Can the Incorrupt Body of Sister Wilhelmina Save the World?

There’s good reason to think that God is speaking to humanity through the uncorrupted corpse of Sister Wilhelmina.

Even by today’s standards, recent headlines in the news have been rather negative. While there is the usual bad news about the economy, the border, and federal debt, even the brighter bits of news—like a popular governor entering the presidential race or the successful boycotting of big corporations—carry the tinge of sadness; the announcement was an awkward mess, and the boycotts shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place.

Whether it comes from a progressive publication or a conservative one, little of what is reported gives any reason to hope in a brighter tomorrow.

Fortunately, a miracle has happened that sheds light in the darkness. A couple of weeks ago, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles came upon the incorrupt body of Mary Elizabeth Lancaster as they were transferring her remains from the abbey’s graveyard to the crypt of the monastery’s chapel. When she became a nun, Lancaster took the name Wilhelmina in honor of her pastor. She was one of the founders of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The order later established a monastery in Gower, Missouri, where Sr. Wilhelmina lived out the rest of her years, finally passing away in 2019 at the age of 95.

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Seeing that Sr. Wilhelmina was buried in a wooden coffin exposed to water damage for four years, the nuns expected to “find bones and moldy fabric.” Instead, they “found a fully intact body, preserved despite Sister Wilhelmina never being embalmed.” Even experts were baffled by this. David Hess, a professor of mortuary science at Salt Lake Community College, marveled, “I would have expected the body to be decomposed, maybe not all the way down to bone, but at least severely decomposed.” 

Moreover, the body doesn’t have any odor of decay. One woman who visited Sr. Wilhelmina’s body even claimed that “she smelt a ‘sweet and flowery aroma,’ which was so powerful she could taste it.” Again, scientists have no explanation for this.

Barring the possibility of a miracle, the best theory that has been suggested was that the body has “been preserved through a chemical process of ‘grave wax,’” which is “an uncommonly seen but natural phenomenon that encases a corpse or parts of a body in a shell of soap-like fatty tissue, called adipocere, which slows or stops the normal decomposition process.” However, this theory hinges on a number of unlikely factors and falls short of providing a sufficient explanation. 

Already, more than a thousand visitors have flocked to the monastery where Sr. Wilhelmina’s body is now on display. Although Church authorities have not begun the official canonization process to determine if Sr. Wilhelmina was indeed a saint, most accounts of her life indicate she was a pious woman fully devoted to prayer and sacrifice. Indeed, her last words on her deathbed were “O Maria.”

There’s good reason to think that God is speaking to humanity through the uncorrupted corpse of Sister Wilhelmina. Considering the social and political context, one can view the preserved body of a black nun who lived her life in rural America as a powerful symbol of transcendence. In a time of shameless narcissism, militant feminism, and identity politics, here was a woman who rose above all this and humbly chose the religious life.  In a time of shameless narcissism, militant feminism, and identity politics, here was a woman who rose above all this and humbly chose the religious life. Tweet This

By strange coincidence, it also seems to respond to the recent stunt of the Los Angeles Dodgers who invited, uninvited, and then reinvited the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of drag queens masquerading as nuns. As one person on Twitter pointed out, “isn’t it incredible that almost at the exact same time that the LA Dodgers announced they would host the crossdressing ‘sisters of perpetual indulgence,’ a group of freaks who mock and dress as nuns, that God would have the body of an incorrupt nun be unearthed?”

At a more profound level, the nature of the miracle challenges a popular heresy that denies the resurrection of the body. Catholic theology professor Randall Smith speaks to this widespread belief in his latest book, From Here to Eternity. Many people, including most Christians, believe that their body simply decomposes and disappears when they die, while their soul enters the afterlife; therefore, it doesn’t matter much what happens to the body when they die. Transhumanists take this a step further and seek to manipulate and enhance the body regardless of its potential impact on one’s soul (which they think can be uploaded into a data cloud anyway).

Referencing Scripture and Catholic theology, which both maintain that the soul and body are invariably intertwined and never separated, Smith insists that the body is resurrected along with the soul—it doesn’t just die off and disintegrate. Sister Wilhelmina’s body seems to attest to this truth. Her virtue and faith have thwarted the corrosive effects of sin and death. And if God cares so much to keep her body intact, He must feel similarly about all human beings who have wrongly concluded that their body is a heavy burden, not an essential connection to reality. 

If all this seems debatable, most people could at least agree that the miracle of Sr. Wilhelmina’s body proves that God is present in the world. Even if skeptics try to attribute all phenomena in the universe to natural causes and rule out all possibility of miracles, this logical framework falls apart in the presence of an actual miracle. Instead of waiting hopelessly for some plausible scientific theory to explain away the supernatural, it seems more reasonable that such skeptics should treat this miracle as an opportunity to check their pride, open their hearts and minds, and take the leap of faith.

As for those who already believe, they should likewise treat this miracle as an opportunity to check their fear, open up about their faith, and take on the world they live in. Religion is not merely a moral code, a cultural byproduct, or a metaphysical philosophy. It is belief in the ultimate truth about man, the world, and God. When God acts in the world for the sake of man, those who believe should feel challenged to go out and speak to those who still don’t believe—this has always been the main result of miracles. If they fail to do this, then they shouldn’t be surprised that the world will go on decaying like most dead things do. If they heed the call and loudly proclaim the meaning of the miracle, then the world can stay intact, just like the uncorrupted body of Sister Wilhelmina. 


  • Auguste Meyrat

    Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher and department chair in north Texas. He has a BA in Arts and Humanities from University of Texas at Dallas and an MA in Humanities from the University of Dallas.

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