Black nun whose body has shown little deterioration since 2019. Death draws crowds to rural Missouri

Hundreds of people flocked to a small Missouri town this week and most recently to see a black nun whose body has barely decomposed since 2019. Some say this is a sign of holiness in Catholicism, while others say the lack of decay may not be as rare as people think.

Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster was exhumed in April, according to a statement by the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles in Gower, Missouri.

The nuns had prepared for the addition of a St. Joseph shrine, and that included “the reburial of the remains of our beloved foundress, Sister Wilhelmina,” the statement said.

When they exhumed Lancaster they were told to count only on bones as she had been buried four years earlier in a plain wooden coffin without any embalming.

People wait to see the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster at the Benedictine Abbey of Mary Queen of the Apostles.
People wait to view the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster at the Benedictine Abbey of Mary Queen of the Apostles.

Instead, they discovered an intact body and “a perfectly preserved religious robe,” the statement said. The nuns had no intention of publicizing the discovery, but someone publicly posted a private email and “the news spread like wildfire.”

Volunteers and local law enforcement have helped manage the crowds in the city of about 1,800 as people came to visit from across the country to see and touch Lancaster’s body.

“It was pretty amazing,” said Samuel Dawson, who is Catholic and visited with his son from Kansas City last week. “It was very peaceful. Just very reverent.”

Dawson said there were a few hundred people when he visited and he saw many out-of-state cars.

Visitors were allowed to touch her, Dawson said, adding that the nuns “wanted to open her to the public … because in real life, she’s always been open to people.”

The monastery said in a statement that Lancaster’s body would be interred in a glass shrine in its church on Monday. Visitors can still see her body and pick up dirt from her grave, but they won’t be able to touch her.

The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph also released a statement.

“The condition of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster’s remains has understandably aroused great interest and raised important questions,” the diocese said. “At the same time, it is important to protect the integrity of Sister Wilhelmina’s remains to allow for a thorough investigation.”

“Incorruptibility has been proven in the past, but is very rare. There is an established process for pursuing sanctity, but it has not yet been initiated in this case,” the diocese added.

The Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles also said that Lancaster had not yet reached the required minimum age of five years since his death for the sanctification process to begin.

Rebecca George, an associate professor of anthropology at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, said the body’s lack of decomposition may not be as rare as people expect.

George said that “mummification” of unembalmed corpses was common in the university facility and the corpses could be preserved for many years if allowed.

Coffins and clothing also help preserve the bodies, she said.

“When we bury people, we don’t usually exhume them. “We won’t be able to look at them for a few years,” George said. “By 100 years there may be nothing left. But when you only have a few years, that’s not unexpected.”

Trisha Ahmed is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underappreciated topics.

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