A nun has moved one step closer to sainthood after her exhumed body showed no signs of decay, four years after it was buried.
Pilgrims are now flocking to Missouri to see the impeccably well-preserved body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster.
Sister Wilhelmina, the founder of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, in Gower, Missouri, died at age 95 in May 2019.
She was buried without being embalmed in a cracked wooden coffin, which exposed her body to moisture.
When her remains were exhumed on May 18, to be moved to the monastery chapel that was intended to be her final resting place, the Benedictine sisters expected to find bones.
However, the sisters instead found an intact body and habit, the Catholic News Agency reported.
Thanks to the high level of condensation, there was a layer of mould. Otherwise, the body was undamaged.
According to the sisters who witnessed the exhumation, the ribbon, crucifix and rosary were all intact as was the veil.
“We think she is the first African American woman to be found incorrupt,” the current abbess of the community, Mother Cecilia, said.
It was her job to open the coffin and examine the body.
A full, intact foot
“I thought I saw a completely full, intact foot and I said, ‘I didn’t just see that,’” she said. “So, I looked again more carefully.”
“I mean there was just this sense that the Lord was doing this,” the abbess added.
“Right now, we need hope. We need it. Our Lord knows that. And she was such a testament to hope. And faith. And trust.”
While the body appeared unchanged, the lining of the coffin had disintegrated.
Skeletal remains typically weighed approximately 20 pounds.
But Sister Wilhelmina’s body weighed somewhere between 80 and 90 pounds.
“Incorruptibility” is assigned by the Catholic Church to corpses found to have been preserved from decay by divine intervention.
According to the Catholic author Joan Carroll Cruz, there are 102 saints or “blessed” who are recognised by the church as being incorrupt.
Bishop James Johnston of Kansas City said the process of assessing Sister Wilhelmina had not begun.
“The condition of the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has understandably generated widespread interest and raised important questions,” the diocese said in a statement.
“At the same time, it is important to protect the integrity of the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina to allow for a thorough investigation.”
Several hundred pilgrims, who have visited the monastery in recent days, have been allowed to touch Sister Wilhelmina’s body.
A sign nearby reads: “Please be gentle when touching sister’s body, especially her feet.”
A glass case
On Monday the body will be placed in a glass case.
One of the visitors, Michael Holmes, told Scripps News: “We’re here to see the miracle. It’s a once in a lifetime for some of us, and we’ve never been this close to a possible saint who’s laying uncorrupted.
“It proves to me as a Catholic that scripture is real, the gospel is real, God is real, God cares about us.”
However, Nicholas Passalacqua, associate professor and director of forensic anthropology at Western Carolina University, sounded a note of caution.
“In general, when we bury a body at our human decomposition facility, we expect it will take roughly five years for the body to become skeletonised,” he told Newsweek.
“So, for this body, which was buried in a coffin, I personally don’t find it too surprising that the remains are well preserved after only four years.”