Four years after her death, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has mystified the world. How could the body of a deceased Benedictine nun remain intact after years in a leaky coffin?
After all, the mortician who arranged for the sister’s burial verified that her body was not embalmed. He also stated that it was simply placed in a wooden coffin, without an additional burial container. Amazingly, Sister Wilhelmina’s body does not show signs of decay or give off an odor of decomposition. Thousands of visitors have already come to a Missouri abbey to see this amazing sight.
Discussing human remains of the deceased strikes many people as more than a little creepy. However, in this essay, this unusual topic will be described as clinically as possible.
But what is “incorruptibility”, and why should we, as Catholics, care about it?
As author Joan Carroll Cruz points out in her book The Incorruptibles, human bodies that remain preserved after death can be grouped into one of three categories: 1) bodies that have been deliberately preserved; 2) bodies that have been accidentally preserved; and 3) bodies that some Christians call incorruptibles.
Egyptian mummies, for example, fall into the first category, although other cultures have also attempted to preserve the bodies of their dead. Deliberately preserved remains are typically easy to identify; they look like mummies.
Certain natural conditions can also sometimes produce preserved bodies. For example, some intact but ancient human remains have been found in hot, dry climates such as Egypt and Mexico. One could say that such remains are in a state of accidental mummification.
But then there is the mysterious group of preserved bodies, described by Cruz. Since the Resurrection of our Lord, there have been many documented cases of the bodies of holy Christian men and women remaining incorrupt after death. In these situations, their bodies do not decay according to the normal pattern of decomposition, but they do not resemble mummies either.
These incorrupt bodies of saints may not be common, but they are certainly not rare. For millennia, the Church has investigated reports of incorruptibility to determine whether intentional or accidental preservation might be involved. While people in the ancient world didn’t have the scientific understanding of the decomposition of living organisms that we have today, they had plenty of personal experience with death. They knew exactly how decomposing bodies typically looked and smelled.
That’s why Saint Cecilia of Rome is such a marvel. There are early records describing the heroic faithfulness of the virgin martyr Cecilia at the time of her martyrdom around the year 177. No one expected to find her incorrupt body in her tomb when they happened to open it in the year 822, or again in the year 1599. But they did.
Similarly, no one expected that Saint Rita of Cascia’s body would remain intact from the time of her death in 1457 to the present day. And nobody expected that her body would appear to move from time to time in the glass case in which is currently located.
Deacon Albert E. Graham’s Compendium of the Miraculous describes multiple cases of incorruptibility, as well as a related event involving Saint Lydwina of Schiedam. Saint Lydwina suffered from numerous debilitating and disfiguring diseases before her death in 1433 in the Netherlands. After her death, many people remarked that Lydwina’s body appeared serene and beautiful. Although Saint Lydwina’s body did not remain incorrupt, there is no scientific reason to explain how a teenager with ulcers and wounds on her face would look better at her funeral than she did during her lifetime.
There are four incorruptibles described in my book The Leaven of the Saints, and one of the most inexplicable cases involves Saint Andrew Bobola. This seventeenth century Jesuit priest died a martyr in modern Belarus after Cossack soldiers tortured him to death. Saint Andrew’s mangled and mutilated body has remained intact for almost four centuries.
Catholics are not the only Christians who have investigated the phenomenon of incorruptibility. The Orthodox Churches have also recognized it for centuries. In the Russian Orthodox Church, for example, the partial or total incorruption of the person’s body after death has generally become a requirement1 for that person to be recognized as a saint, except in the case of martyrdom.
In contrast, while the Catholic Church may note that a person’s body remained incorrupt after death, that fact alone is not considered essential for beatification or canonization. This is because the Church has recognized that while some saints’ bodies have remained incorrupt after death, other great saints’ bodies have not. The body of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, for example, did not remain intact, yet that fact does not detract from our recognition that she lived an extraordinarily holy life.
If we admit the plain fact that the bodies of some Christians have mysteriously remained incorrupt after their deaths, what conclusions should we draw from that fact? Or, rather, what lesson is God trying to teach us through this phenomenon?
The most perfect follower of Jesus Christ was his Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. When Pope Pius XII declared that Mary had been assumed, body and soul, into Heaven, he explained why Mary deserved this honor: she was assumed “so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and the conqueror of sin and death.”2 Mary’s Assumption reminds us that we are not to fear death, for Christ has conquered death and opened the gates of Heaven for us. It also reminds us that the bodies of some Christians are not necessarily subject to the natural process of decomposition.
Incorrupt saints point us to other Gospel truths as well. The fact that Saint Cecilia’s body has remained incorrupt for almost two thousand years demonstrates “that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”3 Saint Rita’s intact body is a reminder that abused wives, not just virgin martyrs, can become women of great holiness. Saint Lydwina’s deathbed appearance encourages us to trust that we will be made beautiful in Heaven, regardless of our appearance on earth. Saint Andrew’s still-visible wounds emphasize the point that every trial and suffering we undergo is known to God and will eventually be made visible to all.
Even the lack of incorruptibility of Saint Thérèse’s body occurred for a reason. Since her death, this young woman, who barely left her native France during her lifetime, has traveled all over the globe—or rather, her relics have. How could she have become such a great missionary saint if her body had remained intact in Lisieux?
It’s too early to tell what lesson God is trying to teach us through Sister Wilhelmina’s seemingly incorrupt body. Perhaps God wants us to recognize her personal holiness and virtue as the founder of a religious order. Perhaps He wants us to be inspired by her love of music, particularly Gregorian chant, her African American heritage, or the example of her religious sisters. Perhaps He allowed her body to remain intact simply because we would have forgotten about her holy example otherwise.
It will take time for the Church to make a determination about Sister Wilhelmina’s sanctity. But there’s no need for us to wait to understand the most obvious message offered by every incorrupt saint.
After all, when we look at the incorrupt bodies of saints such as Catherine Laboure and Bernadette Soubirous, they seem to us to be merely sleeping, patiently waiting for the Lord to come again, just as He promised He would. When that great and terrible day comes, all the saints will rise from their tombs to meet Him.
They are ready. Are we?
1 For a detailed analysis of the history of canonization in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, see Cathy Caridi’s Making Martyrs East and West: Canonization in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, DeKalb, Il: Northern Illinois University Press, 2016.
2 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2019), no. 966.
3 2 Pet 3:8
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