Thousands of people have spent the last few weeks waiting in line, some for hours at a time, in a small Missouri town to see a nun whose body has barely decomposed since she died in 2019 at the age of 95.
Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster’s body was exhumed nearly two months ago, according to the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, in Gower, Missouri. The nuns were preparing “the reinterment of the remains of our beloved foundress, Sister Wilhelmina,” according to a statement put out by the sisters, so that they could be added to a shrine.
When they exhumed Lancaster’s body on April 28, the nuns had expected to find her skeletal remains since she had been buried in a wooden coffin without any embalming. Instead, they found an intact body with Lancaster still wearing her black habit.
Soon, the town of 1,500 residents found themselves swamped with pilgrims from across the country. The monastery said Lancaster’s body will now be placed in a glass case inside their church so visitors can still see the body and take dirt from her grave, but will no longer be allowed to touch her.
The discovery has become an international story over the last two weeks. While some have acknowledged that this is an holy event, Sky News reported the body’s lack of decomposition might not be that rare.
Catholic officials said an investigation is underway.
“The condition of the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has understandably generated widespread interest and raised important questions,” the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph said in a statement. “At the same time, it is important to protect the integrity of the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina to allow for a thorough investigation.”
The diocese added that “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.”
What is incorruptibility?
Incorruptibility is a Catholic and Eastern Orthodox belief that divine intervention has allowed for some human bodies — specifically those of saints — to avoid the normal natural process of decomposition as a sign of one’s holiness.
Incorruptibility is thought to occur even in the presence of factors that normally hasten decomposition and is considered a supernatural occurrence. Embalmed bodies are not recognized in this case. This was the cases of saints Cecilia, Catherine of Genoa, Francis Xavier Cabrini, Catherine Laboure and Padre Pio. Past popes, such as Blessed Pope Pius IX, St. Pius X and St. John XXIII are also considered incorrupt.