The Benedictine community exhumed Sister Wilhelmina after deciding to move her remains to a new St. Joseph’s Shrine inside the abbey’s church, a common custom to honor the founders of religious orders, the sisters said.
Members of the community did the digging themselves, “a little bit each day,” Mother Cecilia said. The process began on April 26 and culminated with a half-dozen or so sisters using straps to haul the coffin out of the ground on April 28.
The abbess revealed that there was a feeling of anticipation among the sisters to see what was inside the coffin.
“There was a sense that maybe God would do something special because she was so special and so pure of heart,” Mother Cecilia said.
It was the abbess who looked through the cracked lid first, shining her flashlight into the dark coffin.
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“So I looked and I kind of did a double take and I kind of stepped back. ‘Did I just see what I think I saw? Because I think I just saw a completely full foot with a black sock still on it,’” she recalled saying to herself.
Members of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, lead a procession with the body of their foundress, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, at their abbey in Gower, Missouri, on May 29, 2023. Joe Bukuras/CNA
Sister Wilhelmina’s features were clearly recognizable; even her eyebrows and eyelashes were still there, the sisters discovered. Not only that, but her Hanes-brand socks, her brown scapular, Miraculous Medal, rosary beads, profession candle, and the ribbon around the candle — none of it had deteriorated.
The crown of flowers placed on her head for her burial had survived, too, dried in place but still visible. Yet the coffin’s fabric lining, the sisters noted, had disintegrated. So had a strap of new linen the sisters said they used to keep Sister Wilhelmina’s mouth closed.
“So I think everything that was left to us was a sign of her life,” Sister Scholastica reflected, “whereas everything pertaining to her death was gone.”
Another revelation from the interview: Contrary to what one would expect in the case of a four-year-old corpse, Sister Wilhelmina’s body is “really flexible,” according to Sister Scholastica.
“I mean, you can take her leg and lift it,” Mother Cecilia observed.
EWTN News In Depth also spoke with Shannen Dee Williams, an author and scholar who is an expert on the history of Black Catholicism. Sister Wilhelmina’s story, she said, is an important reminder of “the great diversity and beauty of the Black Catholic experience across the spectrum.”
‘A unifying moment’
There has been no formal declaration by Church authorities that Sister Wilhelmina’s body is incorrupt, nor has an independent analysis been conducted of her remains, the condition of which has puzzled even some experienced morticians. Neither is there any official process yet underway to put the African American nun on a possible path to sainthood.
But that hasn’t stopped thousands of pilgrims from making the trek to northwest Missouri to see Sister Wilhelmina’s body, which was moved to a glass display case in the abbey church on May 29. And within the abbey’s walls, there is a pervasive sense of joy, gratitude, and wonder.
Pilgrims visit the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, foundress of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, in Gower, Missouri. EWTN News
In the interview, Mother Cecilia called what’s happening at the abbey “a unifying moment for everybody” in a time of discord.
“There’s so much division, and it’s crazy,” she said. “We’re children of God the Father, every single one of us. And so you see, Sister Wilhelmina is bringing everyone together ... I mean, this is God’s love pouring forth through people of every race, color,” she said.
“They come and they’re blown away, and it makes them think,” the abbess said. “It makes them think about God, about, ‘OK, why are we here? Is there more than just my phone, and my job, and my next vacation?’”
As for what comes next, no one can say. “We love God so much, his sense of humor, the irony, this humble little black nun hidden away in a monastery is a catalyst for this. It’s like a spark to send fire to the world,” Mother Cecilia said.
“It’s just remarkable,” she said. “But this is the kind of thing that God does when we need a wake-up call.”