Missouri Nun Whose Body Shows Little Signs Of Decay Four Years After Her Death Draws Thousands Of Visitors

Published May 30, 2023
Updated May 31, 2023

The discovery of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster's preservation ignited a church investigation into her "holiness" and inspired people to make pilgrimages to view her body.

Wilhelmina Lancaster's Corpse

Samuel Dawson/FacebookThe body of Wilhelmina Lancaster, four years after her death.

A deceased nun has inspired a pilgrimage to rural Missouri to view her surprisingly well-preserved corpse.

In April, a crew exhumed the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, who died in 2019, to make way for a shrine in her honor at Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, in Gower, Missouri. When the excavation team opened her wooden casket, they found the nun’s unbelievably well-preserved body.

The church noted on their website that they had “buried [Wilhelmina] in a simple wooden coffin without any embalming whatsoever four years ago.”

The find inspired thousands to make the trip to Gower over Memorial Day weekend, but many are still unsure whether Sister Wilhelmina’s slow rate of decomposition is an act of God or simply a result of her burial conditions.

If further investigation finds that Sister Wilhelmina’s slow decomposition is an act of incorruptibility, or a Catholic miracle that details a holy person’s body refusing the natural decomposition process, the Catholic Church may consider canonizing her as a saint.

“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,” the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph stated on their website, according to the Associated Press.

“While we can attest to Sister’s personal sanctity, we know that incorruptibility is not among the official signs taken by the Church as a miracle for sainthood, and that [we must subject all things] to further scrutiny, especially by the competent authorities in the medical field,” the nuns at the church wrote in a statement, as reported by CBS. “We must establish [her] life itself and favors as proof of holiness.”

Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster

Benedictines of Mary, Queen of ApostlesA print of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster.

Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster first took her vows and joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1944 at the age of 20.

Fellow nuns and visitors to her various churches recall her piety and kindness.

“In real life, she was always accessible to people,” the nuns at The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles noted to the Associated Press.

After Sister Wilhelmina died at the age of 95 and the church exhumed her body, the nuns wanted to make sure Sister Wilhelmina continued that accessibility.

Over the weekend, the church allowed visitors to view and touch Sister Wilhelmina’s body. At her gravesite, visitors collected a teaspoon of dirt to take home with them.

In total, the church expected 10,000 to 15,000 people to arrive at the church over the weekend, and they dutifully prepared to host them.

For some visitors, the experience was not only a holy pilgrimage but also a chance to meet other people and enjoy time together.

“With all the negativity in the world, it was beautiful to see people from all races from around the country come together in peace,” Samuel Dawson, a visitor at the church, told CBS.

“It was pretty amazing,” Dawson stated. “It was very peaceful. Just very reverent.”

As for the nuns at the church, they are patiently awaiting the result of the investigation and carry on their day-to-day duties as Sister Wilhelmina would expect from them.

“Unless we looked out the front windows, or out at the crowds attending our Mass and Divine Offices, we would not even know people are here,” the nuns wrote in a statement reported by CBS.

Pope John Paul II

Benedictines of Mary, Queen of ApostlesSister Wilhelmina meets Pope John Paul II in Rome.

Sister Wilhelmina’s body has certainly drawn excitement, but experts are sure that an investigation will uncover that God’s work was not at play here.

According to Rebecca George, an anthropologist from Western Carolina University in North Carolina, slow decomposition like that of Sister Wilhelmina’s is not particularly rare.

“When there is [low] oxygen flow, such as in a coffin, and in a cooler climate – such as the clay the coffin was in – could absolutely slow decomposition down,” she told CBS in an email.

“The public rarely sees a human body at this stage of decomposition, so this is likely contributing to the interest we are seeing. If the remains were buried without clothing or not in a coffin in this type of soil, I would have expected them to be skeletal, but the type of preservation observed is typical given the coffin and clothing protecting the remains.”

After reading about Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster and her well-preserved remains, discover the sokushinbutsu, a practice among Japanese Buddhist monks that calls for self-mummification before death. Then, dive into the surprisingly disturbing story of Mother Teresa.

Amber Breese
Amber Breese is an Editorial Fellow for All That's Interesting. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, history, and Russian. Previously, she worked as a content creator for America House Kyiv, a Ukrainian organization focused on inspiring and engaging youth through cultural exchanges.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.