The Father Dowling Mystery

12/1/2013

 

After a Missouri priest stopped to pray with a crash victim, the world wondered if he was an angel of mercy sent by God

by Jeannette Cooperman

Father Patrick DowlingFather Patrick Dowling, a member of Holy Rosary Council 1165 in Monroe City, Mo., is pictured standing beside a country road. (photo by Sid Hastings)

Father Patrick Dowling was on his way back from offering Mass in Ewing, Mo., when traffic on Highway 19 ground to a halt. Police officers were sending cars back in the opposite direction, but Father Dowling waited. When the road was clear he pulled his white Toyota off to the side, got out and walked 150 yards to the site of a traffic accident.

The scene was frightening.

On a stretch of farmland highway, about three miles outside of Center, Mo., a mangled, dark green 1989 Mercedes was flipped up and resting on the driver’s side. Firefighters, police and emergency service personnel were everywhere. By this time, the roof of the car had been pried off and Air Evac Lifeteam medics were attending to the injured young woman inside. The Jaws of Life equipment used to cut away the roof lay still on the side of the road, too dull to pierce the heavy metal skin of the Mercedes that still gripped the driver.

While making a circuit of the accident site, Richard Adair, a deputy sheriff in Ralls County, Mo., and the first to arrive on the scene, spotted a silver-haired priest coming his way. Adair, a lifelong Catholic and a member of Our Lady of the Rosary Council 2572, listened as Father Dowling, also a Knight, asked in a soft brogue if he could bless the woman in the car.

Adair stepped away to confer with the pilot from Air Evac. They were both afraid that the crash victim might think they had given up on her if she saw a priest. Adair went back to offer a polite no.

“I just want to bless her,” the priest repeated with quiet urgency. Adair found himself nodding permission.

PRAYER AMID PAIN

Katie Lentz and her family always prayed together before leaving on a trip. “Lord, we pray that angels surround Katie as she travels.” Around 8 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 4, 19-year-old Lentz gathered with her parents before leaving on a 125-mile journey from Quincy, Ill., to Jefferson City, Mo. A public health major at Tulane University, Lentz had just finished a summer internship in Jefferson City and had made good friends at the First Assembly of God church there. She wanted to join them one last time at their 11 a.m. service.

A little before 9 a.m., Deputy Sheriff Adair received a call from 911 dispatch, reporting a traffic crash with critical injuries. A driver — subsequently charged with driving while intoxicated — had crossed the center line and hit Lentz head on. Adair arrived to find the totaled Mercedes. All he could see of the young driver was the top of her head, blonde hair shining, and her right hand. She was trapped inside the wreck, almost upside down, with the steering column pushed into her abdomen. He crouched down, told her who he was and promised to get her out. With startling calm, Lentz asked Adair if he would call her mother.

Before long, firefighters from Center and the neighboring town of Perry streamed in. “We’re going to get you out,” Adair said again. In his gut, though, he was worried. The wreck was so bad that he could hardly believe Lentz had survived.

Firefighters draped Lentz’s head with a blue blanket and warned her about the impending noise before prying the roof off the car. The Lifeteam medics were then able to get inside and monitor her vital signs.

With the fire personnel waiting for new Jaws of Life tools from the department in Hannibal, Adair let Father Dowling approach the car. The priest immediately went to Lentz, absolved her of her sins and anointed her. Then he stepped back, not wanting to get in the way. But Katie called for him again. She wanted him to pray that her leg, which had a compound fracture, wouldn’t hurt so much. He went back, prayed aloud with her, then stood about 12 feet away, silently praying the rosary.

About 10 minutes later, a medic announced that Lentz’s blood pressure and heart rate had dropped. She was still conscious, but she was fading.

A DRAMATIC RESCUE

The first responders kept Lentz talking — about her dog, her college, her little brother and sister.

Raymond Reed, chief of New London’s department at the time, asked if Lentz could withstand the change in pressure if they tried to set the car down on its wheels. Adair caught his breath. They had all been trained never to move a vehicle with someone still trapped inside. But the medics thought Lentz could tolerate the move, and it looked like the only answer. Reed and his men made the decision to right the car.

“Climb in and hold her head,” Reed told Shawn McCourt, a New London firefighter and a member of Good Shepherd Council 907 in Hannibal. McCourt wedged himself behind Lentz, made sure her cervical collar was in place and hoped she couldn’t feel him trembling.

So many hands held the car that one could barely see metal. As they lowered the Mercedes, the tow-truck driver said it was like watching a piece of paper drift to the ground. But at the first tilt, gasoline began gushing out of the tank. Since a single spark from their tools could set it aflame, the Perry firefighters quickly blanketed the fuel with foam. by now the Hannibal Fire Department had arrived, and firefighter/EMT Zach Steffen was able to cut into the vehicle. The firefighters used rams to lift the steering column away from Lentz’s broken ribs, allowing her to breath easier, and soon the medics slid her free. McCourt got her set for the helicopter ride and beckoned to Father Dowling. The priest came forward, saw with relief that Katie was all in one piece and walked back to his car as the pilot lifted off. Moments later, Adair turned to look for Father Dowling, but he was gone.

THE MYSTERY PRIEST

As the adrenaline drained away, fire, police and medical personnel compared notes. Reed and another firefighter recalled hearing a voice say that their tools would work and that they would get Lentz out of the car. Later, they checked the 63 photos taken at the scene, but Father Dowling wasn’t in any of them. Adair remembered the priest appearing from nowhere and vanishing just as fast.

As the story of the mystery priest went viral, picked up by news outlets and social media all over the world, Father Dowling went about his work, oblivious. He rarely watches TV or surfs the Internet. He is too busy crisscrossing north central Missouri, saying Mass in his rough but earnest Spanish or visiting inmates at maximum-security and psychiatric facilities.

Born in Kilkenny, Ireland, Father Dowling worked at a parish when he first came to the United States more than 30 years ago. That’s when he joined the Knights of Columbus with Holy Rosary Council 1165 in Monroe City. He said he recognized Knights as “ordinary Catholics who deep down were faithful to God. You could be sure of authentic Catholicism among the Knights.”

Now serving prisoners and Spanish-speaking parishioners in the Diocese of Jefferson City, Father Dowling has few administrative chores. His priesthood is stripped to its essence: “You go from door to door with empty hands,” he said. “You have nothing to offer them except the love of God.”

It wasn’t until the Friday following the crash, while chatting with a fellow priest, that Father Dowling mentioned anointing a young woman. “Everybody’s looking for you!” the priest told him. Father Dowling went online, searched out the Lentz family and gave them his matter-of-fact explanation. The next day, he went to see Katie at the hospital.

Lentz looked up, recognized the lilt of his voice, and began to cry. He thought perhaps she was disappointed that he wasn’t an angel. “No, no,” she said, “just thankful.” Surviving a lacerated liver and spleen, bruised lungs, and 15 broken bones, including two compound fractures and a fracture in her left wrist, was enough of a miracle for her.

In the month after the accident, emergency responders crowded the hospital room. Adair, a police officer for 27 years, had tears in his eyes the first time he saw Katie able to stand and, using a walker, make her way to the bathroom. Reed went to see her nearly every week. McCourt waited until right before her discharge, feeling shy about not being a family member. She lit up when he explained who he was; this was the first time they had seen each other face to face.

PROVIDENCE AT PLAY

On Sept. 20, Katie’s 20th birthday, the Lentz family invited Father Dowling to their home. Soon, Katie’s dog, a little black-and-white Havanese named Hana, was on his lap, and they were all reliving the story with light hearts. Katie was through with her surgeries. Her autumn had been a grueling regimen of physical and occupational therapy, but she would be able to return to Tulane University in January.

A local news station filmed part of their meeting, and Katie’s mother quoted Psalm 37:23 to the reporter: “The steps of the righteous man are ordered by the Lord.” Father Dowling wasn’t even supposed to be on Highway 19 that day, she pointed out — he was filling in for a priest who was ill. God had put him there.

Father Dowling didn’t contradict her, but noted that his presence was not, strictly speaking, a miracle, but rather a sign of God’s providence.

“I have no doubt there were angels present,” the priest later remarked. He went on to define an angel as “an invisible friend, a friend you don’t see, who cares for you in times of desperate need.” by that definition, Lentz, trapped and unable to see her rescuers, was indeed surrounded by angels.

But what about the words Reed heard? “He did not say the words were pronounced in an Irish accent,” Father Dowling noted with a twinkle in his eyes. “I’m sure I asked God to send Katie peace, but I certainly didn’t speak any prophetic words. I didn’t know they would get Katie out of that car. I didn’t even know the Jaws of Life weren’t working.”

He added, “Those people were praying. I have no doubt that God sends angels at a time like that.”

In the end, though, it was Dowling’s earthbound humility — the way he stayed back to avoid getting in the way, then quietly left once Lentz was safe — that turned him into the “mystery priest,” the alleged angel whose presence sent her story around the world.

One evening in late October, after the media fuss had faded, Father Dowling was driving home from Fulton and saw two police cars pulled over. He feared inserting himself into another crisis, where he might be rejected or snubbed, or worse, lack the courage to be a priest in a hostile environment. It would be so easy, he thought, to just keep driving. But he knew he had to step forward.

“You mustn’t be ashamed of the Gospel of Christ,” he told himself briskly. “You have something to offer. You have to be available.”

He remembers saying those very words to himself on Aug. 4. “And it’s very surprising, then, to see that the whole world is glad you stopped.”

JEANNETTE COOPERMAN is staff writer for St. Louis Magazine and the author of several books.