(OSV News) – The recent discovery of the apparently desecrated remains of a Black American nun in Missouri highlights the rich heritage of Black Catholics in America, experts tell OSV News.
During the April 28 excavation, Benedictine Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster of the Most Holy Rosary—founder of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles in Gower, Missouri—was shown to have changed little since her May 2019 death at the age of 15. 95.
The congregation, which sought to have the relics transferred to their new shrine altar in honor of St. Joseph, were stunned to find that both the body and the religious habit were intact, except for a layer of dirt and mildew—except for the lack of embalming. Regardless, there was an in-ground burial in a wooden coffin, and “a puddle of water” on the grave, the religious community said in an informational handout provided at its abbey.
Incorruption has long been regarded as a divine sign of sanctity in both Catholic and Orthodox tradition, and the bodies of over 100 canonized saints appear to be untouched by decay.
The Diocese of Kansas City emphasized the need to “protect the integrity of the mortal remains … to allow for a thorough investigation.”
Cleaned and preserved by wax, Sister Wilhelmina’s remains are now on display for veneration in the monastery. After a May 29 rosary procession, the body will be encased in the shrine of the altar, the religious community said, once Sister Wilhelmina’s devotion is “well established”, her reason for canonization “presented”. May go.”
In a May 22 statement, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, acknowledged that the body’s position “has generated fairly widespread interest and raised important questions.” At the same time, the diocese stressed the need to “protect the integrity of the mortal remains … to allow a thorough investigation.”
As word has spread, hundreds of pilgrims have flocked to the monastery to gently touch and pray before the body of a woman whose life story — along with three other African American nuns who are now on the path to sainthood — ” embodies the fundamental truth that black history is and always has been Catholic history in America,” said Shannon D. Williams, associate professor of history at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and author of “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle.” Said. ,
Currently, six Black Catholics have active reasons for canonization: Mother Mary Elizabeth Lang (1784–1882), founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, of whom Sister Wilhelmina was a member before founding her own order; Reverend Henriette DeLille (1813–1862), founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family; Julia Greeley (born between 1833 and 1848; died 1918), a former slave who promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; Sister Thea Bowman (1937–1990), who converted to Catholicism as a child and entered religious life as a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration; the Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1776–1853), a former slave who became an entrepreneur and philanthropist; and Reverend Augustus Toulton (1854–1897), a former slave who became the first known black Catholic priest in the United States.
Sister Wilhelmina’s mysteriously preserved remains also reaffirm the universal call to holiness, said Father Stephen Thorne, a priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Williams told OSV News that Sister Wilhelmina—born Mary Elizabeth Lancaster in St. Louis in 1924—was a “descendant of enslaved black Catholics” who grew up “during the Jim Crow era”, 1870s-1950s In the 19th century, when various laws of racial segregation were implemented in the southern US states.
In a pamphlet released after his death, Sister Wilhelmina stated that her parents had established a Catholic high school for black students until the archbishop “ended the segregation of Negroes in the diocese.”
Sensing a vocation to the religious life from childhood, the future nun graduated from high school and immediately entered the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
One of eight historically Black orders in American history, the Oblate Sisters stand as “both the nation and the first Roman Catholic sisters of the modern world” founded by women of African descent. “From the early 19th century, the Oblate Sisters of Providence called hundreds of Black Catholic women and girls to religious life, but barred admission to white orders based solely on color and race in the US, Canada, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
Sister Wilhelmina’s establishment of an “interracial, contemplative Benedictine community” underlines the uniqueness of her story, said Shannon D. Williams, which “bridges the racial divide in the Catholic Church”.
The Oblate Sisters later “gave rise to three additional orders,” Williams said: Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary; Franciscan Maid of the Most Pure Heart of Mary; and the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, which Sister Wilhelmina founded in 1995.
The community began in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, with the aid of the Priestly Order of St. Peter, as the Oblates of Mary Queen of the Apostles. The community moved to a rural area in the Diocese of Kansas City–St. Joseph in 2006, Bishop Robert W. At Finn’s invitation they changed their name to the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles. Originally established as a public association of the faithful, the community was granted the status of a religious institution of diocesan authority in 2014. In 2018, the community’s priory received official recognition as an abbey. The following year, the community established its first Beti home in Ava, Missouri. The sisters worship in Latin as the Mass promulgated before the Second Vatican Council and sing hymns using the 1962 monastic office.
Sister Wilhelmina’s establishment of an “interracial, contemplative Benedictine community” underscores the uniqueness of her story, said Williams, which “bridges racial divides in the Catholic Church, particularly within more traditional communities.”
Sister Wilhelmina’s mysteriously preserved remains also reaffirm the universal call to holiness, said Father Stephen Thorne, a priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and advisor and special projects director for the National Black Catholic Congress in Baltimore.
Father Thorne told OSV News, “In the midst of all the skepticism, schism and sinfulness, people are still drawn to holiness.” “we need this.”
And as the country’s Black Catholics prepare to gather in July for the National Black Catholic Congress – convened at various intervals since 1889 – Father Thorne said he wanted to reflect more deeply on Sister Wilhelmina’s life. are keen.
“We will share it in sacred time” in Congress, he said. “It’s another reminder that all people are called (by God), African American and Black people too.”