The small rural Missouri town of Gower has become an unexpected pilgrimage destination after a nun’s exhumed body showed no visible signs of decomposition — four years after her burial.
Hundreds of people have been flocking to the town 40 miles north of Kansas City to marvel at the well-preserved body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, with many calling it a “miracle in Missouri.”
Lancaster, when she was 70, founded the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles.
She died in May 2019 at 95, according to the Catholic News Agency.
Last Thursday, Benedictine nuns dug up their foundress’ coffin to move it to beneath the altar in the convent’s chapel, which is customary.
“We were told by cemetery personnel to expect just bones in the conditions, as Sister Wilhelmina was buried without embalming and in a simple wood coffin,” one nun told Newsweek.
But when Mother Abbess Cecilia Snell looked through a crack in the coffin, she said she saw “a totally intact foot with the sock on, looking just like it did when we buried her.”
The abbess told the Eternal World Television Network, a Catholic news outlet, her first reaction was to utter in disbelief: “I didn’t just see that.”
Armed with a flashlight, she then looked closer and confirmed her initial observation, prompting cheers from the other nuns.
When the sisters fully opened the coffin, they were astonished to discover Lancaster’s body with almost no signs of decay.
The nun, speaking to Newsweek on condition of anonymity, said she and her fellow sisters took turns touching Wilhelmina’s socked feet, which she described as “very damp, but all there.”
“The dirt that fell in early on had pushed down on her facial features, especially the right eye, so we did place a wax mask over it,” the nun revealed. “But her eyelashes, hair, eyebrows, nose and lips were all present, her mouth just about to smile.”
The nuns then lifted Lancaster’s’ body, which they estimated weighed as much as 90 pounds, reported the Catholic News Agency.
After the nuns washed a layer of mold and mildew off Lancaster’s body, her habit and the crown and bouquet flowers with which she was buried, all appeared pristine.
“I mean, there was just this sense that the Lord was doing this,” Snell said. “Right now we need hope. We need it. Our Lord knows that. And she was such a testament to hope. And faith. And trust.”
The Roman Catholic Church has documented several hundred cases of incorruptible bodies over the centuries.
It is believed a preserved body unaffected by the natural process of decomposition is a mark of holiness, but it does not necessarily make a person a candidate for sainthood.
That hasn’t stopped throngs of devout Catholics from traveling to Gower — in some cases hundreds of miles — to view Sister Wilhelmina’s incorrupt body.
“It was beautiful,” said Mary Lou Enna, a pilgrim who came with her son and his wife from Kansas City. “At first, it was just a little unreal. But then as I just gazed at her, tears started coming and I just knew it was for real and very, very meaningful.”
Bishop James Johnston, of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, released a statement addressing the unexplainable events in Gower.
“The condition of the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has understandably generated widespread interest and raised important questions. At the same time, it is important to protect the integrity of the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina to allow for a thorough investigation,” he stated.
The second of five children born to Catholic parents in St. Louis, Lancaster had a mystical experience during her first Communion at age 9, when she claimed she caught a glimpse of Jesus, whom she described as “handsome.”
According to the biography written by her religious community, Jesus asked the young girl to be his.
When Lancaster was 13, she decided to become a nun and followed through with her plan as soon as she graduated high school.
She became known for her devotion to the traditional Latin mass and spent years fighting to preserve the tradition of wearing a habit, even making her own when the sisters stopped producing them.
To construct the stiff headdress, Lancaster used an empty plastic bleach bottle.
Her improvised habit possibly saved her life when she was stabbed by a student while working as a teacher in Baltimore.
Her biography stated that Lancaster’s high-necked collar, known as the wimple, deflected the attacker’s knife blow.
When another sister asked Lancaster if she planned to continue wearing the habit, which has fallen out of favor with most nuns, she was quoted as replying: Yes! I am Sister WIL-HEL-MINA — I’ve a HELL of a WILL and I MEAN it!”
Lancaster’s body will remain on display at the chapel in Gower until May 29, after which it will be placed in a glass case for protection.