Could “Mystery Priest” be a long-dead Benedictine Monk? UPDATE: No Mystery Here!

Joel Schmidt thinks perhaps yes:

By now, you’ve most likely heard the story of the “Mystery Priest” from the car accident scene in Eastern Missouri. If not, here’s the original story from USA Today.

Phil Lawler of Catholic Culture has suggested how the priest might be identified:

1) Start showing the witnesses photos of priests with a reputation for holiness.
2) Include photos of priests who are no longer alive.
3) Prepare for a shock.

Interestingly, we were at Conception Abbey in Missouri last week for deacon formation. As you might imagine, this was a hot topic of discussion with both the deacon candidates and the monks. One of our professors indicated he might have a clue about the identity of the mystery priest, which hinges upon Lawler’s suggestion. He believes it may be Servant of God, Father Lukas Etlin, O.S.B., a monk of Conception Abbey, who died in a car accident in 1927.

Is this simply a case of nepotism? I don’t think so; let’s examine this case, working from the premise that this is a supernatural event. It is reasonably well-established that no priest would have had access to the accident scene. Also, the priest does not appear in any of the approximately 80 photos of the accident scene.

First, there is the obvious Missouri connection. The accident happened near Center, MO. Conception Abbey is located in Conception, MO, less than four hours away.

Second, check out the computer-generated composite sketch of the priest from witness accounts. Note that the deputy sheriff at the scene says it looks nothing like the priest, with whom he interacted for about 20 minutes, even shook his hand. Rather, he described him as actor Walter Matthau with a less pronounced nose

Left – Composite sketch of the “Mystery Priest” (credit: Randall Sands); Center – Fr. Lukas Etlin, younger (credit: Eman Bonnici); Right – Fr. Lukas Etlin, older (credit: Eman Bonnici).

Writes Joel:

Okay, Fr. Etlin isn’t a dead ringer for either description, but that’s sort of the point. Neither one rules him out, either. Never mind that eye-witnesses often differ greatly in their descriptions. Consider that if this was a supernatural event, the priest could have appeared differently to different people, younger to some and older to others, depending upon what each witness needed to see.

Third, the deputy sheriff described the priest as having an accent he could not place. Fr. Etlin was born in Sarnen, the capital of Canton Obwalden in the foothills of the Swiss Alps.

Go read reasons four, five and six as to why some think the “mystery priest” may have been this Benedictine Servant of God.

If so, it might be a wonderful moment of grace for a very good abbey that, in 2002 was rocked by violence.

Well, that was fun to speculate about
but it appears the helpful priest has been found and he is very much alive and kicking, and he does have an accent! An Irish one, in fact:

While some assumed the mystery priest was an angel or a deceased Catholic saint coming back to shower goodwill upon mankind, it seems these individuals’ theories were incorrect; it was, in fact, a caring bystander and faith leader who took the time to help a young woman in crisis.

The statement. . . by spokesperson Deacon Dan Joyce, head of communications for the diocese [reads]:

The Diocese of Jefferson City has identified the priest who assisted at the site of the Sunday morning, August 4, 2013 auto accident near Center, Mo. He is Rev. Patrick Dowling, a priest of the Jefferson City Diocese. Fr. Dowling was travelling Hwy 19 between Mass assignments that morning in northern and central Missouri.

Fr. Dowling said that he is pleased that he was able to help by performing his ministry and noted that that he was just one of many who responded to assist the victim at the accident. He and the Diocese wish to acknowledge and thank the first responders, medical team and law enforcement personnel for their efforts that morning in aid of the young woman injured in the accident.

Fr. Dowling, a native of Kilkenny, Ireland, was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., in 1982. He has served at parishes in Moberly, Monroe City, Indian Creek, Milan, Unionville and Eldon, Mo., and in the diocese’s mission parishes in Marcona and Nasca, Peru.

He is currently serving in prison ministry and in parish ministry to Spanish-speaking Catholics.

Rather than coming forward in a more ceremonial or traditional way, on Friday evening, Dowling chose to post a message in the comments section of an article on a Catholic news site — one that went widely unnoticed until this afternoon.

Posting [in the combox] on an article written in the National Catholic Register about the incident and the search for the mystery hero, the priest detailed what unfolded. He wrote that on his way home from a Mass — one during which he was filling in for a sick priest — he arrived at the crash scene. With authorities re-routing traffic. . .he waited until it was possible to get closer.

You can read what he had written, here. But this might be a kick in the pants for folks who think every comment in every thread gets read. Clearly this one was missed. :-)

And here is Father Dowling’s picture:

Rev. Patrick Dowling (Photo Credit: Diocese of Jefferson County)

So, no, it was only what some Catholics call “the usual supernatural in the sense that God had placed Father Dowling at that place, at that time, and of course, for the use of the sacrament of anointing (and the prayers of those in attendance, and whatever Guardian Angels were around)…

And yes, you can go ahead and say it: the story is right out of one of Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling mysteries!

YouTube Preview Image

Sr. Mary Ann Walsh: A Humble Way of Mercy
Benedict: Anchoring Pole for Francis and John Paul II
Obama’s Creed: Are we being prepped for 2016′s fake narrative?
Praying for those who pray for us…
About Elizabeth Scalia
  • AMoniqueOcampo

    Some people think it might’ve been St. Jean Vianney.

  • Greg M.

    Randall Sands used our software to create the sketch. see: That “Q” on the sketch is our watermark. Also, see:

  • Randall Sands

    I used the faces law enforcement version 4.0 you can see at Its suited for law enforcement officers with training and those with some forensic sketch experience, officers could teach others within their departments, this software will save you valuable time, If you need to improve your composite it is easily suited to do just that, I worked on two separate unsolved cases here in Tucson just this morning making composites and getting photographs with greater detail I improved the ones I had completed previously

  • Kim Whelan

    I just love hearing about this and I LOVE all the coverage it is getting. We all know it was a Saint or a guardian angel incarnate.

  • Cathy R.

    Welcome back, missed you last week, got a little worried as I love to read your posts.

  • Martlet

    Or perhaps martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose cause is being pushed forward at long last. He fits the description right down to the tone of his skin. And let’s not forget that they say the priest was wearing “a large cross” which presumably was a pectoral cross, in which case a bishop or an abbot?

  • Dcn Chris

    What matters is that a priest was where he was needed, in persona Christi.

  • Cathy R.

    Great story

  • Lerly

    Has anyone considered that it is John the Beloved?? Jesus granted his request to remain on the earth until Christ returns.

  • Tregonsee

    Please understand that I have no doubt that this is a true miracle! However, while not quite at the level of parting the sea, it seems a little flashy for the way God usually works these days. The quiet miracles are more than enough for me.

  • tj.nelson

    I like this theory. Now we need heaven to verify.

  • Lisa Schmidt

    Thank you, dear Elizabeth, for sharing Joel’s post here with your readers. He and I both admire your work, are tickled by this hat tip, and are grateful for your digital spiritual friendship! (And, of course, there’s that Benedictine spiritual connection we love about you, too!) :)

  • Charles

    One word: Reptilians

  • Barbara Dawson Cobb
  • Elizabeth
  • Inge Loots

    A 200 lb St. Jean Vianney is hard to imagine.

  • Inge Loots

    Don’t let History Channel get hold of this. You’ll know the answer to this when they cover it: Aliens. ;)

  • Sven2547

    All this hysteria is frankly kind of embarrassing. Does it bother anyone else that so many people leaped to wild conclusions about long-dead priests, guardian angels, and ancient saints?

  • Joseph

    I was going to say something about this “Father Dowling Mystery” being solved. Anyway, this is something like the movie “Miracle Of The Bells”, with Fred MacMurray and Frank Sinatra. In the movie, the motion of the statues was revealed to be a phenomenon caused by nature, but it was a miracle nonetheless.

  • Bodick Rabago

    opinion, opinion … :(
    let’s wait for the truth!

  • Billiamo

    There’s kindness, strength, and probity in that face.

  • Adam Frey

    Funny; he doesn’t look like Tom Bosley.

  • Mary E.

    Why, he doesn’t look at all like Walter Matthau! Or Tom Boswell ;-).

  • Mary E.

    Ack! Adam is right, I meant Tom Bosley. At any rate,what a gift our priests are to us.

  • hotboogers

    Or that horrible “composite sketch” …

  • peggy-o

    What an exciting ride and healing story! My cousin just interviewed Father Dowling tonight for Good Morning America tomorrow. She has been chasing the story for ABC and like all of us hoped for a miracle, but loved most of all the positive story of faith spreading through the news. Our other cousin is a priest in Hannibal and we knew it wasn’t him so it sure seemed unlikely that a living priest would be in the area. More evidence of the movements and ways of God surrounding us always.
    I kind of hoped it might be my fav Archbishop Romero but would have been pleased with a Benedictine from Conception Abbey as well.
    So glad to see this covered on Patheos catholic. The comments seemed unkind on Patheos Atheist blog. Thanks for sharing this wild mystery. My prayers to Katie and her family for continued healing.

  • ThisIsTheEnd

    It’s not kind of embarrassing, it is embarrassing. A priest in a car comes across a serious traffic accident, I’m sure it doesn’t happen every day but it can’t be that rare that the supernatural have to be invoked.

  • Manny

    The fact that he was a mystery priest actually gave the Catholic Church some good press for a change. If they had identified him up front they probably would have dug up some indiscretion that would have qualified his good work. And if they were no indiscretions in his past, which would be likely, they would have twisted the story to somehow bring up the pedophilia issue. God bless Fr. Dowling.

  • MeanLizzie

    I’m not embarrassed by it. There are things seen and unseen. We say that in our creed. I have no problem believing it.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Some would say the priest was there “by chance.” But it was St. Augustine ( I believe) who once said that if you attribute everything to chance, you don’t believe in God.

  • ThisIsTheEnd

    I’m embarrassed on behalf of the human race not in relation to any particular believer. No offense but following your creed doesn’t mean that common sense has to take a back seat.

  • MeanLizzie

    But faith has little to do with what we call “common sense.” My creed says I am open to the possibilities of things seen and unseen, natural and supernatural. I’m not embarrassed to give witness to being open to it.

  • ThisIsTheEnd

    Are you really saying that you’ll seriously consider every supernatural claim you come across? There are millions of them. So if I was to tell you that my socks regularly go missing and that I suspect demons, are you open to that possibility? So what’s the difference between faith and gullibility?

  • MeanLizzie

    Discernment. Of course I would not consider “every” supernatural claim; I’m immune to those “Mary in Toast” sightings and to be honest, LIKE MOST CATHOLICS AND THE CHURCH HERSELF, skeptical of most people claiming supernatural sightings. But in this case there were circumstances that invited discernment and consideration: the priest appeared seemingly “out of nowhere” with the road blocked off for miles; he showed up in none of the pictures, and no one saw him leave; he was not locally identifiable; he arrived at the scene of an accident; he had an accent. Taken altogether, it’s not unreasonable — for a person of faith — to consider that an angel might have been giving assistance, or a holy man who is part of our “cloud of witnesses” and our communion of saints. Given that there was a holy monk of similar build, accented and killed in a car crash at a local monastery….it made perfect sense to entertain the possibility that something graced and privileged had occurred.

    In fact, something “graced and privileged” HAD occurred…just visible instead of invisible. Gullibility is “that shadow over there looks like Mary so I am seeing Mary.” Faith is, “there are things that can be added up and I believe God can do that….” It’s as “common sense” as it gets. :-)

  • ThisIsTheEnd

    Right, you had me worried for a moment. It’s a traffic accident which are always chaotic scenes. People are notoriously unreliable witnesses (The photofit looks nothing like him). Priests tend to travel a lot by car. It shouldn’t really be a 50/50 between an angel and a priest happening upon a road accident. Well at least I understand why religious believers were so quick to jump to supernatural conclusions, so thank you. (though if it had been an Imam I doubt the supernatural would’ve got a look in) Now how to explain the “miraculous weeping tree is actually caused by aphid excrement” story? ; )