Nuns Digging Up Sister’s Remains Find Body Intact Four Years After Death

“We think she is the first African American woman to be found incorrupt”

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Hundreds of people have descended on a rural Missouri town to flock to a convent that recently exhumed the remains of its founder.

Four years after the death and burial of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster at age 95, The Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles made a surprising discovery after sisters exhumed her wooden coffin on May 18 and found her remains to be remarkably intact. 

In Catholicism, a body that resists normal decay after death is considered incorrupt, and “incorruptible saints give witness to the truth of the resurrection of the body and the life that is to come,” according to the Catholic News Agency.

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The Benedictine Sisters were surprised to discover Sr. Wilhelmina’s body to be almost completely intact, despite not having been embalmed and the wooden coffin having cracked down the middle, allowing moisture and dirt into the coffin. 

Once the lid had been removed, it became clear, according to the sister, that Lancaster’s body was almost entirely unchanged. “We took turns feeling the still-socked feet, very damp, but all there,” the sister said. “The dirt that fell in early on had pushed down on her facial features, especially the right eye, so we did place a wax mask over it. But her eyelashes, hair, eyebrows, nose and lips were all present, her mouth just about to smile.”

The sister continued: “After we cleaned off the mold and mildew because of the wet conditions in the coffin, it looked like we had just put [the habit] on her that day. This was a testament to her love for the sisterhood and what she was passing down to us who followed her.”

“Not only was her body in a remarkable preserved condition, her crown and bouquet of flowers were dried in place; the profession candle with the ribbon, her crucifix, and rosary were all intact,” read a fact sheet to answer questions about the exhumation. 

“Even more remarkable was the complete preservation of her holy habit, made from natural fibers, for which she fought so vigorously throughout her religious life. The synthetic veil was perfectly intact, while the lining of the coffin, made of similar material, was completely deteriorated and gone.”  

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Sister Lancaster now resides in the basement of a Benedictine Monastery.

“People still have such a desire and a yearning to touch and be around God in any way possible,” visitor Kimberly Alshahri said. “God does give us these precious gifts, and so many of us sometimes just sit on the sidelines and just wait and hope something else will happen, but when there’s one here, you gotta come. Her habit is still completely intact, which she fought very hard for. Not a thread out of place, and this was the very same habit she was buried in,” said Beth Vogel, who has been coming to the abbey for mass these last three years. “I just thought God is so good, he is giving the sisters hope.”

“We’re here to see the miracle. It’s a once in the lifetime for some of us, and [we’ve] never been this close to a possible saint who’s laying uncorrupted,” Michael Holmes said. “It proves to me as a Catholic that scripture is real, the gospel is real, God is real, God cares about us.”

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“This can vary a lot, depending on the type of coffin,” Nicholas Passalacqua told Newsweek. He is an associate professor and director of forensic anthropology at Western Carolina University. “Today, most coffins are fancy and made out of wood, so they will decompose over time, but this will take many years. 

The primary factor that affects the rate of decomposition is temperature. The warmer it is, the more active bacteria and enzymes will be and also the more active insect scavengers will be because their metabolisms are correlated to ambient temperature. If the body is in an oxygen-deprived environment, then this will significantly slow decomposition.”

“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 skeletonized,” Passalacqua said. “That is without a coffin or any other container or wrapping surrounding the remains. 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.”

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