Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 28, 2023 / 14:05 pm
Thousands of pilgrims are descending on a Benedictine abbey outside rural Gower, Missouri, this Memorial Day weekend to view the surprisingly well-preserved body of its African American foundress, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, who died in 2019.
On Sunday, the feast of Pentecost, an average of 200 vehicles per hour were coming onto the abbey's property, an uptick in traffic from the day before, Clinton County Sheriff Larry Fish said in a Facebook video update. He said he expected 15,000 people to visit the site by the end of the day.
“We’re going to see this probably for months, but right now this weekend is probably going to be the biggest influx of people that you’re going to see in this area,” Fish predicted in an earlier video posted May 25.
Part of the urgency for those visiting the abbey over the holiday weekend is the limited opportunity to touch the nun’s body, which has been on public display in a room in the basement of the abbey’s church for more than a week.
On Saturday, a photojournalist working for EWTN News witnessed pilgrims touching parts of Sister Wilhelmina’s body with their hands or rosary beads and even kissing her hands. Such direct physical contact won’t be possible after Monday afternoon when the nun’s remains will be placed in a glass enclosure, though her body will still be available for public viewing.
Expecting to find only bones when they exhumed her remains on April 28 to be reinterred in their newly constructed St. Joseph’s Shrine, the sisters were astonished to find her body and traditional nun’s habit still remarkably intact. In addition, pilgrims who have visited the body have told CNA they did not smell any odor of decay. The sisters say they have applied wax to Sister Wilhelmina’s hands and face.
The condition of her body has puzzled even experienced morticians. “If you’re telling me that this woman went into the ground unembalmed in a wooden box with no outer container in the ground and it was not sub-zero up in Alaska, I’m telling you, I’m going to start a devotion to this sister, because something special is going on there,” Barry Lease, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, told CNA last week.
There has been no official determination that Sister Wilhelmina’s remains are “incorrupt,” a possible sign of sanctity, nor is there any cause underway for the nun’s canonization, a rigorous process in the Catholic Church that can take many years.
The local ordinary, Bishop Vann Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who has visited the monastery to see Sister Wilhelmina’s remains, has said that a “thorough investigation” is needed to answer “important questions” raised by the state of her body, but there has been no word if and when such an analysis might take place. On Sunday a spokeswoman for the diocese said she was mistaken when she told CNA last week that Johnston had “been in touch with someone in Rome” about what has happened at the abbey.
Discovery meant to be kept quiet
Over the weekend, the Benedictine sisters posted a new statement on their website, announcing plans to hold a public rosary procession Monday at 4:30 p.m. local time, after which they will place Sister Wilhelmina’s body in the glass enclosure inside the St. Joseph’s Shrine.
In the statement, the sisters also revealed that they had hoped to keep the startling condition of their foundress’ body quiet.
“We had no intent to make the discovery so public, but unfortunately, a private email was posted publicly, and the news began to spread like wildfire.” they wrote. “However, God works in mysterious ways, and we embrace His new plan for us.”
The sisters said that they continued their normal daily routines despite the crowds and worldwide media attention.
“Many have voiced concern about the disruption to our life, but we have, thankfully, remained unaffected and able to continue on in our life of ora et labora, prayer and work, as Sister Wilhelmina would have it,” the statement says.
“Unless we looked out the front windows, or out at the crowds attending our Mass and Divine Offices, we would not even know people are here. An army of volunteers and our local law enforcement have stepped forward to manage the crowds, and we are deeply grateful to each of them, as they allow us to continue our life in peace, while granting the visitors a pleasant and prayerful experience at the Abbey.”
Editor's note: This story was updated on June 2 to correct the date that Sister Wilhelmina's body was exhumed.
Shannon Mullen is the Editor-in-Chief of CNA. He previously worked as a features writer, investigative reporter, and editor with the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press. He has received numerous national reporting awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.