Tom Cruise Was on Track to Become a Priest in His Youth

Courtesy of Father Ric Schneider

Before Tom Cruise was a Scientologist, he was as devout a Roman Catholic as was his now estranged wife, Katie Holmes.

And just in time for Cruise's 50th birthday and just as his third marriage was unraveling, the priest who recruited him for the seminary more than three decades ago mailed him a photo.

"I found an address online in Los Angeles," says Father Ric Schneider of the Order of Friars Minor. "Probably an agent, I guess."

Father Ric took the photo of Cruise at the age of 14, when the man who is now the most famous of Scientologists was still among the best of Catholics and known by his family name, Mapother.

Not that Father Ric was sending Cruise a message. The priest just thought the star might enjoy this captured memory of him in earth shoes and an unbuttoned shirt, standing beside another boy by a pond. A smiling Cruise is holding a radio-controlled boat the boys built in the hobby shop at St. Francis Seminary just outside Cincinnati in Mt. Healthy, Ohio.

"A cute little kid," Father Ric says.

Cruise, like most of his classmates at St. Francis, attended the seminary more for the education than out of any serious thought of becoming a priest. But they had all shared the devout routine of those headed for ordination.

"You went to daily Mass, you went to morning prayer, you went to evening prayer, you prayed before meals, you prayed after meals," Cruise's classmate Don Weller recalls. "He was well indoctrinated ... For him to totally shut himself off was just amazing."

Cruise went to the seminary after hearing Father Ric give a talk at St. Raphael the Archangel school in Louisville, Ky. Cruise's mother had moved there with her son and three daughters after leaving his father. The departure had been preplanned, with the mother instructing her children to have their bags packed and hidden but ready. The father is said to have followed his family to Louisville and sought a reconciliation that was not forthcoming. The couple divorced shortly after Cruise's 13th birthday.

The next step for Cruise was to have been his father's alma mater, St. Xavier High School, in Louisville. He saw an alternative when Father Ric ended his talk at St. Raphael's by asking if anybody was interested in attending the seminary.

Cruise—then still Mapother—expressed interest. Father Ric visited the boy's home and spoke to the mother.

"Nice home, nothing fancy," the priest recalls.

The priest administered the usual IQ test to determine if a candidate was likely capable of college-prep-level studies.

"He just made it," Father Ric says.

As with all recruits, Father Ric drove Cruise up to the seminary on a Friday to get a firsthand look. Cruise attended class on Saturday and stayed there through Sunday, when Father Ric drove him back home. Cruise liked it well enough that he decided he wanted to enroll.

He did not strike Father Ric as somebody likely to become a priest.

"It was pretty obvious," Father Ric says. "I think he went there to get an education. I didn't get a sense he was serious about the priesthood or the religious life."

The priest adds, "He might just have wanted to get away from it all."

In the fall of 1976, Cruise joined 67 other freshmen at the seminary.

The Superior, the friar in charge, was Father John Boehman. He remembers Cruise as "basically a good kid" who was always smiling, but also "one of the ones more likely to get into trouble."

"If he could trip somebody or do something like that, it would be right down his alley," Father John says.

Cruise hardly seemed the stuff of a future movie star, with modest stature and in sore need of an orthodontist. One of his snaggled front teeth was chipped.

"His teeth were different than they are today," Father John notes.

Cruise was not among the top students in academics. The instructor who appeared to make the biggest impression on him was Father Aubert Grieser, former chaplain to the New Mexico School for the Deaf and a passionate musician who prized three small stones he took from Beethoven's grave and whose own compositions included a four-movement Mass, "Wa Ma Wa Ta," that blended Gregorian chants with pop sounds.

Father Aubert, the speech and drama teacher, would get students up on the stage and push them to overcome whatever was inhibiting them from letting go.

"I think he did more for Tom Cruise than maybe anybody else did at that time to help him," Father Hilarion Kistner says of Father Aubert. "He could just bring somebody out of themselves, get over their inhibitions and act and sing."

At St. Francis, Cruise played soccer and basketball for the Saints, where his teammate Weller remembers the future star could sometimes be "a little bit of a jerk. He was overcompensating for his height and his musculature. The upperclassmen kept him in his place."

Paul White / AP

Cruise shared with the others the bonds of working, playing, eating, and praying together, as well as sharing a dormitory and living under a code that was strict, though not harsh. But he did not seem to form any deep friendships.

"I don't think he was particularly close to really anybody," Weller says. "Basically more of a loner, I guess."

But even then, Cruise showed the cockiness that would animate many of his starring roles.

"That's what he was as a freshman in high school," Weller says. "He had that kind of persona. But he wasn't big enough to make it stick, and he kind of became a little bit of a whipping boy."

Weller goes on to say, "He was always trying to prove something."

Cruise did not return after his freshman year, enrolling instead at St. Xavier's in Louisville. The friars and his seminary classmates were not surprised, as whatever calling he had seemed decidedly secular. The only reason for leaving he has ever voiced was, "I started to realize I love women too much to give all that up."

Weller stayed and in a sign of changing times his was the last class to graduate before the seminary closed. Weller says that the boy they knew as Mapother left his former classmates with no sense of where life might take him.

They were astonished when he began to appear on screen, with a new name and new teeth but that same cockiness, now big enough via the magic of film to make it stick.

"We were stunned: 'Oh my God, that's Mapother!'?" Weller recalls. "None of us had any idea that's what he'd grow up to be."

When the speech and drama teacher Father Aubert saw Risky Business, he suggested to a TV interviewer that Cruise had lost a little too much inhibition.

"Tommy was such a fine young man," Father Frank Jasper recalls Father Aubert saying. "And now it's disgusting. He's making these dirty movies and jumping all over the furniture in his underwear. It's totally disgusting!"

The classmates might have understood if such attitudes had combined with general changes in society to nudge Cruise into lapsing from his faith. Total rejection was something else.

"With only 68 people in the whole class, you got to know everybody pretty well," Weller says. "To see him go over to Scientology was really kind of a shocker."

Just before the Cruise-Holmes break-up, Weller attended a St. Francis Seminary reunion, the shuttered institution being among those that have escaped any public manifestations of the sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the church. Father Ric put on a slide show during a pizza party. The long-ago photo of the two boys holding the radio-controlled boat flashed on the screen.

"Somebody said, 'Oh, there's Tom!'" Father Ric recalls.

Afterward, he decided to mail a copy to Cruise. And, by the kind of fortuitous chance for which Franciscans have a knack, it should have arrived just as the star was arriving at a bleak 50th birthday.

His wife had slipped away from him with their daughter just as his mother had slipped away from his father with him. Holmes fled after taking full measure of what it might mean for a child to be raised in Scientology rather than in the faith that she and the seminarian turned star shared before they met. Her escape was managed by her father, who, along with the rest of her family, remains a prominent fixture at Christ the King parish in her native Toledo, Ohio.

As for Cruise, he should know that in the true spirit of his former faith, he retains the very best wishes of all the friars.