Father Dowling Mysteries

Father Dowling Mysteries (also known as Father Dowling Investigates in the United Kingdom)[1] is an American mystery television series that aired from January 20, 1989 to May 2, 1991. Prior to the series, a TV movie aired on November 30, 1987. For its first season, the show was on NBC; it moved to ABC for its last two seasons.

Father Dowling Mysteries
Father Dowling Mysteries Title Screen.png
Based onCharacters from the Father Dowling Mystery Books by Ralph McInerny
Developed byDean Hargrove
Joel Steiger
StarringTom Bosley
Tracy Nelson
James Stephens
Mary Wickes
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
No. of seasons3
No. of episodes43 + 1 TV movie (list of episodes)
Running time46 minutes (per episode)
Production companiesThe Fred Silverman Company
Dean Hargrove Productions
Viacom Productions
DistributorCBS Television Distribution
Original networkNBC (season 1)
ABC (seasons 2-3)
Original releaseNovember 30, 1987 (1987-11-30) (TV movie)
January 20, 1989 (1989-01-20) –
May 2, 1991 (1991-05-02)


The show features a Catholic priest, Father Dowling, who solves murders, abductions and other mysteries in his Chicago parish, assisted by a young streetwise nun, Sister Stephanie, in spite of hindrance from the Bishop's representative, Father Prestwick.

The show is based upon characters created by Ralph McInerny[2] in a series of mystery novels; but neither the pilot TV movie nor the subsequent regular season episodes are actual adaptations of any of McInerny's stories. The show was also heavily influenced by G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown novels. Many consider the series to be an Americanized version of Father Brown rather than an adaptation of McInerny's works. When asked, few are aware that the series is not based on the Father Brown books, but on McInerny's stories.[citation needed]

The series was developed for television by Dean Hargrove and Joel Steiger, and produced by The Fred Silverman Company and Dean Hargrove Productions in association with Viacom Productions.


Father Francis ("Frank") Dowling (Tom Bosley) is a Catholic priest who continually stumbles upon murders, abductions and other crimes in his parish (the fictional Parish of St Michael's) in Chicago, Illinois. Because of the Chicago connection, many of the cases are mob-related. His legal first name of Francis is revealed in the episode The Movie Mystery, when he's talking to the detective in charge of the case.

Fr. Frank is assisted by Sister Stephanie ("Steve") Oskowski, a nun assigned to the parish to minister to its members. It is Sr. Steve who does much of the legwork in the investigations. She's a streetwise nun with a Polish surname who grew up in a rough housing project in the diocese. She can hotwire a car, and pick any lock, among other things. Because she knows the "language of the streets" she uses this to her advantage (not just when investigating a mystery, but also in her ministry). Although she is much younger than Father Frank, the two work smoothly together as a team. He is not just a mentor to her, it's obvious she looks up to him as the father she never had.

Father Dowling has an identical twin brother, Blaine (also played by Tom Bosley). A thief and con artist, who isn't above framing his brother for his crimes, Blaine appears three times: in The Face in the Mirror Mystery, The Woman Scorned Mystery, and The Fugitive Priest Mystery.

Father Philip Prestwick, who provides comic relief, is a social-climbing assistant to the Archbishop. Father Phil just happens to drop in before every meal.

Mrs Marie Gillespie is both the parish secretary and the housekeeper of the Rectory (in which the parish priest lives).

The show's format in effect creates a pseudo-family: Father Dowling and his elderly housekeeper, Marie, behave like an old married couple, with Father Dowling acting like the regular father in a conventional family (somewhat aided by his identification in the minds of the audience with Mr Cunningham, the character Bosley played on the TV series Happy Days). Both of them treat Sister Stephanie as though she's their daughter. The humour largely emerges from the intrusions into this "family circle" by Father Phil, who, like an unwanted relation, disrupts the cosy informality of the household. The humour develops from the fact that Phil, in his innocence, never realises that his presence is largely an irritant to the others.

A further recurring character is a female Chicago police officer, Detective Sergeant Clancy (Regina Krueger), who is Father Dowling's friend and principal police contact in the first two seasons. In season 3 Dick O'Neill replaces her in some episodes, as Lieutenant Foster, an old friend of Frank's in the police, and a devout Catholic, who Frank browbeats into doing him occasional favours during the investigations.

The mysteries usually begin with a mysterious visitor to St Michael's church, or to the parish Rectory next door where Father Dowling lives. In the first season, Sister Steve lives in a convent with the other nuns in her Order ("The Pretty Baby Mystery"); but in the second season she takes her meals at the Rectory, and when her brother is accused of murder (in the episode "The Sanctuary Mystery") he's shown sheltering in her bedroom at the Rectory. Throughout all three seasons she's also a chauffeur for Father Dowling, who doesn't drive. Because she's a car enthusiast, and reformed car thief, she handles the parish station wagon like a professional stuntman.

Between attending to parish secretarial and housekeeping duties, Marie takes phone messages for the duo while they're out travelling all over the city investigating their latest case. Meanwhile, Fr. Phil pops in and out of the Rectory, almost always at mealtimes. Marie and Father Phil provide light relief together, with a comic double-act, forever squabbling over Father Dowling's involvement in police matters, or about parish duties. However, Marie always emerges victorious.

Phil's devotion to never missing a meal at the Rectory is gradually developed into a running gag. In addition, Phil's attempts at keeping on the Bishop's good side (another running gag) are a further source of comic relief.

In the episode The Legacy Mystery (aired April 4th, 1990), Tom Bosley was reunited with his Happy Days co-star, Marion Ross, who plays the mother of a wealthy businessman accused of stealing valuable artwork.


The pilot was a two-hour TV movie titled Fatal Confession, which originally aired on NBC on November 30, 1987.

There were few similarities to the books written by McInerny, with the principal character even changing his name (in the novels, he was Roger Dowling), while the setting was changed from a rural parish in the small town of Fox River to the city of Chicago – a setting which was borrowed from another series of novels by McInerny, concerning a Chicago nun. For TV, the nun changed her name, became streetwise, lost many years of age, and metamorphosed into Father Dowling's youthful assistant.[3]

Father Prestwick did not appear in the 1987 pilot. In the first episode of the series, "The Missing Body Mystery", he is brought in by the Bishop to evaluate Father Dowling's parish, and Prestwick is initially appointed to replace him. At the end of the second episode, Prestwick is reassigned to a parish in Alaska: hence he does not appear again until the final Season 1 episode, "The Pretty Baby Mystery" (when it's said he had offended the Bishop in Anchorage, Alaska, and been kicked out there). From the start of Season 2 he becomes one of the regular cast.

Regular seriesEdit

The show was due to begin in 1988, but because of a writers' strike it did not begin to air weekly until January 1989.

For the first season, on NBC, the episodes were principally written by Supervising Producer Robert Hamilton, who contributed five of the scripts, but Hamilton was dropped when NBC cancelled the show after just eight episodes.

When ABC picked up the show for the second and third seasons (initially as a mid-season replacement), the show's executive producer, Dean Hargrove, together with Joyce Burditt, became the backbone of the writing team, frequently writing episodes jointly (Hargrove had begun his career as a scriptwriter, on the TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). And Gerry Conway, whose career began as a well-regarded writer at Marvel Comics, was now appointed as a script consultant, initially acting as script editor on the series before being promoted to co-producer for the third season, also writing many of the episodes.

For the third and longest season (the show's only full season), Brian Clemens, who had been producer and executive producer on The Avengers and had written many of its best regarded episodes, was added as a script consultant, and wrote or co-wrote many third-season episodes—a number of them in collaboration with co-producer Gerry Conway.

Although the show was set in Chicago, the first season was actually filmed in Denver, Colorado, where the filming locations used included the Church of the Annunciation, at 3621 Humboldt Street, which stood in for St Michael's parish church.[4]

At the time the show was being made, Bosley's co-star Tracy Nelson ("Sister Steve") was married to actor William R Moses, the featured guest star who plays her ex-boyfriend in Season One ("The Man Who Came to Dinner Mystery").

The theme music for the regular series was composed by Dick De Benedictis.

The regular series episodes ran approximately 46 minutes 30 seconds.


Father Dowling (Tom Bosley) and Sister Steve (Tracy Nelson)

The program featured many notable guest stars, some before they had achieved fame, including: John Astin, Jack Bannon, Roscoe Lee Browne, Steven Culp, Stacy Edwards, Fionnula Flanagan, Michelle Forbes, Kurt Fuller, Annie Golden, Grant Heslov, Laurie Holden, Stanley Kamel, Andreas Katsulas, Yaphet Kotto, Diane Ladd, Anthony LaPaglia, Scott Marlowe, David McCallum, Colm Meaney, William R. Moses, Craig Richard Nelson, Leslie Nielsen, Ethan Phillips, John Slattery, Brenda Strong, Robin Thomas, Sada Thompson, Tony Todd, John Vernon, Kate Vernon, Robert Walden and David Warner.


SeasonEpisodesOriginally aired
First airedLast airedNetwork
TV-movieNovember 30, 1987 (1987-11-30)NBC
18January 20, 1989 (1989-01-20)March 10, 1989 (1989-03-10)
213January 4, 1990 (1990-01-04)April 26, 1990 (1990-04-26)ABC
322September 20, 1990 (1990-09-20)May 2, 1991 (1991-05-02)

After its first season, NBC cancelled the show. It was picked up by ABC and aired for two more seasons. In total, Father Dowling Mysteries comprises a 2-hour TV movie plus 43 one-hour episodes.

Production creditsEdit

  • Executive Producers Fred Silverman and Dean Hargrove
  • Executive in Charge of Production Mike Moder
  • Supervising Producer Robert Hamilton (season 1)
  • Supervising Producer Robert Schlitt (season 2)
  • Produced by Barry Steinberg (season 1,2)
  • Co-Producer David Solomon (season 1,2)

Home mediaEdit

CBS DVD (distributed by Paramount) has released all three seasons on DVD in Region 1.[5][6][7]

On June 6, 2017, CBS DVD released Father Dowling Mysteries: The Complete Series on DVD in Region 1.[8]

In Region 2, Acorn Media released the first season on DVD in the UK on June 18, 2012. However, it was released under the title Father Dowling Investigates.

In Region 4, Madman Entertainment released the first season on DVD in Australia on November 2, 2011.

There was also a VHS released in region 1 on the 24 of January 2000 of the "Fatal Confession" TV movie.

DVD Name Ep # Release dates
Region 1 Region 2 Region 4
The Complete First Season 9 February 7, 2012 June 18, 2012 November 2, 2011
The Complete Second Season 13 July 10, 2012 N/A N/A
The Complete Third and Final Season 22 March 12, 2013 N/A N/A
The Complete Series 44 June 6, 2017 N/A N/A


  1. ^ "Father Dowling Mysteries (1989-1991) — Release Info". IMDb. Retrieved 2017-08-12.
  2. ^ Biography of Ralph McInerny - Notre Dame Website Archived August 18, 2005, at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ "Ralph McInerny". The Daily Telegraph. London. February 18, 2010.
  4. ^ Obituary of Tom Bosley
  5. ^ "Father Dowling Mysteries DVD news: Announcement for Father Dowling Mysteries - The 1st Season". TVShowsOnDVD.com. 2011-11-21. Archived from the original on 2016-01-12. Retrieved 2014-04-25.
  6. ^ "Father Dowling Mysteries DVD news: Announcement for Father Dowling Mysteries - Season 2". TVShowsOnDVD.com. 2012-04-16. Archived from the original on 2014-04-26. Retrieved 2014-04-25.
  7. ^ "Father Dowling Mysteries DVD news: Announcement for Father Dowling Mysteries - The 3rd Season". TVShowsOnDVD.com. Archived from the original on 2014-04-26. Retrieved 2014-04-25.
  8. ^ This Summer, Solve the Secret of 'The Complete Series' Set! Archived 2017-03-29 at the Wayback Machine

External linksEdit