Catholics flock to US church to pray over body of nun who was exhumed after four years with almost no signs of decay

Thousands of people have flocked to a small town in Missouri to the remains of a nun whose body has barely decomposed since her death in 2019, with the phenomenon being referred to as the ‘miracle in Missouri’.

Some say it is a sign of holiness in Catholicism – with calls for her to be made a saint, while others say the lack of decomposition may not be as rare as people think.

Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster was exhumed in April, according to a statement from the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, in Gower, Missouri.

Her body was buried outside of the monastery and was dug up to be placed in an improved tomb inside the chapel.

When they exhumed Ms Lancaster, they were told to expect only bones, since she had been buried in a simple wooden coffin without any embalming four years ago.

Her body was exhumed after four years in a wooden casket
Her body was exhumed after four years in a wooden casket. Picture: Alamy

Instead, they discovered an intact body and “a perfectly preserved religious habit”, the statement said.

The nuns had not meant to publicise the discovery but someone posted a private email publicly and “the news began to spread like wildfire”.

Her body was carefully cleaned and her body was put on display with as many as 1,000 people turning up each day to see it.

Her body will be laid out for public viewings until Monday, where visitors are allowed to touch it and pray. Visiting hours run from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

A sign next to the body, which is surrounded by flowers, reads: “Please be gentle when touching sister’s body, especially her feet.”

Volunteers and local law enforcement have helped to manage the crowds in the town of roughly 1,800 people, as people have visited from all over the country to see her.

“It was pretty amazing,” said Samuel Dawson, who is Catholic and visited from Kansas City with his son last week.

“It was very peaceful. Just very reverent.”

Mr Dawson said there were a few hundred people when he visited and that he saw many out-of-state cars.

Visitors were allowed to touch Ms Lancaster, Mr Dawson said, saying the nuns “wanted to make her accessible to the public … because in real life, she was always accessible to people”.

The monastery said in a statement that Ms Lancaster’s body would be placed in a glass shrine in their church on Monday.

Visitors will still be able to see her body and take dirt from her grave but they will not be able to touch her.

The Diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph also released a statement.

“The condition of the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has understandably generated widespread interest and raised important questions,” the diocese said.

“At the same time, it is important to protect the integrity of the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina to allow for a thorough investigation.”

“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 added.

The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, also said Ms Lancaster has not yet reached the required minimum of five years since death for the sainthood process to begin.

Rebecca George, an anthropology tutor at the Western Carolina University in North Carolina, said the body’s lack of decomposition might not be as rare as people are expecting.

Ms George said the “mummification” of un-embalmed bodies is common at the university’s facility and the bodies could stay preserved for many years, if allowed to.

Coffins and clothing also help to preserve bodies, she said.

“Typically, when we bury people, we don’t exhume them. We don’t get to look at them a couple years out,” Ms George said.

“With 100 years, there might be nothing left. But when you’ve got just a few years out, this is not unexpected.”

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