Ralph McInerny dies at 80; Notre Dame scholar wrote Father Dowling novels

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Ralph McInerny, a longtime professor of philosophy and medieval studies at the University of Notre Dame who also was a popular mystery writer best known for his Father Dowling series of novels, has died. He was 80.

McInerny died Jan. 29 at Our Lady of Peace Hospital in Mishawaka, Ind., after a long illness, according to the university.

A member of the Notre Dame faculty from 1955 until his retirement in 2009, McInerny gained international renown as a scholar, author and lecturer who specialized in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century theologian and philosopher.


McInerny, who also wrote and lectured on ethics, philosophy of religion and medieval philosophy, directed the university’s Medieval Institute from 1978 to 1985.

And from 1979 to 2006, he directed its Jacques Maritain Center, which is primarily an archive for the study of materials related to the 20th century French Catholic philosopher and his influence in the United States.

McInerny “was one of the leading scholars worldwide on the philosophical thought of Thomas Aquinas,” said John O’Callaghan, an associate professor of philosophy who replaced McInerny as director of the Maritain Center.

“He produced many works of philosophy, both commentary on Aquinas [and] philosophical works inspired by Aquinas,” he said.

And then there was McInerny, the prolific author of approximately 100 novels.

Beginning with “Her Death of Cold” in 1977, he wrote more than two dozen mysteries featuring Father Dowling, which led to the 1989-91 “Father Dowling Mysteries” TV series starring Tom Bosley.

Father Dowling is “a priest detective whose secular interest in crime is merely a mask for his deeper concern for the spiritual welfare of the victims and criminals involved,” wrote James R. McCahery in the “St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers.”


Among McInerny’s other series are the “Andrew Broom” mysteries, the “Sister Mary Teresa” mysteries (under the pseudonym Monica Quill), and the “University of Notre Dame” mysteries featuring Roger Knight, a Notre Dame professor, and his brother Philip, a semi-retired private investigator.

In 1993, McInerny received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention.

“Stained Glass,” his final Father Dowling mystery, was published in October 2009. “Sham Rock,” his final mystery featuring the Knight brothers, will be published in April.

“Looking back at his career, you see just how prolific he was,” said Matt Martz, an associate editor at St. Martin’s Press who was McInerny’s editor for the Father Dowling and the Knight mysteries the last two years.

“It’s amazing how he was able to publish these commercial works alongside the academic ones at the same time,” said Martz. “And his mysteries are completely beloved by his fans out there” -- especially the Father Dowling books.

“It really was his flagship mystery series,” said Martz. “A lot of what is said about Dowling is he’s a guy who has taken his lumps in his earlier life and came out the other end very humbled and had a very generous spirit because of that.”


Born Feb. 24, 1929, in Minneapolis, McInerny served a stint in the Marine Corps from 1946 to ’47.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., in 1951, a master’s from the University of Minnesota in 1952 and a doctorate in philosophy from Laval University in Quebec in 1954.

He taught for a year at Creighton University in Omaha before joining the faculty at Notre Dame in 1955.

McInerny’s wife, Constance, died in 2002.

He is survived by his daughters Cathleen Brownell, Mary Hosford, Anne Policinski and Beth Hark; his sons David and Daniel; his sisters Mary Williams and Theresa Coulombe; his brothers Steve, Roger, Ray, Dennis and Maurice; and 17 grandchildren.