Fr. Bart Tolleson: In January 2020, I stumbled across some old emails Stu had sent me while we were in seminary formation. My first thought was these are “really good.” I also knew I was just starting to forget a little. Forget some of those great stories and beautiful memories, and I wanted to get them written down. I prayed about it, and I asked Bill Long if he expected a movie would be made. At the time, he thought there had be no movement and so he didn’t really think a film was going to happen before the (Hollywood) option on his life story expired in the next year.
So, I set out, consulted a bunch of his friends and finished the first draft in June 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic. I let a few people look at it and put it on the shelf so to speak. In March 2021, when they announced the film, some of those friends strongly encouraged me to do another draft because of the interest the film would generate. I was able to connect with Mindy Finden (who didn’t know Stu) and she really helped me to organize Stu’s crazy story in a much better way. When the film was released in 2022, I had a meeting with Ignatius Press and they expressed interest in publishing the book. We spent about a year together really streamlining things. Ignatius set a Fall 2023 release date for That Was Father Stu.
Fr. Stu was a very dear friend of yours. Was it painful to delve back into these stories of your time with him?
Fr. Tolleson: That’s a good question. It’s kind of like a two-edged sword. First, I really miss Stu. He was a good friend and a great support. When he was gone, there was a big gap in my priestly and personal life. I won’t deny there was sadness. I missed him as a loyal friend and an older priestly brother. I also really missed his comedic views on life. I missed being to laugh with him.
But I have come to understand that Stu is still my friend and he is working for the Lord on the other side. He’s subtly (and a few times in my dreams not so subtly) been there as I’ve walked with others through a lot of tragedies and hardships. He reminds me that God has a wonderful purpose for my life here and for the mess this world is in. Even if there are failures, uncertainties, and setbacks… God still had a grand plan for all his saints.
Why is Fr. Stu’s story beneficial for others to hear?
Fr. Tolleson: There are so many reasons. Father Stu liked to make people laugh, so his story is really a grand comedy. Stu failed in so many ways with his life: his fighting career, his attempt to be an actor, his attempt to get married, his attempt to join a religious order, his aim to have a strong body and a healthy life. But what he did not fail at was being a priest of Jesus Christ. That he got right, but it cost him everything that pride held in him.
He was one of the most unlikely people to be a priest and he was one of the best I have ever known. So to anybody I would say, “You don’t think God can make straight with crooked lines? You think the lines of your life are just too crooked because you messed too many things up, or you are too wounded, or you have too much pain? Look at Father Stuart Long and tell me that God cannot work miracles in our souls and get us to where we need to be.” Fundamentally, Stu’s story is one of hope, and boy does the world need a lot more of it right now.
Do you think the recent film did him justice?
Fr. Tolleson: That’s something that both Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson promised me and the Long family. And I think they fully delivered. But doing him justice was not a promise to do a literal docudrama. Rosie did a masterful job of taking a lot of discombobulated facts about Stu and organizing them into a funny and powerful journey on screen. But along the way in the script… events were created, characters were removed, and many of the facts needed to be skipped over.
But it still got all the essentially beats of his life, conversion, and his personality right. There was a huge controversy over the language of the film (which didn’t surprise me given’s Stu’s prosperity to create controversy in this life) and I was kind of on both sides of it. There are now two versions of the film, so I hope many adults will be able to view it if they haven’t already. The film does leave out most of Stu’s priesthood, so I am thankful that the book can carry his amazing story forward in that way….
From interview published in Catholic World Report