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Body of Benedictine Sisters’ Foundress Thought to Be Incorrupt

In recent days, a Benedictine monastery in rural Missouri has attracted hundreds of pilgrims following the news that the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, the African American foundress of the contemplative Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, may be incorruptible. Despite her death and burial in a simple wooden coffin four years ago, her body appears to have remained remarkably preserved.

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photo: Kelsey Wicks

Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster established the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles in 1995 at the age of 70, leaving her previous community, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, after more than 50 years of service. She was known for her dedication to the traditional Latin Mass, Benedictine contemplation, and the Liturgy of the Hours. At the age of 95, on May 29, 2019, the Solemnity of the Ascension, she passed away.

On the same feast day four years later, the abbess and sisters decided to transfer her body to a final resting place within their monastery chapel, as is customary for founders and foundresses. However, instead of finding only bones, the Benedictine sisters discovered a coffin containing a seemingly intact body. Remarkably, despite the absence of embalming and the presence of a crack in the wooden coffin that allowed moisture and dirt to enter over the course of those four years, the body had not decayed significantly.

Mother Cecilia, the current abbess of the community, stated, “We believe she may be the first African American woman to be found incorrupt.” As the head of the monastery, she was the first to examine the contents of the coffin. Although the body was covered in mold due to the high levels of condensation within the cracked coffin, very little decomposition had occurred.

The discovery left the community in awe. Initially, the abbess thought she saw a fully intact foot, which took her by surprise. Upon closer examination, she confirmed the presence of the foot, leading to a jubilant cheer from the gathered community. There was a profound sense that this was a divine act, bringing hope, faith, and trust to those in need.

The Catholic Church has a long-standing tradition of venerating “incorruptible saints,” over a hundred of whom have been beatified or canonized. These saints are referred to as incorruptible because their bodies, or parts thereof, resist the natural process of decay. Even with modern embalming techniques, bodies are subject to decomposition. The preservation of incorruptible bodies is seen as a testament to the reality of the resurrection of the body and the eternal life that awaits believers. It is also regarded as a sign of holiness, demonstrating a life lived in close union with Christ, where corruption is miraculously held at bay.

Clarifying rumors, the abbess emphasized that there was no flood opening the grave or a midnight examination by flashlight, as exaggerated in some accounts. The process of examining the coffin required a flashlight due to the lack of visibility in the dark crack. Mindful of the crack and the dirt, the sisters carefully removed the body. Although the skeletal remains should have weighed around 20 pounds, they estimated the body to weigh between 80 and 90 pounds.

The sisters have compiled a fact sheet to address inquiries about the exhumation. They reported that Sister Wilhelmina’s body was remarkably preserved, with her crown, bouquet of flowers, profession candle, crucifix, and rosary all intact. Particularly noteworthy was the preservation of her holy habit, made from natural fibers, which Sister Wilhelmina strongly advocated for throughout her religious life. The synthetic veil remained perfectly intact, while the coffin’s lining, made of similar material, had completely deteriorated.

The abbess underscored the significance of the habit

‘s preservation, as it serves as a powerful symbol that life extends beyond the present realm. Observers see the habit as a reminder of the transcendental and of the ultimate destination: heaven, hell, and purgatory. Such preservation is not naturally possible, affirming the reality of God’s protection and serving to reignite and strengthen faith.

Regarding the next steps, the abbess explained that there is no instruction manual on what to do with an incorruptible body. Initially, they cleaned Sister Wilhelmina’s body with hot water, removing a thick layer of mold from her face. Exposure to air and the cleaning process caused a partial loss of volume and a darkening of the skin. To restore her appearance, the sisters created a wax mask for her face, while also applying wax to her hands.

The body will be displayed in the sisters’ chapel until May 29, when a Rosary procession is planned. Afterward, Sister Wilhelmina’s body will be placed in a glass case near the altar of St. Joseph in the chapel, allowing an increasing number of devotees to pay their respects.

News of the incorruptible body quickly spread through text messages and social media, attracting hundreds of pilgrims from far and wide. Many traveled long distances, such as from Kentucky, Illinois, and neighboring areas of Missouri, to visit the incorrupt sister. They came to pray before her body and to learn more about this woman who is regarded as deeply holy.

Pilgrims expressed their profound emotions upon witnessing the incorruptible body. Many were moved to tears, feeling a genuine and significant connection. For them, it was a meaningful and authentic experience. Amidst a world filled with chaos and darkness, the sight of Sister Wilhelmina’s preserved body served as a reminder of what awaits in the future—a glimpse of God’s grace and a testament to the enduring hope for believers.

The abbess believes that the preservation of Sister Wilhelmina’s body conveys the same message through the lens of her Catholic faith: heaven is real, and the resurrection is a certainty, especially during these challenging times for the Church and the world. Her message to all is one of hope, imploring people to have faith, knowing that God listens, loves, and remains present.

While the Church has not yet declared Sister Wilhelmina’s case miraculous or acknowledged her incorruptibility, both the sisters of her community and the pilgrims visiting the monastery recognize that something extraordinary is occurring in Gower, Missouri. It is a profound reminder that life continues beyond death, a miracle that rekindles faith and inspires belief in the eternal journey that lies ahead.

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