Local Religious life

‘He was a phenomenal man’

Father Neal Stull’s ministry was short but full of love

by Joe Bollig

EASTON — A vocation to the priesthood came relatively late for Father Neal Stull, SOLT, at age 45. And his ministry lasted only seven years.

Nevertheless, Father Neal served Christ and the people of God with passion, commitment, and empathy before he died of cancer on Sept. 17 in Eldora, Iowa.

Mike Ralston, now of Nevada, Iowa, was a boyhood friend of Father Neal in Grundy Center, Iowa. He described his friend’s piety as “average.”

“Certainly if someone had said, ‘Pick out the fella in this room who is going to be a priest,’ I probably wouldn’t have picked out Father Neal,” he said.

“But he certainly had a faith,” he added.

After the future priest received his degree in communications, he began working in radio. He moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he became a member of the cathedral parish. There, his faith blossomed and his vocation emerged.

“I’ll never forget the call he made to me and said, ‘I wanted you to know that I’m getting married,’” said Ralston. “And I said, ‘Neal, you’re kidding me. You were just talking about becoming a priest.’ And he said, ‘I’m going to get married to the church.’”

Even though he had left Grundy Center, the people joyfully welcomed him when he returned.

“When he came back to celebrate Mass at Sacred Heart after he was ordained, it was a big deal,” said Ralston. “The only priest to come out of Sacred Heart Parish was my great-uncle . . . during the 1920s.”

Father Neal was first assigned to work in Houston at St. Monica Parish, which was predominately AfricanAmerican. It was during his time there that he was diagnosed with cancer. It seemed to go into remission after treatment, but his superiors decided to reduce his workload by sending him to a smaller parish.

Father Neal loved his parish in Houston and was reluctant to leave. But after arriving in Kansas in July 2007, it wasn’t long before he fell in love with his new parish.

“He was a phenomenal man,” said Dawn Dean, a member of St. Lawrence in Easton and St. Joseph of the Valley in rural Leavenworth.

“He reached out to everyone, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. He’d go to the high school, middle school, and elementary school games,” she continued. “There is only one other church in our town, and when they had a fundraiser, he’d go.”

Father Neal had a heart for working with the youth and people who were drifting away from the church.

“He was a caring person, and he displayed God through his humanity,” said Tim Herken, also of St. Lawrence and St. Joseph. “He was very interested in the youth of our parishes. He was easy to talk with.”

“It was a big goal of his to find lost parishioners and bring them home,” Herken continued. “He made it a point to search them out. He was approachable. People were just naturally attracted to him.”

But the cancer that he had fought successfully before returned in full force. It became apparent, after he brought the youth group back from a major event, that his illness had taken a very serious turn. He returned to Chicago for treatment, never to return.

“In one of my last conversations with him, he really hoped that he made a difference with young people, and I know that he had,” said Shelley Stull Webb, one of his sisters. “He was really passionate about that. Any youth group member would say he made a difference.”

Father Neal endured his illness with dignity and hope, even after it was clear the outcome would be terminal.

Just days before his death, Father Neal was thrilled to receive a phone call from Billy Williams, a former outfielder with the Cubs and 1987 Baseball Hall of Fame member.

“He absolutely loved sports, particularly baseball. He loved the Chicago Cubs and knew everything about them,” said Webb. “He could quote certain player’s statistics, the positions and teams they played.”

At the end, Father Neal had only had one regret: that his illness prevented him from doing more.

“He was really at peace,” said Father Dennis Dolter, SOLT, now in Bosque, N.M.

“He said he had only been a priest for seven years, and there was so much more he wanted to do than he had done.” “He said, ‘Whatever is the will of God,’” continued Father Dennis. “‘If he wants to heal me and wants me to stay, then fine. But if he wants me to come home, that’s fine.’

“And he was sincere. He was a tremendous witness to people of how to handle death with dignity and peace.”

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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