Father Stu honored as Catholic award finalist after Mark Wahlberg movie

Father Stu Fr. Stuart Long | Mark Wahlberg as Fr. Stu | Diocese of Helena | Sony Pictures

Father Stuart Long — the late Catholic priest recently featured in a film starring actor Mark Wahlberg — is one of seven finalists for a prestigious Catholic award called the Lumen Christi Award

The Montana boxer-turned-priest known for his dramatic conversion is the only finalist not alive today. A press release announcing the finalists called Father Stu’s impact “legendary.”

While Father Stu was diagnosed with a debilitating terminal illness around the time of his ordination in 2007, the release said, it never deterred him from his ministry as a priest — even while in a wheelchair.

The Lumen Christi Award, presented by the papal society Catholic Extension, honors “people who radiate and reveal the light of Christ present in the communities they serve.” Founded in 1905, the Chicago-based nonprofit says that it “works in solidarity with people in America’s poorest regions to build up vibrant and transformative Catholic faith communities.”

The release emphasized the priest’s impact even after his death.

“Since his passing, numerous stories of his impact have come out — including marriages healed, wayward lives transformed and young people considering vocations,” the release read. “His amazing story is now being shared nationwide through the biographical film, ‘Father Stu.’”

Released in theaters earlier this year, the movie starring Wahlberg delves into the story of the priest who died of a rare progressive muscle disorder in 2014 at the age of 50. 

Father Stu had a late vocation to the priesthood. Before his ordination, he pursued careers in boxing, acting, teaching, and even museum management. He was also known for his no-nonsense and, at times, rough demeanor. 

While he grew up in an agnostic family, two factors drew him to Catholicism: his Catholic girlfriend and a near-fatal motorcycle accident. He decided to enter the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and, at the moment of his baptism, he felt called to become a priest.

Father Stu, who found out about his disease near the end of his seminary formation, said at his ordination that he embraced his cross, according to Catholic Extension.

“I stand before you as a broken man,” he said. “Barring a miracle, I’m going to die from this disease, but I carry it for the cross of Christ, and we can all carry our crosses.”

Stories about his witness live on after his death. During his last Mass at Carroll College, in the Diocese of Helena, altar servers lifted Father Stu’s arms to present the host because he could no longer do so on his own, Catholic Extension remembered. One of those servers recently entered the priesthood. 

When Father Stu moved to a nursing home, in 2010, he continued to celebrate Mass, hear confessions, and minister to people in need. Three employees working there converted, according to Catholic Extension.

Another story told by Catholic Extension recalls the time when Father Stu prayed over a woman who was told her unborn child would die. When she gave birth to a healthy baby, everyone was surprised — except Father Stu, who became the child’s godfather.

Joe Boland, the vice president of missions at Catholic Extension, called Father Stu a “unique posthumous nomination.”

“Any current and future award money will benefit Catholic ministries and programs in Montana that Fr. Stu was a part of and continue today,” Boland told CNA, such as support for seminarian education or support for the poor and families.

The six other finalists for the award are Gregory Crapo, the director of de l’Epee Deaf Center in Biloxi, Mississippi; Father Simon Peter Engurait and Karen David in Louisiana, who led relief efforts after Hurricane Ida in 2021; Sister Mary Lisa Renfer in Tennessee, whose mobile clinic ministers to low-income patients; Francis Leblanc in Louisiana, who helps young Black Catholics celebrate their faith and ministers through music; Deacon Casey Walker in California, who works to encourage dialogue in the Church; and Jean Fedigan, who founded Sister José Women’s Center, which ministers to homeless and trafficked women.

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For the 45th annual Lumen Christi Award, “Extension dioceses” — U.S. Catholic dioceses that are isolated or financially under-resourced and receive funding from Catholic Extension — submitted 40 nominations for consideration. 

Several of the award finalists have a personal connection to Catholic Extension, including Father Stu, who was nominated by the diocese of Helena, Montana. His education as a seminarian was supported by the Catholic non-profit and he also served at two parishes supported by Catholic Extension.

The seven award finalists will receive $10,000 to support and enhance their ministries, according to Catholic Extension. One of them will be selected as the Lumen Christi Award recipient and receive a $25,000 grant, along with an additional $25,000 grant for the nominating diocese. 

The 2022-2023 award recipient will be announced in September, in the next edition of Extension magazine.

“All finalists would be worthy recipients, which is why each is rewarded with $10,000 to support their ministries,” Boland told CNA. 

“Recipients are bearers of the light of Christi in their communities, as well as ignite the light of Christ in the hearts of others around them,” he concluded, “and finally they help show others where the light of Christ has always been present in their midst, even in the most challenging places and circumstances of life.”

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