Farm boy from St. Nicholas handed a medical ‘death sentence,’ then unlikely cure during ordination
Farming was in his blood at a young age. He was one of four boys, the fifth of 10 children, living on the family farm near St. Nicholas, in rural Stearns County. He didn’t mind the long days or endless chores, and fondly recalls feeling exhausted, yet fulfilled, after “bringing in the hay” (cutting, baling, and storing hay bales in the barn). Father Mark Stang, a chaplain at St. Cloud Hospital, might have made farming his life’s work, but he couldn’t ignore God’s calling.
Stang is in his fourth year as chaplain at the hospital after serving several parishes in Central Minnesota over 20 years. He began his career as a parochial vicar at St. Andrew’s, in Elk River, in the early 1990s. He was then assigned to St. Mary’s of Mount Carmel, in Long Prairie, where he served 12 years, the maximum length of time allowed in the Catholic Church. “I was such a rookie then, but the congregation was so open and welcoming,” he said, “that I would have loved to have stayed there longer.” After moving to the Holdingford area, where he served five parishes, Stang began covering overnights, as a priest back-up, in the Spiritual Care Department at St. Cloud Hospital, piquing his interest in the role of chaplain.
He told Bishop Kinney of his interest and began a clinical pastoral education course at St. Cloud Hospital. In 2010, he became pastor to three parishes in Belgrade, Brooten and Elrosa.
“After finishing the class, I continued as a rural pastor, and I might have stayed forever, except the hospital requested me to serve as a chaplain. When the bishop asked me, I told them, ‘I’ll be there.’” He started packing his things. “There is freedom in obedience,” he explained. He had learned that lesson years before, as a young man.
Stang had loved life on the farm, and after high school, and a few years working as an agronomist, he returned to the family farm to work alongside his dad. “I farmed with Dad over three years,” he said. “But God kept calling me, and, that third year, the call was getting stronger, and I thought more and more about going to the seminary. When I finally made the decision, I told Dad, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll be back in six months.’” He thought that would be long enough to get the call out of his system. His dad, Andy, gave him his blessing, and off he went. He studied the next seven years.
Stang didn’t get the call out of his system, and, in spite of his reservations about being too shy and inadequate, he completed his undergraduate degree in Winona, and received his Masters of Divinity at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. The year was 1990, and plans for his ordination were underway.
Then came the diagnosis. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Doctors told Stang the tumor in his abdomen was the size of a small football. He entered a dark period, confused and questioning. “Why?” he asked. “I prayed, and I tried to keep my eyes on Jesus. I did the treatment, got sick, lost my hair, all while praying and trying to understand the cancer.” He felt surrounded by prayer. “So many people were praying for me.”
He went to Mayo Clinic for chemotherapy every three weeks. The treatment made him very ill and extremely weak during the first week. He would feel a little better the second week and fine by the third. Then, it would start all over again. Halfway through the treatment, he returned to Rochester for a CT scan, and three new tumors were discovered. It was devastating news. Doctors wanted him to have a bone marrow transplant.
“I thought, ‘Where is God?’ I’ve been given a death sentence, and I cannot understand why.” Family and friends and parishioners continued their prayers and offered advice. “I was open to it all, even changing my diet. It was a dark time for me, but in the darkness, I saw a small beacon of light. I tried to focus on that.”
The bishop had petitioned Rome to move up his ordination so he could be ordained early. Stang wanted to feel stronger for the ordination ceremony so he asked his doctors to discontinue treatment for a few months and postpone the bone marrow transplant. “The doctors insisted it needed to be done now. I asked them to give me three months. Then I asked for two months. We finally agreed on six weeks.” There would be no treatment for six weeks, and the bone marrow transplant would be scheduled after his ordination, in late August.
Stang continued to pray, and, with the help of a good friend, he began to accept his cancer and the fact that he would eventually die, whether it be in one year or 50 years. He thought about heaven and seeing the face of God. He was 32 years old.
Ordination was scheduled for Aug. 25 and, the next day, he would preach and celebrate his first Mass. An ordination ceremony has various rituals, including the laying on of hands, when the bishop calls on the Holy Spirit to come down upon the one being ordained. That weekend, Stang felt at peace, and he had more energy than usual. During the laying on of hands, he felt a warmth overcome him when the bishop touched his head.
On Sunday morning, 700 people crowded into St. Nicholas Catholic Church for Father Stang’s first Mass. He spoke of his gratefulness to everyone for their love and support. “My message to the congregation was, first of all, I can’t thank you enough for all of your prayers. And, I said, that my cancer is a gift, and that a miracle has taken place in my soul. I was learning humility, and I could see my weakness and my brokenness.” The weekend was one of celebration.
When it was over, Stang headed back to Mayo Clinic. The next day, he had a CT scan and waited at length for the results in a waiting room. Eventually, the doctor came out to tell him that they needed to do another CT scan because something had gone wrong with the first one. After the second scan, he waited again until two doctors approached him. “They told me that they had consulted with seven other doctors, and they didn’t have any explanation, but the cancer was gone.” Their prayers had been answered, leaving everyone stunned, but jubilant.
Twenty-five years later, Father Stang is healthy and grateful for his full life. He celebrates daily Mass at St. Cloud Hospital’s newly renovated chapel, visits with patients who make a request, and he administers the sacraments. “I hear confessions, anoint the sick, and administer last rites.” He likes being part of a team of people, working together, caring for the needs of patients.
He himself has been a patient, and he has a unique gift to walk into a room and feel the pain and isolation of those lying in hospital beds. His cancer taught him many things, one of which is that it’s sometimes easier to be a patient than to see a loved one in bed suffering. After his miraculous recovery from cancer, the bishop told Stang that God had some work for him to do, and he finds that work rewarding. “I don’t ever feel too busy. God is using me to help others, and I’m so honored and grateful to walk with families and to be invited on their journey.”
When he gets some time off, Stang gets on his motorcycle and travels the country roads, or he might do a little farm work. Yes, he still works on the family farm, where his brother and family now live. In his words, he’s “just a simple farm boy.”