The Incorrupt Nun of Missouri: A Sign of Holiness or a Natural Phenomenon?
On April 28th, 2023, a surprising discovery was made in a small town in Missouri. The body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, a Benedictine nun who died in 2019 at the age of 95, was exhumed to make room for a building project. At that time the body was found to be incorrupt, meaning that it showed no signs of decay. The sisters had expected to find little more than bones in the coffin and were surprised to recover a well-preserved body in an equally fresh-looking habit. The sisters had not intended to make the discovery public, but when a private email was shared detailing what had been found, public interest was aroused, and the news spread quickly.
This unusual state of preservation, even though the body was not embalmed and had been buried in a simple wooden coffin, attracted the attention of many Catholics who considered it a miracle and a possible sign of sanctity. There have been many incorruptible saints, and they give witness to the truth of the Catholic faith and “to the truth of the resurrection of the physical body and the life to come,” said Catholic News Agency.
Thousands of pilgrims traveled to the monastery of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, in Gower, Missouri, to venerate the remains of the nun, who was the founder of the contemplative order of sisters known for their popular recordings of beautiful Gregorian chant and traditional hymns. The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph commented that “the condition of the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has understandably generated widespread interest and raised important questions.”
The Life and Legacy of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster
Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster was born Mary Elizabeth Lancaster in St. Louis, Missouri in 1924. She was raised in a devout Catholic family and had a mystical experience during her first Communion when she was 9 years old. Sister Wilhelmina said she saw Jesus, who asked her, “Will you be mine?” She said He was very handsome, and she at once felt called to be His.
At the age of 13, Sister Wilhelmina wrote to the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, a religious order for black women, expressing her desire to become a nun. She was accepted and entered the convent in 1944, taking the name Wilhelmina. She made her final vows in 1950 and served as a teacher and principal in several schools run by the order.
Sister Wilhelmina felt a deeper call to a more contemplative and traditional form of religious life, inspired by the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Teresa of Avila. She also had a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and wanted to follow her example of consecration to Jesus. She obtained permission from her superiors and the Vatican to leave the Oblate Sisters of Providence and start a new foundation of Benedictine nuns, dedicated to prayer, work, and chant.
In 1995, she moved first to Scranton, Pennsylvania, and then to a small farm in Missouri, and with the help of a member of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, and joined by other women who shared her vision, the new community began. She had struggled for years to get her old order to return to wearing the habit, which it had discarded in favor of secular clothing. Sister Wilhelmina personally believed that the habit signified the wearer as a bride of Christ, and refused to give it up.
Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster named the new community the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, and became its first prioress at the age of 70. The nuns of Sister Wilhelmina’s community still wear a traditional habit, and the Traditional Latin Mass, rather than the Novus Ordo, is in use by their pastor. Like so many others, once she had rediscovered the Latin Mass, she fell in love with it.
Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster was a woman of faith, courage, and love, who overcame many challenges and obstacles in her life. She was a pioneer and a trailblazer, who founded the first traditional Benedictine order for women in the United States. She was also a mentor, who nurtured and formed many young women who joined her community. She was a witness and a model, who lived the Gospel and the Rule of St. Benedict with fidelity and zeal. She was a friend and a servant, who cared for the needs of her sisters and the people around her. She was a lover and a spouse, who gave herself completely to Jesus and His Church. She led the community with wisdom, humility, and joy, until she died in 2019.
Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster’s incorrupt body is a mystery and a wonder, that has stirred the curiosity and the devotion of many people. For some, it is a sign of God’s grace and power, that has preserved the body of his faithful servant from the corruption of death. For the Catholic Church, it is a matter of investigation and discernment, that requires careful and rigorous examination, before any official declaration or recognition can be made.
An associate professor in the Salt Lake Community College mortuary science department, Mr. David Hess, told the Catholic News Agency that Sister Wilhelmina’s pristine condition was hard to explain. “I would have expected the body to be decomposed, maybe not all the way down to bone, but at least severely decomposed.”
One person, while praying over the body of Sister Wilhelmina, said she smelled a “sweet and flowery aroma,” coming from the body, and a journalist from EWTN was startled to note that there was no odor of decomposition. Mr. Hess also noticed the lack of any offensive odor, saying, “It’s kind of strange, if the body was not embalmed, that there would be no odor.”
The nuns at Gower Abbey released the following statement. “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.”
Whatever the cause or the meaning of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster’s apparent incorruptibility, one thing is certain: her life and her legacy are what will eventually determine her sanctity. Her body may or may not decay one day, but her soul and her spirit will live forever in the presence of God and in the hearts of those who knew and loved her. The condition of her body may be a miracle, but her example and her intercession are a gift and a blessing to the Church and the world, while her love and faith are a testimony and a challenge for all who seek to follow Christ and His Mother.
Shortly after Memorial Day, the nuns enclosed Sister Wilhelmina’s bodily remains behind glass panels to protect her, and she can still be seen inside the church where she had given her heart to God. The Catholic Church has not officially declared her body to be a miracle or a sign of holiness and has not to my knowledge opened a cause for her canonization. The Church requires a thorough investigation and verification of any alleged cases of incorruptibility, as well as evidence of heroic virtue and miracles attributed to the person’s intercession, before declaring someone a saint. She has been added to this list of incorruptibles because of public interest.
Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, pray for us!
The Benedictines of Mary have a website with more information on their founder, Sister Wilhelmina, and you can go to it if you follow this link here.
The sisters are also currently working on a feature length drama tentatively named "Incorruptible" that will be retracing Sister Wilhelmina's steps and uncovering the pivotal moments that inspired her to lead a life of prayer and devotion to the Lord. The film will also provide a glimpse of how Sister Wilhelmina's legacy continues through the work and prayer of her Benedictine sisters. Produced in association with and for the benefit of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles. Producer Royce Hood brings you the incredible story of the life & faith of Sister Wilhelmina, from her origins to her legacy to the discovery of her incorrupt body.
(First photo of Sister Wilhelmina by Grapalicious - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=137645691)
(Second photo credit: Kelsay Wicks/CNA)
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