Is the ‘Father Stu’ Movie Based on a True Story? 9 Things to Know About the Real Father Stuart Long

A strong devotion to St. Joan of Arc, atypical penances offered in the confessional, practical jokes and wheelchair antics — friend Father Bart Tolleson shares some insightful facts about the real Father Stu.

Clockwise: Father Stuart Long was ordained a priest Dec. 14, 2007, at the Cathedral of St. Helena in Helena, Mont. Father Stu stands just behind Father Bart Tolleson, ordained with him. Father Tolleson spoke with the Register's Alyssa Murphy April 4, 2022 in Helena. Father Bart Tolleson poses with Father Stuart Long. A close-up picture of Father Stuart Long's beloved chalice.
Clockwise: Father Stuart Long was ordained a priest Dec. 14, 2007, at the Cathedral of St. Helena in Helena, Mont. Father Stu stands just behind Father Bart Tolleson, ordained with him. Father Tolleson spoke with the Register's Alyssa Murphy April 4, 2022 in Helena. Father Bart Tolleson poses with Father Stuart Long. A close-up picture of Father Stuart Long's beloved chalice. (photo: Courtesy photos / Father Bart Tolleson/Sony)

Father Stuart Long was a real priest who served countless Catholics across Montana before succumbing to a fatal disease that almost kept him from the priesthood. 

Traveling to Helena, the diocese where Father Stu served as a priest to attend the premiere of the movie offered a great opportunity to not only meet the actors and producers of the film, but also Father Bart Tolleson, a close friend of Father Stu’s who was ordained alongside him. Having such an intimate knowledge of his life, he also worked closely with the movie crew including producer and actor Mark Wahlberg and screenwriter Rosalind Ross to achieve an authenticity to the real life of this unlikely priest. 

Speaking to the Register April 5 in Helena on the campus of Carroll College where Stuart Long had attended, Father Tolleson shared many insights and stories of this man who, despite the odds stacked against him, became a passionate priest and friend to so many. 

Here are 9 things to know about the real Father Stuart Long (that did not make the movie!): 

1. His reverence for the Body and Blood of Christ was awe-inspiring. With the debilitating disease Father Stu suffered from, he lost most of his mobility. But as Father Bart revealed, the one area where he still had strength was his torso. In order for Father Stu to lift the chalice over his head while being confined to a wheelchair and not being able to lift above him, he would turn sideways in his chair and use whatever strength he had to lift the chalice as high as he could, so the Precious Blood was above him. 

2. Father Stu was a funny guy, always ready with a practical joke. Father Bart learned this fact firsthand before he even met him (see video below). He also used humor as a way to persevere through hope. After Father Stu’s mother fell ill to a terminal disease shortly after his own diagnosis, they both would joke about who “was going first.” 

3. After Father Stu’s diagnosis, he traveled to Lourdes on pilgrimage. He had every hope in his heart that he would be cured from his illness once he waded in the waters at the beloved Marian shrine. After he sat in the bath for awhile, he stood up thinking he would just walk out, but instead he fell back. It was then, Father Bart said, that Stu lost all hope. “And he just despaired in that moment,” Father Bart told the Register. “He lost all hope. He thought he had been abandoned by God. He was angry. He was depressed.” However, his friends on the trip talked him into giving his time at the shrine dedicated to Our Lady a second chance. He reluctantly agreed and went again to the baths the next day. After sitting in the water for awhile again, Stu went to stand, to only have the same experience — falling back. But it was during this second time that Father Stu says a serene peace entered his heart. And he knew this was the cross he was meant to carry. 

4. It was at Big Sky Care Center that so many people came seeking confession. But confession with Father Stu wasn’t an average experience for most. Typical penances that Father Stu would give might include something physical, like 20 burpees — along with a number of Hail Marys. One woman struggling with anger was told by Father Stu to buy a punching bag. She said, in the end, he always knew exactly how to help, and she was always encouraged after leaving the confessional, in spite of anything new on her shopping list. 

5. A near-death experience changed his life and prompted his vocational path. Almost dying spurred the desire in Stuart’s heart to become Catholic — but it was the moment the baptismal waters washed over his head that he knew he was meant to be a priest. 

6. After being confined to a wheelchair the last couple years of his life, Father Stu took advantage of the new transportation. He even visited the local burger drive-through in his chair, waiting in line to order. Then, once he arrived at the window to pay, he would have to explain to the employee that she would need to come out and get the money out of his pocket, since he was unable to reach it. Then, food procured, he would happily speed back to the Big Sky Care Center to enjoy his meal. 

7. Wheelchair antics continued at Big Sky. Father Bart said a type of wheelchair jousting would take place. He recalled to the Register that he arrived one day to hear some screams and hollering. He walked down the hall and turned the corner to see Father Stu in his wheelchair at the end of one hallway and another guy in a wheelchair at the opposite end — and they both started barreling toward each other, ultimately crashing! Apparently it was all in good jest, of course with the intention of knocking the other guy OUT of his chair. Father Bart was baffled that there were never any leg injuries!

8. Father Stu had a special love and devotion to St. Joan of Arc. While visiting Notre Dame in Paris, he was telling some visitors about the French saint. After he stopped talking, he imagined the heroic saint burning on the stake as she said, “Lift high the cross so I can see it through the flames.” It was during this contemplation about her saintly courage and suffering that led him to believe if she could endure so much for Our Lord, he could too.

9. Father Stu had a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother. Although the movie does portray his Marian devotion, with scenes of actor Mark Wahlberg praying the Rosary and giving a statue prominent placement in the film, it was even deeper in real life. As Father Bart told the Register: "He loved the Blessed Mother. And he believed in the Blessed Mother. And he believed in the saints until the end. Even the last day before he died, people were in his room praying the Rosary, and he was moving his mouth along with them to pray with them."

The world is a far better place having met Father Stuart Long through this heartrending film and so many eager to share their own stories of this beloved man. May we all pray for the same mercy and grace. 


VIEWER CAVEAT

The movie currently in theaters is rated R, for language throughout, so viewer discretion is advised.

Alyssa Murphy reported on location in Helena, Montana, at the movie’s premiere.

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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