Tolleson. “He was trying to open hearts. I hope this movie can do that as well. This was a real person and a real story. A lot of people changed for the better because of Stu.”