In life, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster was known to her fellow nuns for her devotional poetry, her sense of humor and her fierce piety. “I’m Sister Wil-hel-mina,” she was known to say. “I’ve a hell of a will and I mean it!” A biography published by her order after her death at age 95 in 2019 described her as the little nun “who persevered in faith.”
In death, Sister Wilhelmina has become something much larger to some: a potential saint, a pilgrimage attraction, a miracle.
The transformation started this spring at the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus, run by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, a small but growing conservative order whose headquarters are nestled in the rolling hills north of Kansas City. Four years after burying Sister Wilhelmina, the order’s founder, in a simple wood coffin in a corner of the property, the sisters decided to move her body into a customary place of honor inside their church.
When they opened the coffin, expecting to find bones that could be easily cleaned and placed in a new box, they instead found what looked and even felt remarkably like Sister Wilhelmina herself. Her face was recognizable, even after years in a damp coffin, and the sisters said that her beloved habit was “immaculate.”
For the Benedictines of Mary, this immediately signaled that Sister Wilhelmina may be an “incorruptible,” a term the Catholic Church uses to describe people whose bodies — or parts of their bodies — did not decompose after death. Believers in the phenomenon say there have been more than 100 examples worldwide, mostly in Europe.
Michael O’Neill, who hosts a national radio show called “The Miracle Hunter” on the Catholic station EWTN, said that the case of Sister Wilhelmina, who was Black, was especially distinctive. “There’s never been an African American incorruptible; in fact there’s never been an American of any sort who’s an incorruptible,” he said. “So this is big news.”
Word began to spread in Catholic circles locally, and then more widely.
The sisters turned an alfalfa field into an impromptu parking lot, and put up hand-lettered signs directing guests to Sister Wilhelmina’s now-empty gravesite, and to her body in the church. Huge crowds — the sisters say at least 25,000 people — streamed into the abbey over Memorial Day weekend to view the body, touch it and pray.
“I used to think something like this could only happen in Europe, or St. Louis,” said Edith Riches, 13, who volunteered that weekend handing out cold water and fruit to visitors waiting in line along the abbey’s long gravel driveway. Volunteers also distributed veils and knee-length skirts to women in the line, to help them meet the abbey’s firm dress code.
The mayor of Gower, Ken Pike, worked with authorities in two counties and the state highway patrol to plan for the influx of visitors, temporarily turning the two-lane road that leads to the abbey into a one-way route. The town also added a large link to the abbey on the top of its website in May, right under its slogan, “A nice place to call home.”
Sister Wilhelmena became the biggest news in town since the high-school football team won the state championship last year for the second time in a row.
But quiet downtown Gower, a town of about 1,500 people where $1.50 buys you a cold can of beer at happy hour, experienced little of the hubbub. The abbey is about six miles from there, so relatively few tourists ended up making their way into town.
After Memorial Day, the nuns enclosed Sister Wilhelmina’s body in a glass box, which they installed in the church on their property in view of the pews where visitors sit during Mass. The volume of visitors dropped, but then remained steady.
When I visited the abbey on a Thursday in August, about 75 people attended midday Mass at the church, a sizable turnout for a weekday service. I met pilgrims from Minnesota, Texas and California, some passing through on summer road trips. One woman snapped pictures of the body, saying she would check back on Sister Wilhelmina’s condition in a few years.
In life, Sister Wilhelmina was the descendant of enslaved Catholics, and grew up in a Catholic family in St. Louis. She belonged to a traditionally Black order of nuns for 50 years, the Oblate Sisters of Providence. But by the end of that time, she was disillusioned by what she perceived as a loosening of standards in worship and clothing styles. She founded the new traditionalist order in the 1990s.
Some of Sister Wilhelmina’s nieces and nephews have objected to the way the abbey had handled her body. They issued a statement over the summer stating that they were not informed about her exhumation until weeks after the fact, and were only begrudgingly allowed to have time alone with her body.
Others question why Sister Wilhelmina is being promoted so eagerly by a largely white movement within the Catholic Church. Almost all of the 64 women who make up the Benedictines of Mary are white.
Shannen Dee Williams, a historian at the University of Dayton and author of a book about Black Catholic nuns, said she hopes that Sister Wilhelmina is not “being used to counter the reality of what Black Catholicism is in the United States.”She said Sister Wilhelmina’s beliefs did not make her representative of most Black Catholics, who tend to be more liberal on social issues. Dr. Williams noted that more than 70 percent of Black Catholics say abortion should be legal, for example, a higher level of support than Catholics in general.
For the sisters at the abbey, Sister Wilhelmina simply was who she was: by all accounts a sincere conservative on theological and social issues. “Her life ran in parallels, with being Black on one hand, and then being traditional on the other hand,” said Sister Scholastica Radel. “She wanted unity.”
In an era in which the population of nuns and priests in the United States is aging and declining, however, the Benedictines of Mary is among the handful of orders that is growing.
Georgia and Jim Nelson were on their third trip from Lincoln, Neb., to see Sister Wilhelmina’s body. Mr. Nelson was having exploratory surgery for throat cancer in just a few days. Mrs. Nelson had felt called during her private prayer time to make one more visit before the surgery.
Sister Wilhelmina is “right in heaven next to the Father,” Mrs. Nelson said, her voice catching. (Mr. Nelson’s cancer turned out to be minor, which Mrs. Nelson saw as an answer to their prayers.)
Bishop James V. Johnston Jr., in whose diocese the abbey is located, cautioned in a statement in May that while it is understandable that visitors would want to see the body, they should not touch the sister’s body or treat it as a relic.
Inside the abbey walls, few openly question what they see before their eyes. To experts in forensic science, there are other potential explanations.
“It’s impossible to make many conclusions at all,” said Marcella Sorg, a forensic anthropologist and research professor at the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. One of several explanations is the phenomenon of dry mummification, which can take place naturally if the body’s soft tissues stay dry enough. Factors include the person’s body fat, their diet in the days before death and the dryness of the wood used for the coffin.
For others, science is hardly the point.
Madeline Whitt, a clerk at the Hy-Klas grocery store in Gower, shrugged when asked if Sister Wilhelmina’s preservation was a miracle. “Even if it’s not,” she said, “if it brings more people to come and question things, then it is.”
Ms. Whitt, 17, has visited the abbey three times to see Sister Wilhelmina.
She attends a nondenominational Protestant church and said she had not ever seen a nun before her visits to the abbey. It was a “culture shock,” she said. But in a quiet, small town, it was also something to do.