Catholic pilgrims are descending on a Benedictine monastery in rural Missouri after a seemingly incredible discovery.
The body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, OSB, the African American foundress of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, appears to be in an unexpected state of preservation even four years after she died in 2019 at the age of 95.
When the abbess and sisters of Sister Wilhelmina’s community decided to move her body from the cemetery to a final resting place inside their monastery chapel May 18, they were surprised to find her body apparently intact, even though she had not been embalmed.
The sisters were also amazed to see that their foundress’ habit was also in excellent condition, despite the complete disintegration of the cloth lining of the wooden coffin.
The current abbess of the community, Mother Cecilia, OSB, told EWTN’s ACI Group a few days after the discovery that they believe their foundress could be incorrupt.
But no investigation has yet been carried out to rule out any natural causes for the presumed phenomenon, and the Catholic Church has not ruled on Sister Wilhelmina’s case. A cause for the foundress’ canonization has also not been approved by the Church.
How does the Church define the incorruptibility of saints, and what does the phenomenon signify?
What is incorruptibility?
Incorruptibility is the preservation of the body from normal decay after death.
According to Catholic tradition, incorruptible saints give witness to the truth of the resurrection of the body and the life that is to come.
The Church does not have a cut-and-dried definition of what condition a holy person’s body must be found in to be declared incorrupt, and it does not necessarily require that the body remains permanently in the same condition in which it was found.
Incorruptibility, when proven, is considered a sign, because it cannot be explained by intentional preservation, such as embalming, or by unintentional preservation through natural causes, such as mummification.
Identification of incorruptibles
The Catholic author Joan Carroll Cruz, who died in 2012, wrote about the phenomenon in her 1977 book “The Incorruptibles.”
She identified 102 saints or blesseds who are recognized by the Church to be incorrupt.
She said there were certainly many more, but these 102 are “the great majority, and certainly the most famous.”
Cruz did extensive research for her book and, because she was writing before the internet, corresponded with the shrines holding the bodies to authenticate their incorruptibility and to discover if they had been embalmed.
She noted that at the time she was researching and writing, there were errors, or “false rumors,” about the incorruptibility of some saints.
The poor quality of some photographs of saints’ remains sometimes have lead people to believe that the “simulated figures” holding the relics of saints were really unnaturally preserved corpses, she wrote.
An 18th-century pope gave his definition of incorruptibility in a treatise on the process of beatification and canonization of saints.
Prospero Lambertini, the future Pope Benedict XIV, wrote the lengthy work while serving in the Holy See’s congregation for the promotion of saints’ causes from 1708 to 1728.
Two chapters of the book, titled “De Cadaverum Incorruptione,” outlined the young theologian and lawyer’s position on the phenomenon of incorruptibility.
According to Cruz, Lambertini ruled “that the bodies of saintly persons that are found intact, but disintegrated after a few years, could not be considered miraculous preservation.”
“The only conservations he was willing to consider extraordinary are those that retain their lifelike flexibility, color, and freshness, without deliberate intervention, for many years following their deaths,” she noted.
Cruz’s book documented cases where this has happened, such as for St. John of the Cross, who died in 1591 and whose body, she wrote, “is still perfectly supple.”
More recent saints have also exhibited this phenomenon, such as St. Charbel Makhlouf, a Lebanese monk who died in 1898.
Miracles also occurred around the time of St. Charbel’s exhumation from his dirt grave, a few years after his death. One was the presence of a fragrant scent, a common phenomenon with incorruptibles. A bright light also emanated from St. Charbel’s grave after his death, prompting devotees of the holy monk to ask for his remains to be examined.
A common objection to incorruptibility is the idea that the body either must have been deliberately preserved, a practice since ancient times, or that the conditions of the grave or tomb allowed for natural preservation.
In at least one case, modern scientific examination has found that a saint previously believed to be incorrupt was likely not.
According to a 2001 article by Heather Pringle, a Church-sanctioned investigation by Italian scientists in the 1980s found that the 13th-century Tuscan saint Margaret of Cortona had received extensive embalming and other intervention after death.
The scientists also uncovered documents that showed embalming had been requested by devotees of the saint, a patron of reformed prostitutes. But after the passage of years, the fact had been forgotten, and her appearance led people to believe it was miraculous.
The evidence had been covered by her clothes, and out of a sense of modesty a full examination of her body had not been carried out for centuries.
The same scientists, however, could find “not a trace of human intervention” on another 13th-century saint and well-known incorruptible in Italy, St. Zita.
A more recent example of mistaken incorruptibility is that of Blessed Carlo Acutis.
Photos of the holy teen caused some confusion online after his body was displayed for public veneration leading up to his beatification in 2020.
The bishop of Assisi, Italy, Domenico Sorrentino, clarified that though Carlo Acutis’ body appeared intact in photos, that was due to the use of a silicone reconstruction of his face — the blessed’s body had been found in a normal state of decay when exhumed 14 years after his death in 2006.
Does any preservation exclude incorruptibility?
Cruz argued in her book that some deliberate preservation after death does not exclude the possibility that the cadaver could still exhibit an unexplainable condition many years after death.
She acknowledged that about 1% of the 102 incorruptibles she identified had received some intervention. Many others, however, certainly had not, as they belonged to religious orders that did not allow it.
She also rejected the idea that many cases could be explained by natural mummification, citing the lack of rigidity or hardness of the bodies, the normal condition of mummified corpses.
As evidence, she documented the conditions in which many of the saintly people had been found, such as in dirt graves or wood coffins with significant decay and deterioration. St. Charbel’s body, for example, was found floating in mud. She argued that these were not conditions conducive to mummification.
At one time, the Church would accept a candidate for sainthood’s incorruptibility as one of the miracles required for canonization. This practice fell out of use because being incorrupt after death is not one of the requirements to be declared a saint in the Catholic Church, nor is it a definitive sign of having lived “a heroic life of virtue.”
And many of the saints and blesseds whose remains have followed the normal process of returning “to dust” have been displayed for public veneration using coverings or silicone masks, as in the case of Carlo Acutis.
The state of Sister Wilhelmina’s body, whether verified to be incorrupt or not, sends a message that “Heaven is real. The resurrection is real,” the abbess of the foundress’ community in Gower, Missouri, said.
“Have faith,” Abbess Cecilia said. “Life does not end when we take our last breath: It begins.”
This story was originally published in 2020 and was updated on May 25, 2023.