NOTE: This story is ongoing and will be updated as developments come to light.
In May of 2023, the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of Apostles exhumed the body of their foundress, Sr. Wilhelmina Lancaster in preparation for the transportation of her body to the new St. Joseph Shrine that was being added to their oratory in Gower, a small town near Kansas City, Missouri. Preceding the exhumation, the sisters were told to expect nothing more than bones because Sr. Wilhelmina had not been embalmed prior to her burial four years ago, and she was laid to rest in a simple, wooden coffin.
What they discovered was quite out of the ordinary.
After noticing some damage to the coffin as they moved it, one of the sisters peered in through a crevasse with a flashlight and noticed a sock-covered foot. Any clothing, along with the body, should have deteriorated long ago. They decided to open the coffin to continue their inspection. Upon doing so, it was discovered that the body of Sr. Wilhelmina Lancaster had seemingly been preserved from bodily decay. After four years of lying in a wooden coffin with absolutely no chemical treatment to preserve her tissue, her body appeared perfect, displaying no signs of decomposition.
While this development bears all of the outward signs of a potential miracle, the Vatican has not released anything regarding an investigation or the opening of Sr. Wilhelmina’s cause for canonization. In the meantime, the Diocese of Kansas City issued the following statement on May 22, 2023:
“The condition of the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has understandably generated widespread interest and raised important questions. 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 Johnston is working to establish a thorough process for understanding the nature of the condition of Sister Wilhelmina’s remains.
Incorruptibility has been verified in the past, but it is very rare. There is a well-established process to pursue the cause for sainthood, but that has not been initiated in this case yet.
Bishop Johnston invites all the Faithful to continue praying during this time of investigation for God’s will in the lives of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles; for all women religious; and all the baptized in our common vocation to holiness, with hope and trust in the Lord.”
Additionally, Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. of the Diocese of Kansas City released the following statement on May 26, 2023:
“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. 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.
I invite all the Faithful to continue praying during this time of evaluation and determination for God’s will in the lives of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles; for all women religious; and all the baptized in our common vocation to holiness, with hope and trust in the Lord.”
While this extraordinary turn of events is groundbreaking news – both for the world and for the Church – it is far from the first time this has happened. In fact, there are over 150 members of the Catholic Church whose bodies have been discovered and verified to be completely resistant to decomposition. This is commonly referred to as “Incorruptibility” and the saints referred to as the “Incorruptibles”.
The Catholic Church is the only institution to which the miracle of incorruptibility is inherent. No other religion or denomination lays claim to this supernatural phenomenon. Some of the most notable incorruptible saints are St. Bernadette Soubirous, St. John Bosco, St. Pope Piux X, St. Catherine Labouré, St. Maria Goretti, St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, St. Stanislaus Kostka, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Vincent de Paul.
There are also interesting cases where a specific body part is separated from the body and found to remain incorrupt. Such is the case with the heart of St. John Vianney or the tongue of St. Anthony of Padua. These cases can be even more baffling to scientific observers.
It’s important to note that incorruptibility is not indestructibility. These bodies can be damaged, burned, discolored, maimed, and destroyed. There are tales of this happening during the French Revolution where the anti-religious mobs not only destroyed churches, statues, and took the lives of many priests, but also burned incorrupt bodies of saints.
What is the difference between incorruptibility and indestructibility? Incorruptibility deals with the prevention of the normal organic processes of decomposition relating to bacteria and fungi depleting the bodily tissues. For some miraculous reason, these living organisms don’t impact incorrupt saints. Indestructibility deals with the prevention of external forces such as fire, bludgeoning, and other attacks from impacting the body. Since incorrupt bodies are not indestructible a thin film of wax is placed over the body to protect the skin. This does not preserve the body from decomposition but from external non-organic forces.
While incorruptibility does not automatically bestow sainthood upon the deceased, the discovery does warrant further investigation by the Church because of its supernatural essence. The laws of nature state that a body should begin decomposing within days of dying. A few more days and the body goes through all sorts of other grotesque changes that normally make a person unrecognizable.
While modern science has come far in the development of embalming and chemical preservation (used so that the deceased may look suitable for public or private viewing, such as at wakes), even those processes are incapable of infinitely preserving bodies from decaying. Typically, embalming only forestalls decomposition for about a week. That’s why it’s so amazing that so many bodies of the faithful departed have been discovered untouched by time.
Many skeptics over the years have argued against the possibility of incorruptibility with some contesting that the Church has faked the bodies and others saying that the bodies have been maintained with chemical preservation. The latter have even compared their theory to the process by which the Russian government preserves the body of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. According to a 2016 decision by the Russian government, they have committed 13 million rubles (approx. $160,000) a year to preserving his corpse which resides in a mausoleum in the Red Square in Moscow.
However, the process by which modern embalming is done – with formaldehyde, amongst other chemicals – was not developed until the 19th century. The first incorruptible saint ever discovered was St. Cecilia, who died in 177 A.D., about 1600 years before formaldehyde. Prior to the modern version of chemical preservation, embalming required a far more invasive form of dissection, a process popularized by the Egyptians. The brain and organs in the torso had to be removed, and the body had to be treated with spices and natron. Finally, the body had to be wrapped in linen.
All potentially miraculous findings are subject to investigation by the Church, and none of the incorrupt bodies were found to have undergone any such invasive treatment. And even if they had, no preservative treatment is capable of keeping bodies in such pristine condition for any extended duration. St. Padre Pio has been deceased for over fifty years, St. Maria Goretti has been deceased for over 120 years, and St. Teresa of Avila has been deceased since 1582, well over 400 years ago.
There’s no scientific explanation for how their bodies have lasted so long: It’s miraculous.
So when news broke that the body of Sr. Wilhelmina Lancaster had been discovered intact four years after her burial, Royce Hood, husband and father of six, loaded up his car and drove down from Illinois to Kansas City to see it for himself. Royce had a very special connection to the Benedictine Sisters.
He joined Glen Lewerenz on Morning Air to explain his connection to Sr. Wilhelmina and explain just how he plans to tell her story to the world. Years ago, Royce’s wife became pregnant with their son. They discovered that he had something called Potter’s Syndrome, a terminal illness that usually causes death in utero. If a baby with Potter’s Syndrome survives birth, it usually passes away within days of being born.
Every night, Royce’s wife would listen to the music of the Benedictine Sisters with the baby because she knew there was nothing they could do, but she wanted their son to know peace.
“They have beautiful, wonderful music that people can listen to. It’s just heavenly, and she knew there wasn’t much we could do for him besides pray. His name was Fulton and she wanted him to know the sound of heaven,” said Royce. Over the months that his wife carried baby Fulton to term, Royce said that they forged a spiritual connection with the sisters as their music accompanied their baby as he prepared for heaven. Fulton eventually passed away, but the Benedictine Sisters had made a lasting impact on the Hood family.
That’s why Royce felt so compelled to bring his family to Gower, Missouri to see the body of Sr. Wilhelmina. When they arrived and were able to gaze upon her untouched body, Royce said he felt a calling to tell her story, not yet knowing if he would even have permission to do so.
“I need to share not the miracle. The miracle of incorruptibility is like [icing on the cake]. But there’s a bigger miracle here with her life and legacy. And so, I said a little prayer, and I said, ‘If it’s God’s will, Sr. Wilhelmina, with your intercession I’m going to share your story with the world.’”
Royce was able to meet with the Mother Abbess and explain that he wanted to make a documentary about Sr. Wilhelmina’s life, and she accepted his offer. After taking his family home, Royce quickly returned to Kansas City where he spent a week with the sisters, getting a behind-the-scenes look at their cloistered life and the recent days which led up to the exhumation and subsequent discovery.
Royce was one of the first people to have a chance to observe the unobstructed body of Sr. Wilhelmina in her perfectly preserved habit while she was on display in recent weeks. Another person who had just such an opportunity was Relevant Radio’s very own CFO, Preston Allex. Upon hearing the breaking news about the possibility of another incorruptible, Preston did the same thing as Royce: He packed his family into the car and drove down to Missouri. There, Preston and his family had the opportunity to see, touch, and experience the presence of Sr. Wilhelmina. A family friend and professional photographer, Jerilyn Owen, was able to travel with him and capture the pilgrims, nuns, and volunteers on camera. Some of her pictures and videos are included below.
NOTE: These pictures and videos were taken prior to Bishop Johnston’s request of the faithful to refrain from touching the body of Sr. Wilhelmina Lancaster.
Volunteer Mike Aberer
Volunteer Jodi Carpenter
Volunteer Luke Nold
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