Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster was a nun whose body was discovered intact inside her simple wooden coffin in Gower, Missouri, despite the fact she was not embalmed and was buried in 2019, according to the Benedictine order of nuns she founded.
The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, which posted a lengthy statement on its website about the exhumation. Sister Wilhelmina founded the order in 1995, according to its website. The order also released photos and videos of Sister Wilhelmina’s intact body.
According to Catholic News Agency, “Hundreds of pilgrims have descended on a Benedictine monastery for religious sisters in rural Missouri” in May 2023 after “news began to spread on social media last week that the recently exhumed remains of the contemplative order’s African American foundress appear to be incorrupt, four years after her death and burial in a simple wooden coffin.” The body weighs between 80 and 90 pounds, CNA reported.
According to CNA, “incorruptible saints” in the Catholic Church are those whose bodies don’t decay. They are said to “give witness to the truth of the resurrection of the body and the life that is to come. The lack of decay is also seen as a sign of holiness: a life of grace lived so closely to Christ that sin with its corruption does not proceed in typical fashion but is miraculously held at bay.”
“Regarding what seems to be the miraculous preservation of Sister’s body, we are given the opportunity to contemplate the great gifts God gives us every day, especially the ones that are literally hidden from our eyes,” the order says.
The statement calls Lancaster’s life and death a miracle but reads, “While we can attest to Sister’s personal sanctity, we know that incorruptibility is not among the official signs taken by the Church as a miracle for sainthood, and that all things must be subjected to further scrutiny, especially by the competent authorities in the medical field. The life itself and favors received must be established as proof of holiness.”
“She was the treasure of our community and bedrock of charity,” Mother Abbess Cecilia Snell, OSB, of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, told Catholic Key when Lancaster died.
“Many years ago, our first chaplain asked Sister Wilhelmina, ‘Why did you become a religious?’ Her instantaneous reply was: ‘because I was in love with Our Lord.’ It could be easily said even in her declining years that she never fell out of love with Him,” Sister Scholastica told Catholic Key.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster Was Exhumed as Part of a Planned Reinterment in a New Shrine & the Discovery of Her Intact Body Was Made Public Unintentionally, the Order Says
The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles’ statement describes why Lancaster was exhumed. The Benedictines describe their mission as being “united with Our Lady at the foot of the Cross, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles seek above all else, a life of union with God in prayer as guided by the Rule of St. Benedict.”
“By now, most of you have heard of the events that have transpired at the Abbey, especially surrounding the exhumation of our Sister Wilhelmina. We simply want to reach out to you to clarify a few points,” it reads.
“Our Abbey had been planning the addition of a St. Joseph Shrine within the oratory for quite some time, including the reinterment of the remains of our beloved foundress, Sister Wilhelmina. Last month, in preparation for the construction of the shrine, we exhumed her, having been told to expect bones in the highly moist clay of Missouri, as she was buried in a simple wooden coffin without any embalming whatsoever four years ago,” the statement says.
“The intent was devotional, and to carry this out in the privacy of our cloistered life. Nevertheless, the discovery of what appeared to be an intact body and a perfectly preserved religious habit created an unexpected twist to our plans. We had no intent to make the discovery so public, but unfortunately, a private email was posted publicly, and the news began to spread like wildfire. However, God works in mysterious ways, and we embrace His new plan for us,” the order wrote.
“I thought I saw a completely full, intact foot and I said, ‘I didn’t just see that,’” the abbess said to Catholic News Agency. “So I looked again more carefully.”
She told CNA that she screamed, “I see her foot!” and people “cheered.”
“I mean there was just this sense that the Lord was doing this,” she said to CNA. “Right now we need hope. We need it. Our Lord knows that. And she was such a testament to hope. And faith. And trust.”
According to Catholic Key, “the order devotes approximately five hours a day to the chanting of the Mass and Divine Office. The sisters’ remaining time is spent doing manual labor (such as sewing vestments for priests all over the world, gardening, cooking, cleaning, farm work and other duties), mental prayer, and prayerful reading.”
“It would seem I’ve done a very foolish thing,” Sr. Wilhelmina stated at the time, according to Catholic Key. “After 50 years as an Oblate Sister of Providence, I am starting religious life anew as the foundress of a new community affiliated with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. To those who say that my leaving my old community to found a new one doesn’t make sense, I reply that it is understandable only in the life of faith. When other people came, I welcomed them because I wanted to share what I had. ‘The disciples were persevering in prayer with Mary the Mother of Jesus.’ This is a perfect description of the religious sisterhood that has formed.”
Jack Klein, owner of Hixson-Klein Funeral Home in Gower, Missouri, told Catholic News Agency that “he was present at Sister Wilhelmina’s burial and issued her death certificate,” and confirmed that she was not embalmed or “placed into any outer burial container.” He told CNA he “can’t understand” how her body could be so intact.
“If the body was not embalmed, and it was still intact after four years, that one kind of throws me,” David Hess, program coordinator and associate professor in the mortuary science department at Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City, told CNA. “I would have expected the body to be decomposed, maybe not all the way down to bone, but at least severely decomposed.”
One pilgrim detected a “sweet and flowery aroma,” from the body, CNA reported, but there is no odor of decomposition.
2. The Order Says About Crowds That Have Gathered to See Sister Wilhelmina’s Body: ‘We Marvel at What Is Extraordinary’
“Many have voiced concern about the disruption to our life, but we have, thankfully, remained unaffected and able to continue on in our life of ora at labora, prayer and work, as Sister Wilhelmina would have it,” the order’s statement says.
“Unless we looked out the front windows, or out at the crowds attending our Mass and Divine Offices, we would not even know people are here. An army of volunteers and our local law enforcement have stepped forward to manage the crowds, and we are deeply grateful to each of them, as they allow us to continue our life in peace, while granting the visitors a pleasant and prayerful experience at the Abbey,” it reads.
The order quoted St. Augustine, who said that “we marvel at what is extraordinary. Think of the fact that a few seeds bring forth an entire field of wheat.”
“Of this and ordinary daily miracles, he says, ‘We don’t bother to reflect on this fact because it is always there. What we notice are events that aren’t part of the ordinary course of nature. They are works that God has reserved for particular times and places to cause us amazement and dumbfound us so that we will open our minds to God’s presence and care in all events and beauties,'” the order wrote.
3. The Order Believes Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster’s ‘Whole Life & Death Was a Miracle’
The Catholic Key obituary from 2019 says that “Sister Mary Wilhelmina of the Most Holy Rosary, OSB died Wednesday, May 29 at 8:35 pm. She was born Mary Elizabeth Lancaster on April 13, 1924 on Palm Sunday. Sister Wilhelmina recently celebrated her 75th anniversary of vows and her 95th birthday.”
According to Catholic Key, Lancaster was raised in St. Louis, and wanted to become a nun since she was a child, writing a letter at age 13 requesting to go to the convent “as soon as possible.”
“Later Sister Wilhelmina was able to join the Oblate Sisters of Providence. She began her formation in 1941. As a sister, she took the new name ‘Wilhelmina’ when she took her vows. Wilhelmina was chosen in honor of her pastor, Fr. William Markoe, S.J. who encouraged her to pursue her vocation,” Catholic Key reported. “Sr. Wilhelmina spent many of her years with the Oblate Sisters of Providence teaching.”
According to Catholic Key, Lancaster “taught in the Archdioceses of Baltimore, Washington, Charleston, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Miami,” and was an archivist.
The order believes the nun’s life and death were both a miracle. “We believe that even as Sister Wilhelmina’s whole life and death was a miracle, pointing the way to Almighty God, that what she has left behind continues to point to His Resurrection and the life of glory that awaits us,” the statement says.
“The relics of a person are exhumed in the ordinary course of action for the opening of the causes of saints, leading many to believe that such a cause has been or will be opened,” the statement reads.
“As this is not the case, we continue on with a simple reinterment of our foundress, and are seeking advice on a possible opening of a cause in the future, especially as Sister has not yet reached the required minimum of five years since death in order to begin. Initial statements regarding Sister’s extraordinary physical state have already been procured, but we acknowledge that further studies must be done later, in an official capacity,” it reads.
4. Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster’s Habit Once Saved Her Life
According to Catholic Key, Lancaster was once saved by her habit while teaching in Baltimore. “The stiff guimpe (the high necked collar) deflected a knife that was thrown at her by a troubled student,” the article says.
People who want to visit “Sr Wilhelmina, please know there are thousands of people coming. If you are willing to wait in line, please bring folding chairs and umbrellas for shade if desired. There may be some food available on the grounds, but it is not guaranteed,” the order’s statement reads.
“You may arrive beginning at 8am through 8pm. We ask that all guests depart immediately after Compline. If you do not want to attend Mass at 11 am here, please avoid coming from between 10:30 and 12:30 Sunday and Monday as there is not much room. Mass on Saturday is at 4pm,” it reads.
“Please know that it will be impossible to give communion to everyone, so thank you for your understanding about that. Please note that you will still be able to see Sister’s body and take dirt from her grave after the morning of the 29th, at which point she will be placed in the glass shrine in our church,” the statement says.
“We had originally planned that the reinterment of Sister Wilhelmina on May 29th would be a simple, private ceremony involving the Sisters only, but things have certainly taken an unexpected turn since our original plan! For those inquiring, we will do a Rosary procession sometime around 4:30, and will place her body in the St. Joseph Shrine after that.”
5. The Bishop of Kansas City Called the Condition of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster’s Body ‘Remarkable’
Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese released a statement on Lancaster:
The condition of the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has understandably generated widespread interest and raised important questions. At the same time, it is important to protect the integrity of the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina to allow for a thorough investigation.
The Church has an established process for determining if someone is a saint and worthy of veneration. No such process has yet been initiated on behalf of Sister Wilhelmina. It is understandable that many would be driven by faith and devotion to see the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina given the remarkable condition of her body, but visitors should not touch or venerate her body, or treat them as relics.
I invite all the Faithful to continue praying during this time of evaluation and determination for God’s will in the lives of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles; for all women religious; and all the baptized in our common vocation to holiness, with hope and trust in the Lord.