An abbey in rural Missouri has become the site of pilgrimage for many Catholics who view the body of a Benedictine nun as a modern American miracle.
Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster died in May 2019, but when her body was exhumed earlier this year she was discovered to be apparently uncorrupted – showing little decomposition – an indication of sanctity to Catholics if confirmed.
Thousands of devoted Catholics have flocked to the Gower, Missouri, abbey where they say a ‘modern-day miracle’ has taken place.
‘It is a modern-day miracle,’ Dale Bauermeister, a Catholic convert from Nebraska, told Fox News Digital at the abbey last weekend. The incorrupt body of Lancaster is a sign that ‘Christ is here, he is among us, he is not done working,’ said Bauermeister.
Catholic and local media outlets have captured the throngs of hundreds of visitors to the abbey of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles and local Catholic parishes have volunteered to assist with parking and crowd management.
‘To see her, it just brings peace, and the hope of resurrection and the hope of all of us being one in Christ,’ Judy Brown of Missouri told Fox News Digital.
Lancaster founded the Benedictines of Mary in 1995. Long before that, she insisted on wearing the traditional black habit of nuns as a testament to her commitment to her life of faith.
The nuns and their pastor at the Gower Abbey conduct Masses and prayer services in Latin, using the Traditional Latin Mass – a rite within Catholicism that the FBI considered using as a reason to conduct anti-domestic terrorism activities.
To many visitors, Lancaster was a witness to the power of the traditional form of worship against modernity within society and the church.
‘I think about her fidelity to her vows as the bride of Christ and wanting to remain wearing the habit, which is the sign of her being a bride of Christ in this life,’ said Lisa Shea, who traveled with her family from Ohio. ‘That sign is such a gift to all the laity of the church, because in heaven we are all called to be one with Christ forever.’
Visitors often touched rosary beads and prayer cards to the nun’s body, which was placed in the basement of the chapel where pilgrims could walk up and touch her.
The state of the nun’s body has bewildered experts who examined it. Her body was not embalmed before her burial and her casket was made of simple wood without an exterior layer.
David Hess, associate professor in the Salt Lake Community College mortuary science department, told Catholic News Agency that the deceased nun’s pristine condition is hard to explain.
‘If the body was not embalmed, and it was still intact after four years, that one kind of throws me,’ he told CNA. ‘I would have expected the body to be decomposed, maybe not all the way down to bone, but at least severely decomposed.’
Lancaster’s body has been on open-air display for visitations by pilgrims until last week, when she was moved behind glass. However, she has not been declared a ‘saint’ by the Catholic Church.
‘If this proves to be true – it’s still being investigated – but if it proves to be true, to me it will be a significant sign for our time, especially in the American church, of the reality of the Catholic faith,’ said the Rev. Mark Goring, a Catholic priest, in a video posted to his popular You Tube channel last week.
Leaders in the Catholic Church contacted Rome and commissioned an investigation into the situation after the remains were exhumed.
Bishop James V. Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph released a statement on the investigation into Lancaster’s condition, where he urged Catholics to avoid venerating the nun until the church process is complete.
‘The Church has an established process for determining if someone is a saint and worthy of veneration. No such process has yet been initiated on behalf of Sister Wilhelmina,’ the bishop said. ‘It is understandable that many would be driven by faith and devotion to see the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina given the remarkable condition of her body, but visitors should not touch or venerate her body, or treat them as relics.’
The nuns at Gower Abbey also released a statement clarifying that incorruptibility is not an official consideration for sainthood.
‘While we can attest to Sister’s personal sanctity, we know that incorruptibility is not among the official signs taken by the Church as a miracle for sainthood, and that all things must be subjected to further scrutiny, especially by the competent authorities in the medical field. The life itself and favors received must be established as proof of holiness,’ the nuns’ statement said.
In order to be declared a saint, outside investigators must confirm multiple miraculous events surrounding the deceased when asked for intervention by living Christians. The Catholic Church defines these miracles as ‘a sign or wonder such as a healing, or control of nature, which can only be attributed to divine power.’
In many sects of Christianity, the bodies of those who are believed to be in heaven are called ‘relics’ and are used in worship. Relics can also be objects touched by a saint.
Catholics, Coptics, Orthodox, Anglicans and others practice the veneration of relics as a means of praising God – the practice is traced back to biblical anecdotes such as the bones of the prophet Elisha bringing a dead man back to life.
In the Book of Acts, merely touching St. Paul’s handkerchief cured the sick and cast out evil spirits from the afflicted. And in the Old Testament, a story is recounted of a man rising from the dead after his body was placed in the tomb containing bones of Elijah the prophet.
Veneration of pious Christians’ bones has been documented since the earliest days of Christianity.