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'Miracle' exhumed nun draws pilgrims to rural Missouri

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Pilgrims are flocking to a monastery in rural Missouri to witness what some see as a miracle. The body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster is well-preserved four years after she died and was buried in a simple wooden coffin. Some consider her a candidate for sainthood because of her incorrupt body. Some also point to the racism Lancaster overcame as a Black nun in America. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles monastery is out on a muddy gravel road in the green rolling countryside of northeast Missouri. Mary Knable drove 10 hours here from Corydon, Ind. to see the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster.

MARY KNABLE: It's a miracle (laughter). It is. She looks amazing. I am just nearly moved to tears. It was so beautiful, and...

MORRIS: The body lies behind glass now, dressed in traditional black habit. Sister Wilhelmina's face looks much as it did in life, though her hands are withered. Jayme Nicholas flew in from Chicago.

JAYME NICHOLAS: She looks pretty darn good (laughter). I hope I look that good alive.

MORRIS: When Sister Wilhelmina died at 95, nuns buried her on the monastery grounds in a plain wooden coffin. They didn't embalm her. Sister Wilhelmina founded this highly orthodox order of nuns. And following tradition, the nuns wanted to enshrine her remains in their chapel. They dug up the casket in late April expecting bones. But when they opened it, they saw a familiar face. Majolie Callan, visiting from Osceola, Mo., says that is a clear sign.

MAJOLIE CALLAN: ...Of sainthood, yep. I mean, the body is organic. It decays. Four years underground - rain, snow, sun, you name it.

MORRIS: It takes years, sometimes centuries, to reach official sainthood in the Catholic Church. And there are lots of factors to consider. But 17-year-old Sunshine Le, visiting from Springfield, Mo., says having an incorrupt body is a good start.

SUNSHINE LE: It's one of the most venerated parts of being a Catholic. To be considered incorruptible means that you're not only a holy person, but also strong enough and within your own faith to be incorruptible from, like, the elements, supposedly.

MORRIS: Religious pilgrims aren't the only ones impressed. A few miles away in tiny Gower, Mo., Jack Klein - the undertaker, the one who placed Sister Wilhelmina's body in the coffin - says it looks better four years after death than many do after three days.

JACK KLEIN: I was kind of shocked, you know? I mean, because I have picked up loved ones of people that have laid for a couple of days - they found them, you know? And you really can't even get close to them - I mean, for the odor and for the decomposition starting and everything like that.

MORRIS: The nuns left the remains out in the open for a month before placing them in a permanent shrine. The biggest shock for Klein? - there was no odor. But not everyone sees something inexplicable.

NICK PASSALACQUA: I just didn't find it that surprising.

MORRIS: Nick Passalacqua, a forensic anthropologist at Western Carolina University, studies the way human bodies decompose in nature, and that's well-documented. But he says there isn't much data on what happens after burial - factoring in all the variations in temperature, moisture, soil type and coffins.

PASSALACQUA: We just don't have a good understanding of - how do bodies decompose when they're buried in these settings?

MORRIS: Even if there is a scientific explanation, there's still a good case for sainthood for the woman who started this thriving monastery, according to Dan Stockman, national correspondent for Global Sisters Report.

DAN STOCKMAN: She was the foundress and absolutely beloved by the community, and I think you can't avoid the racial aspects here.

MORRIS: Sister Wilhelmina was Black. She became a nun in 1941, stuck with it. Stockman says that says a lot.

STOCKMAN: The Catholic Church in the United States does not have a great track record on race. You know, you had stories of sisters who applauded when Martin Luther King was assassinated, right? Just Black sisters in white orders who were treated just unbelievably bad and yet, they stayed. They kept the faith.

MORRIS: Back at the monastery, visitors say Sister Wilhelmina has renewed their faith. Pam Davis and her daughter, both in for the day from Asheville, N.C., linger on the monastery grounds at a hole where Sister Wilhelmina was buried.

PAM DAVIS: You'll see there's spoons in there. People are, you know, taking a little bit of dirt away with them 'cause they want to take that miracle with them, right? What part of this can I take home, can I take with me?

MORRIS: Are you going to take some dirt home?

DAVIS: Of course.

(LAUGHTER)

MORRIS: Davis says she's a systems analyst for a global tech company, not someone given to whimsy. But like others here, she's open to the possibility that Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster represents something beyond the scope of science and reason. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Gower, Mo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.