To get to Gower Abbey, fly into Kansas City, Missouri, rent a car, and go north for a little while on the interstate out of town. From there, you’ll get on a state highway, and then a county road.
You’ll drive across the rolling countryside of northwest Missouri and through small towns, past Dollars General, and Billy T’s Americana Café, and Good Shepherd Catholic Church.
When you start turning onto agricultural roads named only by sets of double letters, your cell phone service will start to flag. By the time you turn onto a crushed gravel road, about a mile and half before the abbey, you won’t have service at all.
If there are other cars on the small road before the abbey, you’ll drive forward in a cloud of dust kicked up by the car in front of you — you’ll round corners and climb hills with dirt obstructing the view, but you’ll be ok if you follow the car ahead of you. If you come in the afternoon, there will probably be a line of cars as you get close to the monastery.
You’ll know you’re almost there when you start seeing the hand-painted signs urging you to go to confession and to love the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
If you’re lucky, you can drive your car through the monastery’s gates, and park in the nuns’ northwest field, along rows drawn up with metal stakes and bright-yellow twine. You’ll know where to go when men in orange vests wave your car toward an open space.
But if you’ve come late in the day, or right before Mass, you’ll park in the soybean field across from the monastery. A farmer was just about to plant his spring crop when people started coming, and he decided to wait on the beans so people could park in his field.
Gower Abbey isn’t conveniently located — there’s no mass transit here and no shuttle bus. If you need to go to the bathroom, there are some 15 port-a-potties on the property already, and more are coming. There’s no place nearby for a snack, and the close hotels are 30 minutes away, up in the town of St. Joe.
But the abbey, off the crushed gravel road and across from the soybean field, is where thousands of people have turned up daily this past week.
Because the nuns — and the pilgrims — say it’s where God is at work.
Since mid-May, thousands of people have come to Gower Abbey because they believe a miracle is happening there — that the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, foundress of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, is incorrupt — still intact, and not decomposed, after four years in the ground.
In late April, the nuns of Gower Abbey exhumed the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, the nun who founded their community, and who died in 2019.
The nuns say they exhumed Sister Wilhelmina’s body so it could be interred in a planned shrine to St. Joseph in the monastery chapel.
“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,” they explained in a statement.
To the nuns’ surprise, they discovered “what appeared to be an intact body and a perfectly preserved religious habit.”
At first, the nuns told very few people. They informed diocesan officials, and shared information with some local families and supporters, and they waited to see what would happen next.
But word began to spread. An email to local families was posted online. People began to show up, looking for a miracle. By May 20, hundreds of people had already come to the monastery. In the next week, the numbers would swell to tens of thousands.
If you’d gone to Gower Abbey in late May, you would have seen several hundred people — or as many as a thousand — queued up in line, waiting to see the body of Sister Wilhelmina, laid out on a table in a small multi-purpose room underneath the nuns’ chapel.
Some would wait for hours outside the monastery for their chance to kneel in front of Sister Wilhelmina’s body, to press rosaries, medals, and scapulars to her hands and habit.
In line would be priests and religious, college presidents, professional athletes, and retirees. There would be devout Catholics wearing mantillas and religious t-shirts, alongside people with no Catholic faith at all.
There would be babies in their mothers’ arms, old people with walkers, busloads of college students.
And families. At Gower Abbey in late May, you would have seen 12-or-15-passenger “homeschooler vans” filling almost half the parking spots, and children everywhere you looked.
Some pilgrims would come to the abbey from nearby towns. Others would fly or drive hours to see Sister Wilhelmina.
Some would move forward in line on their knees, praying in penance every step of the way. Others would park their cars, take a look at the line, and head for the exit.
The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph said May 22 it would investigate the claim that Sister Wilhelmina’s body was incorrupt; that investigation is underway.
But even before an official decision is announced, Catholics told The Pillar they believe a miracle has taken place in Gower, Missouri, and they’ve rushed to see it for themselves.
Mary Elizabeth Lancaster was born on Palm Sunday, 1924, in St. Louis, Missouri. By nine, she knew she had a religious vocation — she later said that when she made her first Communion, she knew what God wanted for her life.
She attempted to join the Oblates of Providence when she was 13 years old, but she was accepted to the order after she finished high school at age 17. She professed religious vows in 1945.
During 50 years with the Oblates of Providence, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster saw that much in the Church was changing. She kept her religious habit when most Oblates of Providence stopped wearing them after the Second Vatican Council. She retained an attachment to the Traditional Latin Mass, and to traditional forms of the liturgy of the hours.
By 1995, Sister Wilhelmina had decided that she’d grown apart from the Oblates of Providence, and that God was calling her to something new.
At age 70, she left to found a religious community affiliated with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. Nuns would devote themselves to prayer — especially five hours of chanting the Divine Office daily — and to manual labor, mostly agriculture and handicrafts. The nuns would be dedicated to the Rule of St. Benedict and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The order would begin in Pennsylvania, and move to Missouri in 2006. Sister Wilhelmina, then in her 80s, remained the spiritual center of the nuns’ community, as she did until her death in 2019.
Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, is a longtime friend of the Gower nuns. He told The Pillar that he remembers the place Sister Wilhelmina occupied in the monastery’s community.
“I had heard about the nuns when they were in Scranton,” Conley told The Pillar, “and then when they came to Kansas City, I would visit with them when I came home from Rome, where I was working as a priest, to visit my parents.”
“I remember the visits I made in those early years — she was in a wheelchair, and she had oxygen tanks, and she was like their spiritual grandmother, really. She always had a smile on her face, and they would always dote over her, to take care of her with so much love.”
“And really, she was the spiritual heart of the whole community,” Conley told The Pillar.
“But from the beginning, she was not very physically strong … and it was so impressive to me the way the whole community revered her and treated her.”
“She had a great insight into the beauty of the liturgy — she desired that, and knew that was the kind of Benedictine life they wanted to live, centered on the Lord through the liturgy,” the bishop added.
But some visitors found meaning in that anonymity.
Shannon Coy, who traveled to the monastery May 25 from Atchison, Kansas, told The Pillar she thinks that if God worked a miracle in the life of a nun who is not well-known among most American Catholics, there’s a lesson to be learned.
“Something that really struck me is that this monastery is very hidden. And the fact that they have an uncorrupted sister, living a beautiful, hidden, simple way of life that no one knows about until now … it’s beautiful to see the fruits of living this hidden life,” Coy told The Pillar.
“I came away thinking that there are so many miracles that I must not know about already too. It just kind of makes present all of the other miracles that are in my life.”
“I came away with a lot of peace,” she added.
They waited in line for some two hours, in stifling heat. But the Twombis, who originally hail from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and have been married 50 years, said they didn’t mind the waiting.
While they didn’t know much about Sister Wilhelmina’s life, they said they came because God spoke to them in the message of the nun’s body, reminding them of the Church’s call for all people to be saints.
“This is a chance for us to recall that faith is real. Her body, not corrupted after four years, that’s telling us that God has power,” Bruno told The Pillar.
“It’s a message sent to us — that it’s true that some people are not ordinary people, and then we can be those people too,” Bruno added.
The Twombis said that people of faith will see in Wilhelmina’s body a message of God’s love. They said some had come looking for a miracle. And Carla said she was encouraged by what she saw.
“I saw her body, it’s like she was just gone yesterday. Or like she is sleeping, you can see peace in her face,” Carla said.
“In our lifetime, I have never seen something like this.”
On May 29, the nuns entombed Sister Wilhelmina in a glass casket in their monastery chapel, her face and hands covered with a light mask of wax. They expect pilgrims will continue coming, saying in a statement that the nun’s intact body is “the opportunity to contemplate the great gifts God gives us every day.”
But it is not clear how long the monastery will be inundated with the kinds of crowds that have come this May — likely more than 20,000 people in recent weeks.
Organizing hospitality for those crowds has become the job for a large community of volunteers connected to the sisters — many of them local homeschool families, who regularly bring their children to Mass at the monastery during the week.
Jody Carpenter, a mother of eight, is from one of those homeschool families. She’s become, she told The Pillar, the unlikely volunteer coordinator at the abbey, helping to ensure the more than 100 volunteers from the area know what’s needed each day.
“The sisters needed help, and we try to help them on a daily basis,” Carpenter told The Pillar.
“I asked Sister what needed done, and I was blessed to have a few friends come and help, and we’ve just been trying to organize as much as we can amid the chaos.”
Day after day at the abbey, things got more organized as pilgrims came. Parking in the fields was set up by local Knights of Columbus volunteers. Nearby Benedictine College “literally came in with a full army, they set up the PA system, and tents, and a pallet of water,” Carpenter said.
“Somebody took charge and ordered the port-a-potties” — more than a dozen of them — “and they were paid for by a generous donor.”
Carpenter added that local law enforcement agencies “just showed up and asked what needed to be done.”
She noted the farmer who gave up his field for parking — “A farmer willing to sacrifice his crop is amazing in itself. I mean, a miracle.”
Carpenter estimated that at least 3,000 had come on some days in May, and that 15,000 were expected in the final days before Sister Wilhelmina was interred in a glass case.
She said she sees God’s hand in the work to welcome pilgrims at the monastery.
And while Carpenter said she did not know Sister Wilhelmina well, she believes the nun is spiritually present at the monastery.
“It’s all in God’s plan. And yesterday, I had a clear vision of Sister Wilhelmina sitting here, in the middle of all this, watching it all, taking it in, and laughing and smiling.”
“I have seen things in the last couple days, where I see God working. And I see Sister Wilhelmina’s hand in it. I have seen women walking away in tears. I have seen God working mercifully here.”
At the center of the volunteer work is the nuns’ chaplain, Fr. Matthew Bartulica, who seems to be everywhere at the monastery, often on the telephone making arrangements, or helping volunteers to get logistics sorted. A tall man with a shaved head, Bartulica wears a Roman cassock but no fascia, the sleeves sometimes rolled up, as a concession to Missouri’s humidity.
The priest told The Pillar he was too busy for an interview, and that seemed true. He also said the monastery is trying to avoid engagement with the media.
But The Pillar pestered a bit, and the priest acknowledged that it is a lot for a priest to prepare for the gift — and challenge — of finding a possibly incorrupt person, even possibly a saint, among his spiritual community.
Asked what he’d tell pastors about the logistical challenge, Bartulica laughed.
“You can tell them it’s a wonderful thing, but there’s a lot that we have to figure out pretty quickly, and that’s not easy. Pastors can probably imagine,” he said with a laugh.
Then the priest’s phone started buzzing, and he was off to solve another problem.
As volunteers welcomed pilgrims, Gower Fire Chief John Rowe and his crew set up a “mobile command post” — housed in a large RV — along the wall of the abbey’s orchard on the afternoon of May 26, ahead of the large crowds they expected over Memorial Day weekend.
Chief Rowe told The Pillar that the members of his department — some 20 firefighters and EMTs — “want to make sure to provide service for the people who come, for the safety of the public.”
Rowe said he thinks the influx of pilgrims “has definitely put Gower, Missouri on the map.”
“This is not something that’s going away right now, I think people will come around for a long period of time to witness what’s going on here. It sounds like we’re becoming a pilgrimage site.”
“We’re trying to plan ahead and be here for the community,” the chief said. “There’s a lot of people coming together to be a part of this event.”
David Elifrits, a retired logistics sergeant of the Air Force, told The Pillar May 25 that he’d spent most of his week helping to direct traffic at the monastery.
“The crowds keep getting bigger,” Elifrits said.
“We are trying to keep the roads watered, to keep the dust down for safety, we have ambulances and police on site, and they’re patrolling heavily to slow people down, because a lot of these people haven’t ever seen a dirt road before.”
Elifrits is not a Catholic. But he said he’d come to help out because “miracles happen everywhere.”
“I’ve been all over the world with the Air Force, and I’ve seen miracles in any faith.”
Asked whether he thinks there was a miracle in Gower, Missouri, Elifrits told The Pillar, “this is just amazing. I mean, how else do you explain it? What you see in there is just incredible.”
While the nuns of Gower Abbey say they’ve kept to their schedule of prayer and farm work, the influx of thousands of pilgrims at their abbey has doubtless impacted their daily life.
As pilgrims line up outside, nuns refill water coolers, line the roadside with bales of hay to direct traffic, and fill tables with sliced fruit and cubes of cheese.
And the nuns have had to balance their newfound duties of hospitality with the aim of keeping their farm running and their cloister intact. Each day, new handpainted signs materialize on the monastery property, reminding visitors which areas are off-limits. The visitors seem mostly willing to oblige.
While the nuns have declined most interview requests, reportedly at the request of the Kansas City diocese, they engage generously in conversation with their visitors, asking pilgrims for prayer requests, and joking about their sudden fame.
Whatever chores they do take twice as long as they should, because as they cut through the crowds in their black Benedictine habits, they’re stopped by pilgrims, over and over, who want to thank them, or chat, or ask them some question about religious life.
They’re also asked for photographs, a lot, and the nuns sometimes look uneasy at that request — they’re rural Benedictines, and not accustomed to quasi-celebrity.
One nun could be overheard telling pilgrims who’d wanted a photo, “I would definitely love that, but I’m supposed to be doing some work now.”
The pilgrims said they understood, and the nun promised prayers as she walked quickly back to the chapel.
But wherever they are, the nuns can often be heard repeating a phrase that’s become a refrain: “This gift isn’t just for us. This gift is for everybody.”
If the gift of Sister Wilhelmina is “for everybody,” what does it mean?
Sister Wilhemina is not the first American to be incorrupt — St. Frances Xavier Cabrini has that mark of distinction.
The nun is not even in the process of being declared a saint — the Benedictines say they are “seeking advice on a possible opening of a cause [for canonization] in the future, especially as Sister has not yet reached the required minimum of five years since death in order to begin.”
“While we can attest to Sister’s personal sanctity, we know that incorruptibility is not among the official signs taken by the Church as a miracle for sainthood, and that all things must be subjected to further scrutiny, especially by the competent authorities in the medical field. The life itself and favors received must be established as proof of holiness,” they said in a statement.
Because Sister Wilhelmina doesn’t have a cause for canonization, it is not quite clear what the process to investigate her apparent incorruptibility will consist of.
But there are some things to note about Sister Wilhelmina.
First, her spirituality.
Gower Abbey is a traditionalist monastery, associated with a love for the liturgical rites which preceded the Second Vatican Council, sometimes called the Traditional Latin Mass.
The nuns have released CDs of beautiful traditional chant, and the Mass offered daily in their monastery is a Traditional Latin Mass.
Traditionalist Catholics in the United States have faced difficulty in recent years, as Pope Francis’ 2021 document Traditionis custodes has significantly restricted — or eliminated — the celebration of the TLM at parishes around the world.
While it’s not clear how many Catholics attend the TLM, the phenomenon had been growing in the U.S. during the years prior to the pope’s changes, and supporters say the TLM attracts young people who might otherwise be disaffected from the Church.
Jody Carpenter, the volunteer coordinator, told The Pillar she thinks it’s significant that a traditionalist nun might be found incorrupt in the years following Traditionis custodes.
Carpenter said her family began attending the TLM several years ago, and experienced something of a conversion.
“Since we've made the change to the Traditional Mass I have seen a stronger faith with our children. My 20-year-old goes to Mass on his own in Kansas City, he's in the choir down there, my other boys serve Mass here at the monastery.”
Carpenter said she believes that Church leaders sometimes misunderstand families like hers.
“We're not trying to force the Latin Mass on anybody else. And we don't put ourselves above anybody, because we're all sinners. We're all sinners, trust me I am far from being perfect. And there's nothing wrong with the Novus ordo [contemporary] Mass, there's nothing wrong with it, but where we felt God needed us was here,” she explained.
Carpenter told The Pillar she’s praying that Sister Wihelmina might see Church leaders take another look at the restrictions on the TLM.
“I pray that the pope and the cardinals see what's going on here, and continue to let us have our Latin Mass. And I'm also offering all of this up for the diocese of Chicago, where the Latin Mass has been shut down for the public in a lot of places,” she explained.
It’s also noteworthy that Sister Wilhelmina was Black; fewer than 4% of American Catholics are Black, and more than 30% of U.S. Black Catholics are immigrants.
There were few Black Catholics in the lines to see Sister Wilhelmina, and most of those Black Catholics told The Pillar that they had not thought much about the nun’s race.
Fr. Josh Johnson is the author of “On Earth as it is in Heaven,” a 2022 book on racism, Catholic unity, and evangelization.
He told The Pillar that he hopes that seeing Sister Wilhemina’s body might inspire more evangelization among Black Americans.
“Sister Mary Wilhelmina was certainly a disciple of Jesus Christ throughout her walk toward eternity. During her lifetime she was not only evangelized and catechized, but she was also sacramentalized, receiving the Last Rites before she passed away in 2019,” the priest said.
“While it is a gift that she was able to have access to the sacraments, I am drawn to wonder how many African Americans throughout the geographical boundaries of our parishes have never been invited to encounter Jesus Christ in the Sacraments of the Church. Over the past 400 years, how many bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated religious and lay disciples have neglected to specifically accompany African Americans who live, work and study in the geographical boundaries of their dioceses in discipleship?”
“Perhaps visiting the incorruptible body of Sister Mary Wilhelmina at her Benedictine monastery will inspire a new generation of Catholics to go out and invite more of our non-Catholic Black brothers and sisters into a deeper relationship with Jesus through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, reconciliation, Eucharist, anointing of the sick, holy matrimony and holy orders,” he added.
“These encounters could bear the fruit of the next Black saint, martyr or incorruptible in our American Church,” he said.
Blandine Kemayou is originally from Cameroon. Kemayou drove to Gower Abbey May 26 with friends, from her home in St. Louis. They left long before the sun came up, she said, to make a drive of almost five hours.
Kemayou told The Pillar that in recent months, she’s struggled spiritually.
She came to Gower Abbey, Kemayou said, because, “I just needed a little bit of a sign from the Lord, because I feel like he has been silent — a little bit of a dark night of the soul is what I’ve been going through with my faith.”
“One of the struggles with people of African descent is that it seems like the Catholic Church is for white people. When I’m at Mass, I try to turn around, to look around, to see if there are any people who look like me…. And so I struggle a little bit as an African and a Black person in the Catholic faith.”
“I was really mad at God for a long time — I’ve been in a period of desolation for a couple of months,” she said, “and this — I just wanted to see it with my eyes, and to be encouraged in my faith.”
“I came because I need a sign from the Lord that he’s there, that he’s listening to me.”
She told The Pillar that her visit to Sister Wilhelmina’s body was a surprising consolation.
“I know that I saw this with my own eyes, and I touched her, and I prayed.”
Kemayou said that when she prayed at Sister Wilhelmina’s tomb, she heard the Lord tell her that: “He’s still there, despite all our suffering, and I don’t have to feel alone as a Black African in the Catholic Church here — it’s one Church, and it’s one Lord.”
“For me personally, it was kind of like: ‘You’re not alone.’ Because I feel like I’m always alone. I think God is trying to send us a message, and for me it was just a message of hope: ‘Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re not alone. I’m hearing you.’”
A couple of days ago, I was like: ‘God, I don’t even know if you exist.’ But this is a sign that — yeah — He’s there. I might not feel him, but, yeah, he’s there.”
“That was the consolation that I needed,” she added.
Church authorities have been cautious about the claims regarding Sister Wilhelmina’s intact body.
On May 26, Bishop James Johnston of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese said there would be a “thorough investigation” of the deceased nun’s remains.
The bishop noted that a cause for canonization has not yet been initiated for Sister Wilhelmina, who has not been dead the required five years before a canonization can start.
And because Sister Wilhelmina does not have a sainthood cause, there is no clear protocol for what an investigation will entail. The Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese has not yet offered clarity on its next steps.
Bishop Johnston affirmed that “many would be driven by faith and devotion to see the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina given the remarkable condition of her body,” but cautioned that “visitors should not touch or venerate her body, or treat them as relics,” since her canonization cause has not even yet begun.
But while Johnston has been circumspect, one bishop directly opposed pilgrimages to the monastery.
On May 26, Bishop Shawn McKnight of the neighboring Diocese of Jefferson City, told Catholics that because the nun’s canonization cause is not open: “and for the concerns of civic authorities for the safety and well-being of visitors, I discourage anyone in the Diocese of Jefferson City from visiting the Benedictine Abbey in Gower, Missouri.”
Despite that warning, it seems unlikely pilgrims will stop coming — Catholics across the country have told The Pillar they’re making plans to visit the site with their families or parishes this summer.
Not all of them are sure what to expect. But when they’re in Gower, they’ll likely join long lines, or pray with the nuns in the chapel, or, as hundreds have already done, take a small shovel of dirt from Sister Wilhelmina’s grave site, to bring home as a memento of a sacred place.
Most of them, like those who have come already, will expect to find the presence of God.
Joyce Chandler and her granddaughter Quintasia came to Gower Abbey from Jefferson City on May 26.
The Chandlers are not Catholic. But Joyce explained to The Pillar why she came:
“I am not really into the denominational thing. I’m into the Christ thing. And to me, if this is real, this is Christ.”
Quintasia, 16, joked to The Pillar she was “dragged along” with her grandmother. But she added that: “I think it’s really cool, about the history of all this.”
As she waited in line, in the hot Missouri sun on late May afternoon, Joyce told The Pillar what she’d pray when she entered the church, and saw Sister Wilhemina’s body: “God, reveal to me the significance of this. Why, at this point in time, did you allow, Lord, to reveal her body like this?”
“That’s what I’ll pray,” Joyce said. “But to me, please understand, this is of Christ. And I came here to see for myself.”