Miracle in Missouri? The nun who put her monastery on the map
Her fellow nuns said that four years after her death, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster’s body had not decomposed. Believers come from everywhere to see for themselves.
Why are we here
We explore how America defines itself one place at a time. In the hills north of Kansas City, Missouri, a small monastery has become a destination for Catholics hoping to see a miracle.
Report by Gower, MO.
In her lifetime, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster was known to her fellow nuns for her devotional poetry, her sense of humor, and her intense piety. She is known to say: “I am Sister Will Hill Mina.” “I have a hell of a willpower and I mean it!” A biography published by her order after her death at the age of 95 in 2019 described her as the young nun “who persevered in the faith.”
In death, Sister Wilhelmina became something much greater for some: a potential saint, a pilgrimage attraction, a miracle.
The transformation began this spring at Our Lady of Ephesus, run by the Benedictine Mary, Queen of the Apostles, a small but growing conservative congregation headquartered in the hills north of Kansas City. Four years after Sister Wilhelmina, the founder of the order, was buried in a simple wooden coffin in one corner of the property, the sisters decided to move her body to the usual place of honor within 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 bore a remarkable resemblance to Sister Wilhelmina herself. Her face was recognizable, even after years in a damp coffin, and the sisters said her favorite habit was “pure.”
To the Benedictines of Mary, this immediately indicated that Sister Wilhelmina might be “incorruptible,” a term used by the Catholic Church to describe people whose bodies—or parts of their bodies—did not decompose after death. Believers in this phenomenon say that there are more than 100 examples of this around the world, most of them in Europe.
The case of Sister Wilhelmina, who was black, was particularly special, said Michael O’Neill, who hosts a national radio show called “Miracle Hunter” on Catholic station EWTN. “There has never been an incorruptible African American; In fact, no American of any kind was incorruptible. “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 improvised parking lot, placing handwritten signs directing guests to Sister Wilhelmina’s now-empty grave, and to her body in the church. Huge crowds — the sisters say at least 25,000 people — flocked to the monastery over Memorial Day weekend to see, touch the body and pray.
“I thought something like this could only happen in Europe, or St. Louis,” said Edith Riches, 13, who volunteered this weekend to hand out cold water and fruit to visitors waiting along the monastery’s long gravel drive. Volunteers also distributed hijabs and knee-length skirts to women in line to help them adhere to the monastery’s strict dress code.
Gower City Mayor Ken Pike worked with authorities in two counties and the state highway patrol to plan for the influx of visitors, temporarily converting the two-lane road leading to the monastery into a one-way road. The city also added a large link to the monastery at the top of its website in May, right under its slogan, “A Beautiful Place to Call Home.”
Sister Wilhelmina has become the biggest news in town since her high school soccer 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 a $1.50 can of beer buys you a cold beer at happy hour, saw little bustle. The monastery is located about six miles from there, so relatively few tourists end up making their way into the city.
After Memorial Day, the nuns placed Sister Wilhelmina’s body in a glass box, which they installed in the church on their property in front of the pews on which visitors sit during Mass. The number of visitors declined, but then remained steady.
When I visited the monastery on a Thursday in August, about 75 people attended midday mass in the church, a large turnout for a weekday mass. I met pilgrims from Minnesota, Texas and California, some of whom were passing through on summer road trips. One of the women took pictures of the body, saying that she would check on Sister Wilhelmina in a few years.
In her life, Sister Wilhelmina was a descendant of enslaved Catholics, and grew up in a Catholic family in St. Louis. She has belonged to the traditional black nun order for 50 years, the Oblate Sisters of Providence. But by the end of that time, she had become disillusioned with what she saw as a loosening of cult standards and clothing styles. She founded the neotraditional order in the 1990s.
Some of Sister Wilhelmina’s nieces and nephews objected to the way the convent treated her body. They issued a statement over the summer stating that they were not informed of her exhumation until weeks after it happened, and were only reluctantly allowed to spend time alone with her body.
Others wonder why Sister Wilhelmina was so eagerly promoted by a largely white movement within the Catholic Church. Almost all of the 64 women who make up the Benedictines of Mary are white.
“It’s being used to confront the reality of what black Catholicism is in the United States,” said Shannen D. Williams, a historian at the University of Dayton and author of a book about black Catholic nuns. She said Sister Wilhelmina’s beliefs do not make her representative of most black Catholics, who tend to be more liberal on social issues. Dr. Williams noted that more than 70% of black Catholics say abortion should be legal, for example, a higher level of support than Catholics overall.
To the sisters at the convent, Sister Wilhelmina was simply who she was: by all accounts, a staunch conservative on theological and social issues. “Her life was parallel, being black on the one hand, and then traditional on the other,” Sister Scholastica Radell said. “She wanted unity“.
In an age when the number of nuns and priests in the United States is aging and declining, the Benedictine Order of Mary is among a handful of religious orders that are growing.
Georgia and Jim Nelson were on their third trip from Lincoln, Nebraska to see Sister Wilhelmina’s body. Mr Nelson was having exploratory surgery for throat cancer in a few days. Mrs. Nelson felt called during her private prayer time to make another pre-surgery visit.
Sister Wilhelmina is “in heaven next to the Father,” Mrs. Nelson said, her voice striking. (Mr. Nelson’s cancer turned out to be mild, which Mrs. Nelson saw as an answer to their prayers.)
Bishop James V. warned. Johnston Jr., in whose diocese the convent is located, said in a statement in May that while it was understandable that visitors would want to see the body, they should not touch the sister’s body or treat it as a remains.
Within the monastery walls, few openly question what they see before their eyes. For experts in forensic science, there are other possible explanations.
“It’s impossible to reach many conclusions at all,” said Marcella Sorge, a forensic anthropologist and research professor at the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Center for Policy. One of the many explanations is the phenomenon of dry mummification, which can occur naturally if the body’s soft tissues remain dry enough. Factors include a person’s body fat, their diet in the days before death, and the dryness of the wood used to make the coffin.
For others, science is not the goal.
Madeline Witt, an employee at the Hy-Klas grocery store in Gower, shrugged her shoulders when asked if Sister Wilhelmina’s preservation was a miracle. “Even if it’s not, if it brings more people to come and question things, then it is,” she said.
Mrs. White, then 17 years old, visited the convent three times to see Sister Wilhelmina.
She attends a non-denominational Protestant church, and said she had never seen a nun before her visit to the monastery. She said it was a “culture shock.” But in a small, quiet town, this was also something that had to be done.