Hundreds of people flocked to a small Missouri town this week and last saw a black nun whose body has barely decayed since 2019. Some say it’s a sign of holiness in Catholicism, while others say lack of decay may not be as rare as people think.
Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster was exhumed in April, according to a statement from the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, in Gower, Missouri.
The nuns were preparing for the addition of a St. Joseph shrine, and it involved “the reburial of the remains of our beloved foundress, Sister Wilhelmina,” the statement said.
When they exhumed Lancaster, they were told to expect only bones, as she had been buried in a simple wooden coffin without any embalming four years ago.
Instead, they discovered an intact body and “a perfectly preserved religious habit,” the statement said. The nuns had no intention of publicizing the discovery, but someone released a private email publicly and “the news started spreading like wildfire.”
Volunteers and local law enforcement helped manage crowds in the town of around 1,800, as people came from all over the country to view and touch Lancaster’s body.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Samuel Dawson, who is Catholic and came from Kansas City with his son last week. “It was very calm. Just very respectful.
Dawson said there were a few hundred people when he visited and he saw many out-of-state cars.
Visitors were allowed to touch it, Dawson said, adding that the nuns “wanted to make it accessible to the public … because in real life it was always accessible to people.”
The monastery said in a statement that Lancaster’s body would be placed in a glass shrine in its church on Monday. Visitors will still be able to see her body and remove soil from her grave, but they will not be able to touch her.
The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph also released a statement.
“The state of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster’s remains has understandably generated wide interest and raised important questions,” the diocese said. “At the same time, it is important to protect the integrity of Sister Wilhelmina’s mortal remains to allow for a thorough investigation.”
“Incorruptibility has been verified in the past, but it’s very rare. There is a well-established process to pursue the cause of holiness, but it has not yet been initiated in this case,” the diocese added.
The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles also said Lancaster had not yet reached the required minimum of five years since death for the sainthood process to begin.
Rebecca George, a professor of anthropology at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, said the lack of body decomposition may not be as rare as people expected.
George said the “mummification” of unembalmed bodies is common on university premises and that bodies could remain in storage for many years, if permitted.
Caskets and clothing also help preserve bodies, she said.
“Generally, when we bury people, we don’t exhume them. We don’t get to watch them a few years later,” George said. “With 100 years, there may be nothing left. But when you’re only a few years away, that’s not unexpected.
Trisha Ahmed is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Trisha Ahmed on Twitter: @TrishaAhmed15.