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‘Miracle’ Missouri nun overcame racism in life and the elements in death

 The corpse of a nun with a rosary.
Charlie Riedel
Associated Press
People pray over the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster at the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles abbey near Gower, Missouri.

Pilgrims flocking to see the well-preserved remains of an exhumed nun north of Kansas City say her “incorrupt” body signals sainthood. The other sign has to do with the racism Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster overcame as a Black nun in the 20th century.

The Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles monastery still draws crowds even though its famous founder is now under glass.

She lies in a substantial stone chapel, next to a modest dormitory sitting in the middle of a working farm, 10 minutes outside tiny Gower, Missouri.

Mary Knable drove 10 hours here from Corydon, Indiana, to see the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster.

“It’s a miracle,” Knable said. “She looks amazing! I am just nearly moved to tears. It was so beautiful.”

When Sister Wilhelmina died at 95 in May 2019, the nuns buried her on the monastery grounds in a plain wooden coffin. They say they didn’t embalm her, and that is reflected on her death certificate.

She was born Mary Lancaster in 1924. She joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence 17 years later and adopted the name Sister Wilhelmina when she took her vows.

For 50 years she taught in Catholic schools in eastern U.S. cities. Then she broke away from the Oblate Sisters of Providence and founded an even more disciplined and orthodox order, the Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles.

It’s grown enormously since, fueled in part by its choir. Billboard Magazine named that group its classical traditional artist of 2012 and 2013 after the group notched two best-selling records recorded in the monastery chapel.

 A long line of people outside a church.
Charlie Riedel
Associated Press
People wait to view the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster at the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles abbey in May near Gower, Missouri. Hundreds of people visited the small town in Missouri to see the nun’s body that has barely decomposed since 2019. Some are saying it’s a sign of holiness in Catholicism, while others are saying the lack of decomposition may not be as rare as people think.

Following tradition, the nuns wanted to enshrine Sister Wilhelmina’s remains in their chapel. They dug up the casket in late April expecting bones. But when they opened it, they saw a familiar face.

It takes years, sometimes centuries, to reach official sainthood in the Catholic Church. And lots of factors come into play. But 17-year-old Sunshine Le, visiting from Springfield, Missouri, said having an “incorrupt” body, is a good start.

“It’s one of the most venerated parts of being a Catholic,” said Le. “To be considered incorruptible — it means that you’re not only a holy person, but strong enough and within your own faith to be incorruptible from the elements, supposedly.”

Religious pilgrims aren’t the only ones impressed. A few miles away in Gower, mortician Jack Kline, the one who signed Sister Wilhelmina’s death certificate and placed her body in the coffin, said it looks better 4 years after death than many do after three days.

“I was kind of shocked because I have picked up loved ones, people that have laid for a couple days. They found them, you know, and you really can't even get close to them,” he said. “I mean, the odor and for the decomposition starting.”

Kline wasn’t there for the exhumation, but he visited Sister Wilhelmina’s remains on display in the chapel a few weeks later and got another major shock.

“There was no odor,” he said.

Kline said he’s never seen an unembalmed, unrefrigerated body holding up so well in his 50 years of dealing with corpses.

But Nicholas Passalacqua, a forensic anthropologist at Western Carolina University, was not surprised. He studies the way human bodies decompose in nature, and that’s well documented. But he said there isn’t much data on what happens after burial, factoring in all the variations in temperature, moisture, soil type and coffins.

“We just don’t have a good understanding of how bodies decompose when they’re buried in these settings,” Passalacqua said.

The case reminds him of “bog bodies” pulled from muck in northern Europe and the British Isles. Some of them retain remarkable facial detail after more than 4,000 years.

But Sister Wilhelmina’s case for sainthood needn’t rest on the resilience of her body after death, said Dan Stockman. He’s the national correspondent for Global Sisters Report.

“You can’t avoid the racial aspects here,” Stockman said.

Sister Wilhelmina was Black. And Stockman said Black nuns suffered tremendously in the 1950s and 1960s.

“The Catholic Church in the United States does not have a great track record on race. You had stories of sisters who applauded when Martin Luther King was assassinated,” said Stockman. “Black sisters in white orders who were treated just unbelievably bad. Um, and yet they stayed, they kept the faith.”

Sister Wilhelmina not only stayed, she started a vigorous new monastic order. Stockman said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a bishop launch a formal canonization process for someone who shows “clear, outward signs of holiness.”

“This is obviously a surprise and wonderful,” he said, “but also not shocking.”

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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