The story of 19-year-old Katie Lentz of Quincy, Ill., her near-fatal car accident on a rural highway in northeast Missouri Aug. 4 and the mystery priest who mysteriously appeared then disappeared captured the nation’s attention.
Even with the revelation of the priest’s identity on the website of the Register Aug. 9, the buzz has only abated slightly, and it has morphed into a modern-day Good Samaritan story.
At first, many thought Father Patrick Dowling of the Diocese of Jefferson City might be an angel or saint because of mysterious circumstances around his appearance and disappearance.
A native of Kilkenny, Ireland, Father Dowling was ordained for the Jefferson City Diocese, and he had been on his way from celebrating Mass in a town where the priest was sick, he recounted in the comment he posted on the Register website and in later accounts after he was publicly identified.
Father Dowling has served at several parishes and in the diocese’s mission parishes in Peru. He currently serves in both prison ministry and parish ministry to Spanish-speaking Catholics.
Although his identity is now known, there still remains a strong hint of the miraculous.
Why doesn’t he appear in any of the 80 photos reportedly taken at the scene of the accident on Highway 19? The site lies just a few miles from where it intersects with Route 61, also commonly called the Avenue of the Saints. Why didn’t anyone see him leave the scene? Or are we looking in the wrong direction for the real miracle?
Ralls County Sheriff's Deputy Richard Adair, who was in charge at the scene, spoke with the Register about the experience.
“Katie has an unbelievable and unshakeable faith in God,” he said of the young woman who was pinned in her car.
He described how, “in 27 years of handling fatal accidents and being a supervisor in a fatal-accident unit, that’s the worst accident I’ve seen that a human was in and survived.”
More amazing to Adair was Lentz’s reaction. “She didn’t yell, scream, curse, or say anything negative about the other driver.” He and everyone on the scene saw something entirely different.
“She had faith in God,” he said. “She was calm and composed. She asked people to pray with her and to pray out loud. And that’s the real story.”
Adair said the 19-year-old young woman’s faith moved everyone. “The first responders, the state trooper on the scene, the EMTs and paramedics were touched by that.”
The policeman further reflected how this event compared to the many hundreds he has witnessed: “You kind of expect people yelling and screaming. But not someone having that faith in God and [wanting] to pray. And when you talk to her family, her mother and father are the same. They have that faith in God.” (The family are members of the Assemblies of God.)
At the scene, when New London Fire Chief Raymond Reed told Adair the rescuers were unable to cut Lentz out of the mangled wreck and had no options available, Adair told Reed he had promised the young woman and her mother he would get the girl out of the car. She had several broken bones, internal injuries and weakening vital signs.
Father Dowling Arrives
“About 10 minutes later, the priest came up from behind, through some fire trucks,” Adair said. “That was just a curious timing.”
How Father Dowling slipped in remains a bit of a mystery.
Adair recalled, “We had already blocked the road two miles back, talked to all the drivers caught in between and had them turn around. So the highway was fairly cleared. Only two vehicles stayed — a woman on the phone with Katie’s mom all the time and another couple on their way to church who were praying with Katie.”
Speaking with Catholic News Agency, Father Dowling said he “did not leave with the other cars.” He parked close by and “walked the remaining 150 yards. I asked the sheriff if a priest might be needed. … On checking, he permitted me to approach.”
At first, Adair told the Register, he was concerned about letting him anoint the girl.
“If I’m in that position and a priest comes up, I’m afraid he is going to give me the last rights,” Adair said. “But her faith was unshakable.”
But as the priest again said he wanted to anoint Lentz, Adair found himself saying, “Okay.”
Father Dowling anointed her, said a prayer, then was stepping away when Adair describes how “either Katie or maybe one of the rescue workers called him back, and he said another prayer.”
Adair noticed the older, heavy-looking cross, silver with green patina, around Father Dowling’s neck. “Then he stood back 15 to 20 feet, had a dark wooden set of beads, and he was praying the Rosary.”
In the CNA account, the priest said, “When the young lady asked that I pray her leg stop hurting, I did so. She asked me to pray aloud, and I did briefly. … The rescue workers needed space and would not have appreciated distraction. I stepped to one side and said my Rosary silently until the lady was taken from the car.”
Who Told People to Remain Calm?
In a major television interview on ABC News, Reed explained a “calmness” that then seemed to cover the area and how he and another firefighter “very plainly heard that we should remain calm, that our tools would now work and that we would get her out of that vehicle.”
Practically right away, the Hannibal Fire Department arrived with another set of tools. They got Lentz out of the car, and four minutes later, she was in the helicopter on the way to the hospital. At press time, according to the hospital supervisor on duty at Blessing Hospital in Quincy, she remained on the intermediate care floor and remained in fair condition.
Father Dowling told CNA that he wasn’t the person to give reassurance, but he noted many people were praying at the accident scene for Lentz's healing and safety.
“I was probably part of the answer to their prayers; I came by and anointed and absolved, [but] I didn’t say another word. … I did not say anything like the machinery would begin to work or they would succeed in getting her out of the car,” he said. “That did not come from my lips, though two people heard it.”
When everyone turned to thank the mystery priest, he was nowhere to be found — or seen, even in the flat fields on either side planted with corn and other crops.
The details surrounding this accident impressed the nation in a major way.
Noting that the rural area is heavily Protestant and has very few Catholic churches — the nearest is Holy Family in Hannibal — New London's city clerk, Millie Powell, told the Register she has answered many phone inquiries from around the country.
“People are interested in it,” Powell said. “It makes everybody happy how it happened. I haven’t had any negative calls. We’ve had so many positive things.”
She sees what is transpiring as “a good thing for the churches all together.”
As Powell noted, the incident and the massive media coverage that ensued has awakened some people to the existence of divine Providence. Maybe that’s part of the miracle.
As Adair reflected on this particular accident and aftermath and Lentz's faith, he sees a great convergence for some purpose. “We all meet. … We’re connected together. … She kind of draws you into this faith she has.”
Father Jeffrey Kirby, vicar of vocations for the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., offered two major observations about the events.
“The first is that the two great gifts that God gives us that are associated with his providence are time and place,” he said. “To be at the right place at the right time in order to be of service to others is a clear act of God’s presence among us. To bring all those pieces together at that time and place is truly evidence of God’s providential care.”
In fact, speaking to CNA, Father Dowling explained he did what was in a priest’s normal duties, “except that there was something extraordinary it sounds like, in the sequence of events that coincided in time with the anointing.”
‘Miracle’ of Faith
Father Kirby made a second observation. “In his encyclical [Lumen Fidei] on faith, Pope Francis says when we accept the great light of faith, [then it brings] all the other smaller lights together and gives them meaning. Faith brings all the pieces and experiences of life together.”
“So the priest, in this encounter, was a symbol of faith that brought the pieces — consolation, fear, hope — all together so well [and] directed them to God.”
Father Kirby noted that the Holy Father has preached on this many times.
“Without faith, we live fragmented lives that lack meaning. If the young woman had not had faith, if the priest had not been there, it would have been just one more accident that would have been without meaning, only senseless.
“That’s why this whole situation [may not be] a miracle in the extraordinary sense, but [is] a miracle in what it means to be a Christian, to be salt and light in the world and reflect faith in all situations, even those that are tragic and difficult.”
“Faith is a powerful gift,” he concluded. “And we are in the Year of Faith.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.