Undecayed Nun's Dead Body Lures Hundreds of Spectators for Viewing

Gower is a small and quiet city in rural Missouri that made headlines recently when hundreds of pilgrims and devotees flocked to the town after receiving news that an African-American nun’s body was found intact, despite being buried for roughly four years.

Mother Mary Wilhelmina Lancaster, a nun and founder of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, died in 2019 at the age of 95. Her body was exhumed roughly four years later as the Benedictine group of nuns famous for their best-selling chant and hymn albums planned to move her body to its final resting place inside the monastery chapel, a tradition common in many Catholic religious orders.

But when the sisters raised Lancaster, they discovered that her body remained intact and showed little signs of decay. The rumors of Lancaster’s body being “incorrupt” quickly spread in the areas surrounding Gower, and as the media reported on the incident, hundreds of devotees gathered in the convent to pray and see her remains for themselves.

In Catholic tradition and in other Christian customs, the lack of decay in a body was historically associated with divinity and sanctity. According to the Catholic News Agency, as many as 100 incorruptible bodies, including Padre Pio and St. Francis Xavier, were beatified and canonized by the Catholic church.

While incorruptibility is often seen as a marker of sainthood, canon law permits the inspection of bodies deemed incorrupt so that relics can be taken and sent to Rome for further investigation. The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph released a statement regarding the news of her incorruptibility and said they would look further into the matter.

The condition of the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has understandably generated widespread interest and raised important questions,” the statement from 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… Bishop [James] Johnston invites all the Faithful to continue praying during this time of investigation for God’s will.

The statement also added that incorruptibility is extremely “rare” and a “well-established process to pursue the cause for sainthood,” although the process for canonization and sainthood for Sister Lancaster has not yet started.

However, some experts, including Nicholas V. Passalacqua, Associate Professor and Director of Forensic Psychology at Western Carolina University, said that it’s not rare for bodies to remain intact after death, especially in the first few years.

It’s hard to say how common this is because bodies are rarely exhumed after burial. But there are many famous cases of well-preserved human remains,” Passalacqua told CNN in an email. “Not just things like Egyptian mummies, which were intentionally preserved, but also things like the Bog Bodies of Europe, which were very well preserved for thousands of years because they were in environments with low oxygen that restricted bacterial grown and access of the remains to scavengers.

Sister Lancaster’s body will be laid out in the monastery chapel until May 29, when the Benedictine group of nuns plan a rosary procession. After this procession, her body will be enclosed in a glass case near the altar of St. Joseph to welcome pilgrims.

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