Hundreds of people in the US have traveled to a monastery in a small Missouri town to view a nun’s body that seemingly has no signs of decay four years after her death.
Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster was the founder of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, a monastery in Gower, Missouri, about an hour outside of Kansas City.
Lancaster’s body was exhumed on 18 May so it could be moved to its final resting place in a monastery chapel, four years after her death in 2019, reported the Catholic News Agency.
But when the coffin was opened, Lancaster’s body was intact with almost no signs of decay. Lancaster’s body had never been embalmed and was buried in a cracked wooden coffin that exposed her corpse to moisture and debris, news media reported.
“We were told by cemetery personnel to expect just bones in the conditions, as Sister Wilhelmina was buried without embalming and in a simple wood coffin,” one of the sisters, who asked to be anonymous, told Newsweek.
Exhumers found a layer of mold on Lancaster’s body, likely due to condensation in the cracked coffin, reported Catholic News Agency. But little of Lancaster’s corpse or her habit decomposed while she was buried.
In Catholicism, bodies that defy the decomposing process are known as “incorrupt”, which is a sign of holiness and later justification for sainthood. The process for sainthood has not been started for Lancaster, said the Bishop Johnston, the Diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph, in a statement.
More than 100 bodies have been incorrupt, reported Catholic News Agency. But Lancaster is likely the first Black person in the US to be found in an incorruptible state.
“We think she is the first African American woman to be found incorrupt,” said Mother Cecilia, the abbess for the monastery, to Catholic News Agency. Cecilia was the first person to examine the coffin, as head of the monastery.
Some experts have said it isn’t uncommon for bodies to remain well-preserved in the first few years after death, even if they are not embalmed.
“In general, when we bury a body at our human decomposition facility, we expect it will take roughly five years for the body to become skeletonized,” Nicholas Passalacqua told Newsweek. Passalacqua is an associate professor and director of forensic anthropology at Western Carolina University.
“That is without a coffin or any other container or wrapping surrounding the remains. So for this body, which was buried in a coffin, I personally don’t find it too surprising that the remains are well preserved after only four years.”
Still, news of of the exhumation spread via social media, with hundreds traveling to Missouri to view Lancaster’s body.
Lori Rosebrough, a resident of Overland Park, Kansas, told USA Today in an email that the viewing was a “incredibly rare opportunity” to see “the hand of God at work”.
“Not many people can say that they touched and prayed over the body of a saint,” wrote Rosebrough. “I believe that the thousands of us that made the trip to Gower, Mo, this week can now say that we have.”
Royce Hood, who hosts a Catholic radio show, traveled with his wife, Elise, and their six kids to view Lancaster’s body. The drive from the Peoria, Illinois home was over five hours.
“I feel like people are like, ‘Wow, we need this right now,’” Hood said to Catholic News Agency.
“There’s so much chaos and darkness in the world. I think God is giving us little graces to remind us of what is to come and what’s waiting for us.”
Lancaster’s body will be moved on 29 May and encased in glass in the chapel, where visitors can continue to view it, according to the monastery website.