From Fr. David: Mary Elizabeth Lancaster was born on the 13th of April 1924 in St. Louis, MO. She entered Benedictine religious life as a teenager. Later in life, Sr. Mary Wilhelmina founded the traditional congregation Queen of Apostles. There, she died on 29 May 2019. Four years later, on 18 May 2023, she was exhumed and found incorrupt. (Incorrupt means minimal corruption to a deceased body, and this is normally seen as a sign of God affirming great sanctity in the life of the deceased.) The following guest post is written by Mother of Wildlings, @ravenousreader.
Who was Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster? Most Catholics know her as the “Incorrupt Missouri Nun,” but what was she like? She was an amazing woman who came from a pious family. She was born in St. Louis in 1934. She endured segregation and the Great Depression, but these tragedies didn’t define her. In fact, the thing that she allowed to define her was her Catholic faith. This became a cross she would bear with inspiring hope and perseverance.
In a time when many Catholics began to find social justice causes to fight for—causes outside the faith—Sr. Wilhelmina saw that the only cause worth fighting for is the faith, and she fought like a warrior. She said that “It is not the color of one’s skin that matters, but the purity of one’s soul.” She saw that the Church was beginning to divide in the social and liturgical aftermath of the 1970s and wanted it to remain unified. She wanted Catholics to identify as Catholic first, live out the faith and save their souls. She also wanted the Church to lead them in this endeavor. She never lost hope that this might happen.
Her determination and hopefulness for unity is apparent in a letter she wrote to Pope John Paul II on 19 Jan 1991:
Most Holy Father:
I see no need for an African rite.
I see no need for an American rite.
I see no need for an African-American rite.
I adhere to the Roman rite. Latin is the official language of the Roman rite. Gregorian chant is the official music of the Roman rite.
I am a subject of Christ’s kingdom, which is not of this world.
Our Lord Jesus Christ founded one Church for all men regardless of skin color, regardless of living conditions, regardless of mother tongue. Everyone must die to himself and put on Christ. “Forget your people and your father’s house,” the Psalm says.
Please, Holy Father, listen to the cry of UNA VOCE; Establish a Traditional Ordinariate Consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary!—p. 100 God’s Will; Benedictines of Mary.
Like many orders in the 1970s and 1980s, a Benedictine order named Oblates Sisters of Providence (an all black congregation established during segregation) ceased observing their original rule, and began making compromises in their vows. They also modified their habits, to the point that they were barely recognizable as habits. This greatly disturbed Sr. Wilhelmina. In obedience, she wore the modified habit for a short time, but held fast to the rule and her vows. When Sr Wilhelmina’s mother saw her in her modified habit, she scolded her daughter!
Sr Wilhelmina then went to work to make herself a traditional habit from scratch. She pieced it together creatively since the order no longer made the parts. She used part of a bleach bottle to create a wimple. I wonder, sometimes, if she wasn’t an incredibly difficult toddler for her parents to disciple with such a tenacious will. Her devout and pious parents, however, did such an excellent job molding that will in virtue, and focusing it on the Will of God that it took her 14 years of actively and persistently petitioning her order to restore their rule and habits, and follow their vows (and consistent rejection) before she finally discerned leaving and starting the Benedictine’s of Mary. A prayer she wrote during this discernment is a beautiful prayer for discerning the Will of God in one’s vocation:
Because I want to persevere in the one true faith and witness for it, please help me break what-ever human ties I must in order to do your will as a true religious and your most devoted child.—p. 141, God’s Will Benedictines of Mary.
She longed to continue to fully live the vows she took at 17 by establishing a new traditional Benedictine order. She wanted to live the Rule of St. Benedict in community: traditional habits, Obedience, Silence, poverty, Prayer, the Hours, and the Latin Mass. She wasn’t sure if anyone would join her newly established order, but was pleasantly surprised to see it grow into one of the most quickly growing holy orders in the world: Benedictines of Mary Queen of the Apostles.
There, one finds so many women of so many ethnicities, races, languages, and countries singing the hours and praying the mass in unison in the same language everyday as they authentically live out the Rule of St. Benedict. This was Sr. Wilhelmina’s vision. It’s happening right now in Gower and in Ava.
Sr Wilhelmina sought to do God’s Will in her life regardless of the personal sacrifice it might require of her. She was humble, joyful, tenacious, and strong. She wanted unity in the Church. She wanted One Voice, One Faith, One Language for all of us regardless of color, ethnicity, location, or income.
Sr. Wilhelmina is likely so happy. She is an example to each and everyone one of us of what we are and what we are to do: we are Catholic, and we are to work towards holiness by doing the Will of God in everything. She was the “one voice” calling for restoration of her order and the church, but now, many have and are joining her to cry together as Una Voce.
N.B. The Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles makes this statement about the finding of her incorrupt body:
Our Abbey had been planning the addition of a St. Joseph Shrine within the oratory for quite some time, including the reinterment of the remains of our beloved foundress, Sister Wilhelmina. Last month, in preparation for the construction of the shrine, we exhumed her, having been told to expect bones in the highly moist clay of Missouri, as she was buried in a simple wooden coffin without any embalming whatsoever four years ago.
The intent was devotional, and to carry this out in the privacy of our cloistered life. Nevertheless, the discovery of what appeared to be an intact body and a perfectly preserved religious habit created an unexpected twist to our plans. We had no intent to make the discovery so public, but unfortunately, a private email was posted publicly, and the news began to spread like wildfire. However, God works in mysterious ways, and we embrace His new plan for us.
Many have voiced concern about the disruption to our life, but we have, thankfully, remained unaffected and able to continue on in our life of ora at labora, prayer and work, as Sister Wilhelmina would have it. 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. An army of volunteers and our local law enforcement have stepped forward to manage the crowds, and we are deeply grateful to each of them, as they allow us to continue our life in peace, while granting the visitors a pleasant and prayerful experience at the Abbey.