Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, the incorrupt nun of Missouri, showed little sign of decomposition when she was exhumed from her grave 4 years after her death.
Devout Catholics are flocking by the thousands to see and touch the body of an incorrupt nun, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, who was unearthed from a grave in a small Missouri town and showed almost no signs of decomposition 4 years after her death.
It’s being referred to as the Miracle in Missouri. Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster (founder of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles) died in May, 2019 at the age of 95. She was buried in a simple wood coffin and was not embalmed, according to her sisters. But when she was exhumed four years later on May 19, 2023 to move her coffin to a new position beneath the altar of the chapel in the small town of Gower, she showed little evidence of decomposition.
The sisters were expecting nothing but bones, so they were shocked to discover her almost entirely intact. They took turns touching Wilhelmina’s socked feet, which they described as “very damp, but all there.”
But the body wasn’t perfect.
“The dirt that fell in early on had pushed down on her facial features, especially the right eye,” one nun explained, “so we did place a wax mask over it. But her eyelashes, hair, eyebrows, nose and lips were all present, her mouth just about to smile.”
“I mean, there was just this sense that the Lord was doing this,” one of the nuns said.
So the sisters washed a layer of mold and mildew off Wilhelmina and placed her on display, where devout Catholics have been making pilgrimages in the thousands (sometimes driving hundreds of miles) to see and touch her.
Four years after her death, the body of Wilhelmina Lancaster is on display at the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles Monastery in Gower, Missouri
Miracle in Missouri
“Rumors of a flood cracking open the grave and the sisters’ examining the coffin by flashlight in the middle of the night are highly exaggerated,” CNA reports.
“I had to have the flashlight because you can’t really see in a dark crack even with the sunshine,” abbess Mother Cecilia explained. “I thought I saw a foot, but I just paused because, you know, it’s not every day you look into a coffin. So there’s kind of a sense of a little bit of hesitation — what am I going to see?”
“I thought I saw a completely full, intact foot and I said, ‘I didn’t just see that.’ So I looked again more carefully.”
Cecilia looked again, and screamed, “I see her foot!”
The sisters gathered around the grave “just cheered.”
“We think she is the first African American woman to be found incorrupt,” Cecilia said.
The Catholic church has documented hundreds of cases of incorrupt bodies over the centuries. It is believed to be a sign of their holiness, and some have been granted sainthood because of it.
“According to Catholic tradition, incorruptible saints give witness to the truth of the resurrection of the body and the life that is to come,” the Catholic News Agency writes. “The lack of decay is also seen as a sign of holiness: a life of grace lived so closely to Christ that sin with its corruption does not proceed in typical fashion but is miraculously held at bay.”
The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is investigating Sister Wilhelmina as a possible case of incorruptibility.
“The Church has an established process for determining if someone is a saint and worthy of veneration,” the diocese wrote in a statement. “No such process has yet been initiated on behalf of Sister Wilhelmina. It is understandable that many would be driven by faith and devotion to see the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina given the remarkable condition of her body, but visitors should not touch or venerate her body, or treat them as relics.”
The real reason for the stunted decomposition has usually been found to be the environmental conditions of the place where the body was entombed that slow or prevent decay, or sometimes that the body was secretly embalmed to make it appear incorrupt.
“When there is decreased oxygen flow, such as in a coffin, and in a cooler climate – such as the clay the coffin was in – could absolutely slow decomposition down,” Rebecca George, an anthropology instructor at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, said in an email to CBS News. “The public rarely sees a human body at this stage of decomposition, so this is likely contributing to the interest we are seeing. If the remains were buried without clothing or not in a coffin in this type of soil, I would have expected them to be skeletal, but the type of preservation observed is typical given the coffin and clothing protecting the remains.”
For Cecilia and many other venerating the deceased nun, this is viewed as a “beautiful sign” from God.
“Right now we need hope. We need it. Our Lord knows that,” Cecilia said. “And she was such a testament to hope. And faith. And trust.”
Miracles aside, the Benedictine sisters of Gower are also known for their chart-topping Gregorian chant and classic Catholic hymn albums, as you can see in the CBS Sunday Morning video below. They were even named Billboard’s Classical Artist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.