It was in USA Today, so it had to be true.
Last August, Katie Lentz, a sophomore public health major at Tulane University, was driving to Sunday morning church services when a drunk driver on a Missouri farmland highway lost control of his truck, crossed the median and plowed head-on into her car.
The collision was so intense that Katie’s car – an older but stout Mercedes – crumpled and rolled over several times, coming to rest on the driver’s side with Katie’s head near the pavement.
For two hours, emergency personnel with the latest “jaws of life” machinery worked feverishly to slice open her path to freedom. The clock was ticking. Katie’s Mercedes was so well built the original set of extrication tools didn’t do the job, and a backup set was needed.
Pinned inside her car, Katie’s vital signs were fading. The impact had broken 15 bones – some were compound fractures that were sticking through the skin – and lacerated her liver and spleen. Katie’s blood pressure had dropped to 60 over 40. Somehow, despite the excruciating pain, she had remained conscious, but she was feeling “a little sleepy.”
“I was thinking, ‘I have to stay awake! I have to stay awake!’” Katie said. “I asked whoever was there – the firemen or the EMTs – ‘please just keep asking me the same questions. I don’t care if I’ve answered them already.’ I wanted to keep talking so I would stay awake.”
About an hour into the ordeal, a quiet, gray-haired man, dressed in black with a Roman collar, approached the scene. He told emergency personnel he was a Catholic priest and asked the supervisor on the scene if he could help.
Katie never saw the priest. She only could hear him. He spoke in a crisp Irish brogue. She saw him with her ears.
“I don’t remember what his exact prayer was,” Katie recalled. “I know he absolved me, and then I believe he anointed me as well. And then he stepped back, and then I called him over again because my legs were in a ridiculous amount of pain. I asked him to come back and pray for my legs, and he did that. I think he stayed at the scene for a little while longer, just quietly praying the rosary.”
When rescue workers finally decided to right the car and pull Katie through the open roof – a risky but necessary procedure to save her life – the helicopter on the scene whisked her to a hospital 10 minutes away in her hometown of Quincy, Ill., fearing Katie could not afford the extra 20 minutes needed to fly her to a larger trauma center in St. Louis.
“That really put things in perspective for me,” Katie said. “You can’t watch a TV show in 20 minutes. That’s a little amount of time.”
By the time the helicopter took off, the Irish priest had vanished. The rescue workers, some of them Catholic in a small-knit community, had never seen him before. USA Today reported that of the 70 pictures taken at the accident scene, there was no image of the priest, either approaching the car to anoint Katie or praying on the periphery.
Suddenly, at the speed of light, the story of “The Angel Priest” went viral. The intrigue mounted the next several days when there were no explanations for the angel’s mysterious appearance and sudden disappearance.
For Katie, the truth floated in softly, like an ancient Irish melody, a few days after the accident. She was in the ICU, and her aunt brought a stranger into her room and quickly closed the door. It was Father Patrick Dowling, a priest of the Jefferson City Diocese, an Irishman who was so blissfully ignorant of the Internet that he did not know the world had been looking for an angel.
“Katie, this is the priest who prayed with you at the scene of the accident,” Katie’s aunt told her.
Even heavily sedated, Katie understood.
“I knew it was his voice – it’s a hard one to forget – and I just started crying,” Katie said. “I wanted him to know I wasn’t crying because I was disappointed – I was just really emotional. So many people told me, ‘Oh, I wish he wouldn’t have come forward and it would have always been a mystery – he would have been an angel.’ I don’t feel that way at all. That would have been wonderful, too, but to me he was my earthly angel. At that point when I needed spiritual encouragement the most, he was there for me, and he was doing his job as a man of God.
“I believe the steps of the righteous are ordered by the Lord, and he was definitely in the right place at the right time. And that was definitely God-directed.”
Besides her recovery, there were other things Katie considers miracles that day. One of firemen on the scene turned out to be a family friend. A man who went to Katie’s aid at the accident scene and then went to the hospital afterward turned out to be her fourth cousin that her family had never met.
“One of the sheriff’s deputies said he had worked fatalities in New Jersey for 27 years before coming to Missouri, and he had never seen a more horrific crash and someone survive it,” Katie said. “Everyone on the scene that day knows it was a miracle that everything happened the way it did and I got out alive.”
Katie is making a marvelous recovery. She returned to Tulane earlier this month, and she has resumed physical therapy, especially on her badly injured right leg. Before returning to New Orleans, a Catholic school in Quincy – Blessed Sacrament – asked her to come for a visit. Blessed Sacrament students had sold T-shirts and raised money to help Katie’s family defray some of her medical expenses.
Katie told the children God had shown her two things in the midst of her suffering. The first was: “Just trust me in whatever it is, whether it’s a life-changing situation or just dealing with tests or quizzes – there’s nothing too big or too small for God.”
The second was, don’t be afraid to pray out loud.
“I kept repeating while I was in the car, ‘Pray with me. Pray out loud.’ I wanted to hear the prayers,” Katie said. “I prayed while I was in the car, too, but hearing other people pray for me gave me comfort and it gave me hope and it gave me peace and, ultimately, it gave me a miracle.”
As for the drunk driver, Katie said she hopes the life he nearly took will be “a wake-up call for him.” The man took a plea agreement of 120 days in a state drug and alcohol abuse program, five years probation – meaning he must remain drug- and alcohol-free – and 800 hours of community service, which includes talking to high school students about drunk driving.
“The 800 hours is how long I was in the hospital,” Katie said. “That’s how we came up with that number, and the judge thought that was very fair.
“I want the best for him. I’m not saying this was a good thing, but a lot of good has come out of it. I hope the best will come out of it for him, and that’s knowing God and having a relationship with Jesus. I want him to get his life back on track. I know God can do that.”
Katie is using a cane, mostly for balance. She has four more months of physical therapy ahead. She does not need a weather report to tell her when a thunderstorm is coming – her body gets “a little achy” when the rain is approaching.
But she is still here – thank God – and she is 20 years old and vibrant and she wants to be a dentist some day to give everyone a big smile.
And, yes, Mardi Gras is coming.
“I’ll definitely take my cane,” Katie said. “You never know, I can use it the regular way or I can probably put it up in the air and catch some beads. It’ll come in handy.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was in USA Today, so it had to be true.