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'A deep sense of hope' - An abbess reflects on Sister Wilhemina

The story has become well-known among American Catholics — In late April, the nuns of Gower Abbey, Missouri, exhumed the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, who died in 2019, so that they could transfer it to a shrine to St. Joseph in their chapel.

The face of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, covered in a light transparent wax mask after the nun’s body was exhumed. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

To their surprise, Sister Wilhelmina’s body and habit were completely intact — not decayed after four years in the ground, even while the nun wasn’t embalmed, and there was a large crack in her casket’s lid.

Pilgrims flowed to Gower Abbey in the weeks after the discovery, while the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph said it would investigate the matter.

The pilgrims have slowed now, and the abbey’s superior, Mother Abbess Cecilia Snell, talked with The Pillar by email about what comes next, and what God might be saying at Gower Abbey.

Her interview is below.

Read about the pilgrims who came to see Sr. Wilhelmina: 'I want to see for myself' - Thousands look for miracle at Gower Abbey

What was the spiritual influence of Sister Wilhelmina on your community? How do you best remember her now? 

Sister Wilhelmina was truly the rock of our community, being the foundress and the one defining the spirit of the community. She said that she wanted to instill true devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the community, and that the spirit would be passed onto all generations.

She was a great devotee and promoter of the most holy rosary, seeing this as the most powerful and living proof of that devotion Our Lady. 

She also had a deeply religious sense, garnered from her many years as a religious living under house, and was a model of obedience. She showed us that obedience leads to order: the ordering of charity, and living in community with so many other women.

Pilgrims pray May 26 before the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, at Gower Abbey, Missouri. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

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How do you regard, spiritually, what you discovered in April: Sr. Wilhelmina's intact and seemingly incorrupt body.

It is certainly extraordinary — do you believe it is a miracle? What is the Lord telling you about all of this?

It is not a common phenomenon to have a body resist decay, especially as there were no natural components to explain it. Sister Wilhelmina's body was not embalmed, nor was there anything to preserve her in the state in which we buried her. Dirt spilled in through the crack presumably almost immediately, once the weight of the dirt was on top of the simple wooden coffin. There were bugs eating at the foam under her, but none had touched her body or her habit - the latter’s failure to deteriorate being a phenomenon just as miraculous as her intact body! 

To see her again brought us all a deep sense of hope, a sign that death is truly not the end of our story. 

Her body points to the resurrection on the last day, but also to life after death, when the soul goes forth to meet Our Lord. 

She was ready to meet Him, so it stands to reason that that would be reflected in her body, even though it is a rare favor granted to those of us who remain on earth. 

Our Lord is also showing us that incorruptibility, as a sign of holiness, is pointing to Himself as the Bridegroom who waits for us too, waiting for us to be virtuous like our foundress, and ready to meet Him when our time comes.

The former gravesite of Sr. Wilhelmina Lancaster. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

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How has the life of the monastery changed this past month? How do you maintain your monastic vocation amid this surge of pilgrims who have come to your door? How do your nuns meet their daily responsibilities while welcoming pilgrims?

We have scarcely been disturbed at all! At first, we deputed one or two sisters at a time to see to the crowds, but after a while, even this was not as necessary. 

One of the greatest blessings of this last month has been great multitude of volunteers who have stepped forward in order to guarantee that the monastic rhythm of our life would go on uninterrupted. Without the help of these friends, the last few weeks would have been extremely disruptive. But we went on with our daily round of prayer and work as Sister Wilhelmina would have us do. 

The only major change was in the amount of gift shop items we needed to order and keep in stock!

Nuns pile hay bales May 26 at Gower Abbey, Missouri. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

Are there any particular graces you have experienced or observed since Sr. Wilhelmina's body was exhumed? Where do you see the Lord in all of this?

It seems there have already been physical healings, some quite significant, though we wait on medical confirmation of those. 

But there have been many more spiritual ones: people coming back to the faith, finding strength and peace in their trials, and experiencing Sister Wilhelmina's prayerful support, even as she has left us for a better life.

She has shown us that our Redeemer lives, and is eager to help, using Sister as a conduit of his grace among all of us still on earth, we who are preparing to meet Him face to face on our journey home. 

A nun in the chapel at Gower Abbey. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

In late May, Sister Wilhelmina’s body was entombed in a glass casket in your monastery chapel. What do you expect Sr. Wilhelmina's body will mean for the monastery in the long term? 

Will hospitality become a more consistent part of your apostolic work? What else might change because of what's happened?

We are really happy to have our foundress so close to where we pray night and day, rather than buried out of sight. That is a source of encouragement to us all. 

There has been a real slowdown in the deluge of pilgrims over the last couple weeks of May, such that we are dealing with numbers that are very manageable. 

It is beautiful to see a steady stream of people visiting each day, and our daily Mass attended by about 75 people each day. 

Nuns during Holy Mass at Gower Abbey. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

It has become a bit more difficult to reserve room in our guest house, and to keep the gift shop stocked and online orders in the mail, but for the most part, everything folds in very nicely to our ordinary customary Benedictine hospitality. 

We honestly hope many more souls will draw hope from this great sign God has given all of us to increase our faith, hope and charity.  

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