August 8, 2014

Twenty Something / Christina Capecchi

Looking back on ‘mystery priest’ at car crash

Katie Lentz had plucked the perfect dress for her Sunday surprise, and the yellow J. Crew frock was dangling in the back of her 1989 Mercedes, bouncing along the highway as the sun streamed in and oldies played on the radio.

The 19-year-old blonde from Quincy, Ill., had just completed her summer internship in Jefferson City, Mo., and she had hatched a plan to surprise her friends there by making a final visit. She set off around 8 a.m. on that Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013, and began the two-hour drive so she could go to church one more time with the gang she had worshipped with every week that summer.

As she drove south on Highway 19, Katie saw a truck swerve into her lane. She tried to steer away, but couldn’t react quickly enough. A drunk driver hit her head on, and suddenly Katie felt herself moving—the car rolled in one complete rotation and landed on the driver side, Katie’s body trapped in the mangled Mercedes, inches from the ground. She felt a shooting pain, looked up and saw blood, the steering wheel mashed into her stomach and blocking the view of her broken legs. She knew something was wrong because the car wasn’t upright.

“Is this real life?” she asked repeatedly.

Katie couldn’t see the witnesses and emergency responders, but the Pentecostal Christian remembers asking them to pray for her, to pray out loud.

Then came the man in black, a priest carrying anointing oil and offering to bless the person in the car. Once he received permission from a sheriff, he walked up to Katie quietly, anointed her, absolved her and stepped away. Someone asked him to return, saying Katie had requested more prayers, so the priest returned and prayed at her side.

To the crowd gathered around Katie, the priest seemed to vanish out of thin air, just as he had appeared. Katie was finally extricated from the car and flown to Blessing Hospital in Quincy. As news of the near-fatal accident spread, word got out about a “mystery priest” on the scene. ABC News dubbed him a “guardian angel,” and a composite sketch of the unknown man emerged. The story went viral.

It wasn’t until Friday that a fellow priest told Father Patrick Dowling the story had made national news. The longtime priest, a 69-year-old native of Kilkenny, Ireland, reluctantly identified himself.

Father Dowling had substituted for a sick priest that Sunday morning, and was driving home in his white Toyota Camry when he spotted ambulance lights and pulled over. It was a frightening scene, and Father Dowling didn’t want to get in the way of the emergency responders, but he felt compelled to approach the car. After 15 years in prison ministry, he’d learned the power of showing up, breathing in and reaching out. He’d even witnessed moments of grace among inmates on suicide watch.

“It’s totally a matter of faith,” he said. “When the Lord sends you, he gives you his Spirit. You trust, you have faith in the Holy Spirit.”

One year later, Katie, who is walking unassisted and hoping to make a full recovery, still thanks God for Father Dowling’s presence that morning. “I believe Father was sent from God,” she said. “He was my Earth angel that day. And he was there for everyone on the scene, because it was really chaotic and they didn’t know what they were going to do. He provided a lot of comfort.”

Katie’s priorities have come into sharp focus, and she changed her career plans to follow her passion—sports, not dentistry. She sees the car crash as an opportunity to evangelize in a way that isn’t “pushy,” as she put it. “All I’m doing is telling my story. I can share what God did for me.”
 

(Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and editor of SisterStory.org, the official website of National Catholic Sisters Week. She can be reached at www.ReadChristina.com.)

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