In April 2023, the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster was exhumed in order to move her to a new a shrine being built in the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus in Gower, MO. Much to the surprise of the Sisters, they found that Sister Wilhelmina, the founder of the Benedictines of Mary, in surprisingly good condition after 4 years, despite the fact she was in a cracked wooden coffin that had signs of mold and mildew. This is of particular interest to Catholics, as incorruptibility of human remains is part of the tradition of people that have been beatified or canonized. The lack of decay or decomposition is seen as a sign that the person had lived so closely with Christ that even their decomposition would be held at bay. Of course, it is our duty to look at what could be causing this before we ascribe it to a higher power.
So what do we know about Sister Wilhelmina? First of all, we aren’t exactly clear on her cause of death, just that she was 95 when she passed away, so I think it’s fair to assume that the typical factors contributing to death due to old age such as the slow cessation of body systems is reasonable. Second, she was buried in a simple wood coffin in Gower, Missouri in the United States, a region known for being temperate and humid. This is of interest to us because water is the main source for decomposition as it causes proteolysis (the breakdown of proteins) and fosters an environment for bacterial activity and mold growth. Third, her coffin was cracked. Fourth, she was covered with mold when they found her so much so they spent two weeks cleaning her before presenting her to the public. A sign that moisture was likely present in her burial place. Fifth, the funeral director who oversaw her burial and reported her death certificate has verified that she was not embalmed.
So how is it possible that her body is incorrupt? Well, let’s look at what the word means first. The traditional definition of this word means to not have undergone decay or decomposition. This is a very broad definition. Decomposition and decay often brings to mind someone who is bloated and discolored. However, this does not have to be the case. Decomposition begins at the moment of death, and everyone’s decomposition is going to vary based on their agonal (stage prior to death) factors such as illness, blood circulation, functioning of their immune system, and moisture content. It is possible to decompose very slowly. But what of the Catholic definition? Turns out, there is no cut and dried definition of incorrupt other than the preservation of the body cannot be done intentional means such as embalming or accidental preservation through natural causes such as mummification. It also does not require the body to remain in the condition in which it was found.
So what about Sister Wilhelmina? First, let’s consider her death. While we don’t know her exact cause of death, but there is a photo of her online that shows that she was wheelchair bound and on oxygen. We also know she was 95 years old. The sisters taking part in her disinterment estimated the weight of her coffin to be 80-90 lbs. That means that she was already very small when she died, or she lost a lot of water over the last four years. If she was small and dehydrated when she died, some natural mummification would have taken place, and if she did lose body water after death to the point of preservation, then this is the definition of natural mummification.
Second, what of her burial conditions? These are difficult to determine and would vary over time as regions in the Midwestern United States often do. A review of Gower’s annual weather shows regular rainfall and a yearly high temperature above 78 degrees Celsius and a low temperature below 47 degrees.
Third, what about her coffin? Here we might find some answers. Wood is known to absorb water, and softwoods such as pine and cedar are more susceptible to absorbing moisture than hardwoods. While the details of Sister Wilhelmenia’s coffin were not released it is described as a “simple wooden coffin, handmade by a priest.” Is it possible that the wood in the coffin itself drew some of the moisture out of her body?
Fourth, her body has been described as covered in mold, and in fact, her body was exhumed two weeks earlier than originally reported by the Catholic News Agency, as that time was used to remove mold from her body. According to a study published in Nature, “fungi can colonize decomposed bodies, forming distinctive mildew spots, ultimately converting bodies into moldy cadavers at the dry stage of decomposition. Heavily decomposed cadavers, in particular those that are highly mummified, often present visible fungal growth,” meaning that the mold itself may be contributing to the preservation of Sister Wilhelmina.
Fifth, we do not have a clear picture of what her remains look like. The view to the public only includes her face and hands. Her hands in particular appear to be quite dehydrated and the areas around her mouth show signs of dehydration as well. We also aren’t privy to what areas of her body had the mold removed from it and if any steps were taken to make her more presentable.
Fortunately, the Catholic Church no longer requires incorruptibility as a requirement for canonization. While I am no expert on canonization or beatification, Sister Wilhelmenia Lancaster would fit this layperson’s definition of a saint. Sister Wilhelmenia Lancaster was a woman who faced racism and isolation due to her Catholic faith from a very young age, but she still stuck with it. Her parents founded St. Joseph’s Catholic High School for Negros before her diocese was desegregated. She graduated Valedictorian of her class and went on to help found the Oblate Sisters of Providence, which is one of only two religious orders for Black or Hispanic Women where she stayed for 50 years until she founded the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles in order to return a more traditional religious lifestyle after Vatican II. She was devoted to her beliefs and was indeed being disinterred for enshrinement. To this point, no process to begin canonization or beatification of Sister Wilhemena has begun.