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Betsy Kerekes reviews a potentially life-changing biography by Father Bart Tolleson.


I first learned of Stuart Long from his two best friends, my coworkers, Rob Moscato and Ed Benioff. Rob and Ed, mentioned several times and pictured in the book, That Was Father Stu: A Memoir of My Priestly Brother and Friend by Father Bart Tolleson, tried to get Stu to join them at the Catholic school where we worked, but Stu joined the seminary instead.  




I almost got to meet the man who became Fr. Stu.  

You may have heard of or seen the 2022 movie, Fr. Stu, starring Mark Wahlburg. That came about thanks to Ed who, years later, became Father Ed Benioff, pastor of Wahlburg’s parish. Wahlburg was inspired when Father Ed told him about Stu Long, the boxer, bouncer, and atheist, who had a radical conversion and became a priest, then died several years later from a debilitating disease.  

I enjoyed Fr. Stu the movie, though the language is rough, especially in the pre-conversion first half. There is also, however, an expletive-free version, Fr. Stu: Reborn, fyi. 

But, as is often the case, the book is better than the movie.  

That Was Father Stu is an impressive conversion story of a man who was most definitely rough around the edges, but God used him to change souls, beginning with his own.  

Stu admitted he struggled with pride. He was used to being the biggest and strongest, able to dominate in any fight, but not the one against his own body. He was diagnosed, at an age far younger than usual, with a rare autoimmune disease that attacked his muscles to the point that his body shut down. 

As one might expect, Stu was not pleased with this diagnosis. Yet, later on, when he was stripped of his dignity and the ability to do anything for himself, he called his disease the best thing that ever happened to him. 

The transformation was profound. Of his illness he said, “We don’t get to choose what happens, only how we respond to it.” He offered his sufferings for many, and his biographer and friend, Fr. Tolleson, witnessed the effects of this. 

Word spread that Father Stu was zealous to bring as many souls closer to God as he could with the time he had left. He became a renowned spiritual advisor. Long lines to see him for Confession and guidance formed daily. 

Fr. Bart hypothesizes that Fr. Stu may have been able to read souls much like Saint Pius of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) did. Father Stu accepted no excuses when he heard confessions, and his penances were on the harsh side. Yet people loved him for it.  

“He was simultaneously a drill sergeant and a healer of souls,” Father Tolleson noted. 

This book is ultimately about one of the secret weapons of our Catholic faith: redemptive suffering. If only more people knew of the power of offering our struggles for God’s greater glory. What a change in perspective that makes. If only we, like so many great saints before us, could learn to not only embrace suffering, but learn to love it. 

Father Bart noted:

Our primary purpose on earth is to prepare for eternal life, not to be spared suffering in this one. In fact, it is often the case that suffering is our best preparation for the next life.  


Few of us will suffer the way Father Stu did, but we can hope to accept our crosses as heroically as he did. Anyone feeling overwhelmed with life should reach for this book and learn from Fr. Stu’s example.  

Buy it, read it, pray about who else you know who needs to read it (hint: everyone), and gift them a copy. It’s inspirational and encouraging for anyone struggling in their faith or with the trials life sends their way.  

Ask for That Was Father Stu at your local Catholic bookseller, or order online from Ignatius Press or at Amazon.com. 



Copyright 2024 Betsy Kerekes
Images: Canva