Something strange happened last month in the quiet farming town of Gower, Missouri. The population is just 1,500 people and the town is home to the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles. The sisters are cloistered, living secluded lives and following the rule of St. Benedict, a monastic lifestyle that is characterized by communal prayer and manual labor. In preparation for building their new shrine to St. Joseph, the sisters unearthed their foundress, Sr. Wilhelmina Lancaster, expecting to find her bones in a wooden box. Instead, they found her body allegedly incorrupt – and she’s been dead for four years. Here’s what we know.

The sisters told their benefactors in a statement that their intent was to “carry this out in the privacy of [their] cloistered life.”

“Nevertheless, the discovery of what appeared to be an intact body and a perfectly preserved religious habit created an unexpected twist to our plans. We had no intent to make the discovery so public, but unfortunately, a private email was posted publicly, and the news began to spread like wildfire. However, God works in mysterious ways, and we embrace His new plan for us.”

Thousands of Catholics have already descended on the town to witness what many claim is a miracle.

What Is an Incorruptible, Anyway?

Incorruptibles are usually canonized saints whose bodies are miraculously preserved after death, defying the natural process of decomposition (spooky, we know). Incorruptible saints include St. Rita, who has been dead for over 500 years and whose body lies in her hometown of Cascia, Italy, and St. Catherine of Siena, whose head is on display in the church of San Domenico in Siena.

While the Church doesn’t have an official protocol for declaring a body to be incorrupt, there is an official process for declaring someone to be a saint. But having only died in 2019, Sr. Wilhelmina is not eligible for the canonization process for another year. Healings have been documented, but there have not yet been medical confirmations that those healings were miraculous. Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph cautioned in a statement against treating her body as a relic since the Church hasn’t officially declared her a saint.

And yet, many have gone to see for themselves and to ask for her intercession – some from as far as the Congo, according to The Pillar.

Who Was Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster?

Before Catholic Twitter and newspapers spread her name, she was a Black nun who joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, Maryland, an order focused on the education of girls of African descent. It was the first order of Black Catholic religious sisters in the United States.

In the 1960s and 70s, as the Church began to change and nuns began to wear different habits, Sr. Lancaster decided to found an order of Benedictine sisters. In a written history of her life, she said she wanted to form an order that sought to preserve Catholic traditions, such as the Traditional Latin Mass.

To those who say that my leaving my old community to found a new one didn’t make sense, I reply that it is understandable only in the life of faith. When other people came, I welcomed them because I wanted to share what I had. ‘The disciples were persevering in prayer with Mary the Mother of Jesus.’ This is a perfect description of the religious sisterhood that formed,” she wrote.

In a world full of contradictions, Sr. Wilhelmina’s alleged incorruptibility comes at a time when Catholics are grappling over racism in the Church and controversy surrounding Pope Francis’ limiting of the Traditional Latin Mass.

Is Sister Wilhelmina the Newest American Saint?

The process to become a canonized saint in the Catholic Church is long. After a lengthy investigation by her diocese, the Pope must recognize Sr. Wilhelmina formally as Venerable, a title given to a deceased person who lived a heroically virtuous life. From there, she would have to be declared Blessed, a title given after at least one miracle occurs through her intercession. Finally, another miracle would have to be documented for her to be declared a canonized saint.

So, are you ready to pack your bag to Gower?

BeLynn Hollers

BeLynn Hollers is a Dallas-based religion journalist. Follow her on Twitter @belynnhollers or send her tips at BeLynnreport@gmail.com.

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