Hundreds of people have traveled to the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles Monastery, in rural Missouri to view a nun’s body which appears to show no signs of decay approximately four years after her death, according to CNN.
The body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, who died at age 95 in 2019, was exhumed “roughly four years later” so it can be moved to its final resting place inside a monastery chapel, the Catholic News Agency reported.
When the coffin was unearthed, Lancaster’s body was apparently “incorrupt,” which in Catholic tradition refers to the preservation of the body from normal decay. The remains were intact even though the body had not been embalmed and was in a wooden coffin, according to the news outlet.
The discovery has captured the attention of some members of the church, and prompted an investigation. The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph issued a statement about the discovery.
“The condition of the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has understandably generated widespread interest and raised important questions,” the diocese said.
“At the same time, it is important to protect the integrity of the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina to allow for a thorough investigation… Bishop [James] Johnston invites all the Faithful to continue praying during this time of investigation for God’s will.”
The statement from the diocese notes “Incorruptibility” is very rare, and a “well-established process to pursue the cause for sainthood,” but the process has not begun in Lancaster’s case.
Expecting to find bones, the Benedictine Sisters instead unearthed a coffin with an apparently intact body, even though the body was not embalmed and the wooden coffin had a crack down the middle that let in moisture and dirt for an unknown length of time during those four years.
“We think she is the first African American woman to be found incorrupt,” the current abbess of the community, Mother Cecilia, OSB, told EWTN’s ACI Group on Saturday. As the head of the monastery, it was her role to examine what was in the coffin first.
The body was covered in a layer of mold that had grown due to the high levels of condensation within the cracked coffin. Despite the dampness, little of her body and nothing of her habit disintegrated during the four years.
The shock was instant for the community who had gathered to exhume her. “I thought I saw a completely full, intact foot and I said, ‘I didn’t just see that,’” the abbess said. “So I looked again more carefully.”
After she looked again, she screamed aloud, “I see her foot!” and the community, she said, “just cheered.” “I mean there was just this sense that the Lord was doing this,” she said. “Right now we need hope. We need it. Our Lord knows that. And she was such a testament to hope. And faith. And trust.”
The Catholic Church has a long-standing tradition of so-called “incorruptible saints,” more than a hundred of whom have been beatified or canonized. The saints are called incorruptible because years after their death parts of or even the entirety of their bodies are immune to the natural process of decay. Even with modern embalming techniques, bodies are subject to natural processes of decomposition.
According to Catholic tradition, incorruptible saints give witness to the truth of the resurrection of the body and the life that is to come. The lack of decay is also seen as a sign of holiness: a life of grace lived so closely to Christ that sin with its corruption does not proceed in typical fashion but is miraculously held at bay.