We invite readers to send short stories about the ways in which their lives have been personally blessed by the life and work of priests and religious in our diocese.
By Karina Fabian
Father Bart Tolleson said that having been born in St. Paul’s Catholic Hospital in Dallas, Texas, should have been a sign toward his eventual conversion.
As he was growing up, however, he took great joy in the Protestant faith he learned from his parents and the private school he attended. Upon attending Wheaton College, however, the wide variety of Protestant Christian beliefs began to eat away at that faith. “I became somewhat disillusioned and began to question deeply the faith of my childhood,” he said. Those seeds of discontent would eventually bear fruit in the Catholic faith.
Upon graduation, he went to New York City to study film and television – and to encounter the best and worst in humanity. Among the best were a Catholic friend and his wife. “I was very impressed with how they handled the trials and tribulations of the Big Apple,” he said.
His next step in education and in his faith came when he moved to Virginia Beach, Va., to get a Ph.D. in communication. “One of my professors was a devout Catholic, and he could see that I had a lot of questions that my weakened Protestant faith could not answer. I began to attend Mass and study theology and the saints. After a long period of prayer and rediscovering the lost spiritual joy of my youth, I entered RCIA and became Catholic,” he said.
Nonetheless, when people suggested he might have a vocation in the priesthood, he denied it.
Father Bart said, “But my ‘No’ to vocation was not what the Lord had in mind. After a period of time I began to truly discern.”
As he grew to embrace his calling, he began to consider direction. He thought seriously about becoming a Discalced Carmelite, but found he was pulled toward diocesan life. He returned to his hometown of Dallas, and the diocese sent him to St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston.
He fell in love with Montana and its people after visits to his sister here, and eventually his spiritual director suggested he explore the possibilities in Helena. “Bishop Thomas was of great help and encouragement in my move to Montana and after receiving permission from my bishop back in Dallas, I was able to make the transfer to the Diocese of Helena.”
He finished seminary in Houston through distance learning and occasional trips back to Texas, while studying in Helena under the direction of Father Thomas O’Donnell. “Father O’Donnell is a wonderful mentor and a great model of priesthood,” he said.
On Dec. 14, 2007, he was ordained and spent his first six months serving in East Helena at SS. Cyril and Methodius Parish while Father O’Donnell recovered from a long-term illness. He now serves with Msgr. Kevin O’Neill, V.G., at the Cathedral of St. Helena. For recreation he likes to go to movies and spend time in Missoula with his sister, her husband and his “four little heroes”: three nephews and a niece.
“Montana and Texas both have a frontier spirit. I think that’s why I enjoy the Diocese of Helena so much. My prayer is that I could be part of a priestly ministry that sees renewed and energized frontiers of Catholic faith and devotion in our diocese and in our people. That hope makes all the sacrifices of the priesthood worthwhile each and every day,” he said.
Published in The Montana Catholic, Vol. 24, No. 11, November 21, 2008.