AP – Hundreds of people flocked to a small town in Missouri this week and last to see a Black nun whose body has barely decomposed since 2019. Some say it’s a sign of holiness in Catholicism, while others say the lack of decomposition may not be as rare as people think.
Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster was exhumed in April, according to a statement from the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, in Gower, Missouri.
The nuns had been preparing for the addition of a St. Joseph shrine, and that involved “the reinterment of the remains of our beloved foundress, Sister Wilhelmina,” the statement said.
When they exhumed Lancaster, they were told to expect only bones, since she had been buried in a simple wooden coffin without any embalming four years ago.
Instead, they discovered an intact body and “a perfectly preserved religious habit,” the statement said. The nuns hadn’t meant to publicize the discovery, but someone posted a private email publicly and “the news began to spread like wildfire.”
“Typically, when we bury people, we don’t exhume them. We don’t get to look at them a couple years out. With 100 years, there might be nothing left. But when you’ve got just a few years out, this is not unexpected.” – Anthropologist Rebecca George, Ph.D., Western Carolina University
Volunteers and local law enforcement have helped to manage the crowds in the town of roughly 1,800 people, as people have visited from all over the country to see and touch Lancaster’s body.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Samuel Dawson, who is Catholic and visited from Kansas City with his son last week. “It was very peaceful. Just very reverent.”
Dawson said there were a few hundred people when he visited and that he saw many out-of-state cars.
Visitors were allowed to touch her, Dawson said, adding that the nuns “wanted to make her accessible to the public … because in real life, she was always accessible to people.”
The monastery said in a statement that Lancaster’s body will be placed in a glass shrine in their church on Monday. Visitors will still be able to see her body and take 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 the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has understandably generated widespread interest and raised important questions,” the diocese said. “At the same time, it is important to protect the integrity of the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina to allow for a thorough investigation.”
“Incorruptibility has been verified in the past, but it is very rare. There is a well-established process to pursue the cause for sainthood, but that has not been initiated in this case yet,” the diocese added.
The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, also said that Lancaster has not yet reached the required minimum of five years since death for the sainthood process to begin.
Rebecca George, an anthropology instructor at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, said the body’s lack of decomposition might not be as rare as people are expecting.
George said the “mummification” of un-embalmed bodies is common at the university’s facility and the bodies could stay preserved for many years, if allowed to.
Coffins and clothing also help to preserve bodies, she said.
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 report on under-covered issues. Follow Trisha Ahmed on Twitter: @TrishaAhmed15.