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Nun whose body shows little decay draws crowds to Missouri town

Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster died in 2019, was exhumed in April

By Trisha Ahmed, Associated Press/Report for America
Published: May 31, 2023, 2:27pm
2 Photos
People pray over the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster at the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles abbey on May 28 in Gower, Mo.
People pray over the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster at the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles abbey on May 28 in Gower, Mo. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

Hundreds of people flocked to a small town in Missouri this week and last to see a 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, Mo.

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, because 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.”

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 its 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.”

Rebecca George, an anthropology instructor at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, said the body’s lack of decomposition is not 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 over “just a few years,” she said.

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