Thousands were flocking to Missouri over Memorial Day weekend to view – and possibly touch – the preserved body of an exhumed Catholic nun before she is interred in a glass case for display at the abbey she founded.
Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, who died in 2019 at the age of 70, was the founder of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, established in rural Gower in 1995. Her remains were exhumed last month in preparation for construction of a planned St Joseph Shrine to her within the abbey’s oratory.
Her fellow sisters had “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 abbey said in a statement on their website.
Instead, the nun’s religious habit and body –which had not been embalmed – were almost perfectly preserved, despite the fact that Sister Wilhelmina had not been embalmed.
“The discovery of what appeared to be an intact body and a perfectly preserved religious habit created an unexpected twist to our plans,” the congregation wrote. “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.”
Hordes descended upon rural Gower following the news, with an average of 200 vehicles per hour arriving the abbey’s property on Sunday, Clinton County Sheriff Larry Fish said in a Facebook update – adding that he expected 15,000 people by the end of the day.
The abbey warned that the morning of Memorial Day would mark the final opportunity to take dirt from the nun’s grave; later in the day, a rosary procession would be held, following which her body would be placed under glass in the St Joseph Shrine.
In the Catholic Church, a body that does not decompose naturally as expected – such as Sister Wilhelmina’s reportedly hasn’t – can be considered “incorrupt” and a sign of sanctity on the possible journey to sainthood.
“The only incorrupt remains considered extraordinary and thereby miraculous would be those which had not undergone some preservation process but had retained their lifelike color, freshness and flexibility for many years after death,” the Catholic Education Resource Center explains on its website. “Spiritually, such a sign is indicative of the person’s mortal remains being prepared for the glorious resurrection of the body.
“Although the Church is very reluctant to accept incorruptibility as a miracle in itself, it nevertheless does testify to the holiness of the person.”
There has been no official determination that Sister Wilhelmina’s remains are “incorrupt,” however, nor is there any cause underway for the nun’s canonization, the Catholic News Agency reported Sunday.
“The local ordinary, Bishop Vann Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who has visited the monastery to see Sister Wilhelmina’s remains, has said that a ‘thorough investigation’ is needed to answer ‘important questions’ raised by the state of her body, but there has been no word if and when such an analysis might take place,” CNA reported.
Addressing the investigation question, the abbey’s sisters wrote: “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.
“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.
“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.”