Fr. Stuart Long
Fr. Stuart Long
Father David Brown thinks his jovial class (’07) at Mount Angel seminary must have left some of the Benedictine monks there praying for patience.

“We were laughing all the time,” remembers Father Brown, pastor of St. Paul Parish in Eugene. “Stu and Jeff were part of the reason.”

He’s referring to Father Jeff Meeuwsen, pastor St. Elisabeth Ann Seton in Aloha, and Father Stuart Long, the subject of the new Sony Pictures film “Father Stu.”

The film, which opens April 12, Holy Wednesday, is a rarity: a first-rate Hollywood film telling the inspirational, even evangelical story of a Catholic priest in a positive light.

There are few human dramas more compelling than redemption. Perhaps we are equally moved by stories of fighting through suffering to embody grace under impossible odds.

“Father Stu” includes both those themes.

And it’s based on a true story.

"Father's Stu's journey from troublemaker to clergyman was inspiring to many, including me," Mark Wahlberg said in a statement after Sony Pictures acquired the rights to the film, which Wahlberg had self-funded.

The Catholic actor, who plays Father Stu, had some ugly scrapes that landed him in trouble as a teenager. He said his parish priest, Father Jim Flavin of the Archdiocese of Boston, was there for him as a teen, when he went to court, when he was incarcerated and when he came home.

Wahlberg has spoken out about how Father Stu’s story might help troubled souls.

Abbot Peter Eberle, who was for a time Father Stu’s formation director, was surprised to hear a movie was being made about Father Stu. But he believes the Mount Angel graduate’s story is an inspirational one for priests as well as lay people. “Stu was really determined to get ordained and to minister to the people of western Montana for as long as he could,” he wrote in an email. “I think he is an inspiration for all of us.”

Wahlberg first heard about Father Stu from a couple of priests he was sharing dinner with six years ago.

In an interview with EWTN, he said he’d prayed about it when he couldn’t find a funder or even a script he liked. “I asked for Stu’s intercession,” Wahlberg said.

He soon had a script and had decided to fund the movie himself, breaking “the cardinal rule” of never putting your own money into a film.

Wahlberg has consistently described the project as one of faith and mission for him. “Is this something that I identify with more than anything else? Absolutely,” Wahlberg told EWTN.

“Sickness, all of those things, are inevitable,” Wahlberg said in that EWTN interview. “We’re going to face those — but how you face those things and how Stu is able to embrace those things. And as his physicality started to deteriorate, his spirituality just soared.”

“He was a joy-filled man in his suffering,” remembered Father Meeuwsen.

Oregon Catholics may be disappointed that no part of the film was shot at Mount Angel Seminary, where Father Stuart Long earned his master’s degree in divinity. Perhaps a spirit of forgiveness should guide us here — the film was shot in 30 days, with Wahlberg gaining 30 pounds during that month in order to portray Father Stu’s physical decline.

A number of details were omitted in order to tell Father Stu’s story in the two-hour film — although it doesn’t stint in showing the rowdy side of the priest’s personal history. Abbot Peter described him as a seminarian “who was a diamond in the rough, and at times the ‘rough’ was more apparent than the diamond.”

Father Brown thinks Wahlberg’s good looks would have amused his old classmate. “Stu was a boxer and he looked like it — he had a rough-looking face. He would laugh that Mark Wahlberg is playing him.”

That said, Father Brown is thrilled that “Father Stu” is about to open. “It shows a real human being and his conversion to faith,” he said. “Stu led a wild life. He was a hard-drinking partier. To walk away from that life, it’s a beautiful thing. It will inspire people. And it shows priests in a great, positive light.”

Stuart Long was born in Seattle in 1963. Although he wasn’t Catholic he attended and played football for Carroll College in Montana. He was introduced to boxing there.

Long won the Montana Golden Gloves boxing championship in 1985, but recurring jaw injuries he sustained in the ring began getting infected and he was warned to quit boxing.

He moved to Los Angeles to become an actor — and fell in love with a Catholic woman. Long agreed to join the church for her. While the film doesn’t show this, the real Father Stu said that he seemed to hear a voice at his baptism, urging him to become a priest. Father Stu said parish priest reassured him that many single adult men being baptized think they hear that message, and not to worry, that it usually goes away after a few days.

Then a motorcycle accident left Long near death. This time he listened to God’s voice. He convinced the church to accept him as a seminarian, despite his unimpressive credentials.

“Stu was what we call a late vocation,” said Father Brown. “He’d lived a life and paid the rent working jobs he didn’t like. That’s different from priests who don’t know what it’s like to be a paycheck away from homelessness. It made him more compassionate to people who are struggling.”

It was while he was at Mount Angel, 2004-07, that he was diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, a rare and fatal condition that destroys muscle function.

“He was vulnerable and sharing about his disease,” said Father Meeuwsen.

The two talked about comic books. “He gave me some of the best ones, which were always about redemption,” said Father Meeuwsen. “Batman and Superman were his favorites.”

Father Brown said that Father Stu was fun to be around, a guy who dependably came up with hilarious one-liners. “He made our class,” Father Brown said.

Father Brown recalled that it was in their year as a transitional deacon that Father Stu became ill. “I don’t think we understood the extent of his illness,” the Eugene priest said.

By the time Father Stu left the seminary he was on crutches and was in a wheelchair soon after.

He lived the last years of his life at the Big Sky Care Center in Helena. Lines formed as people waited their turn for him to hear their confessions, as he lay on his back. He died at age 50 in 2014.

“I understand he heard a lot of confessions,” said Father Brown. “That’s where a person’s faith life may be in crisis and we can give them hope. It’s a beautiful sacrament.

“Stu was limited in what he could do. Maybe God wanted him to focus on reconciliation.”