A Sign of Hope: Sister Mary Wilhelmina Lancaster’s apparently incorrupt remains lead to talk of canonization
By Clarence Johnson
The discovery of the apparently incorrupt remains of Sister Mary Wilhelmina Lancaster of the Most Holy Rosary on April 28, 2023, has created hopeful excitement within the American Catholic Community. It has also inspired many to look closer at the life of this little-known African American religious and to consider the history of rich contributions by African Americans to Catholicism. Sister Wilhelmina’s quiet but determined faith inspired others to live her credo, “God’s Will.”
Sister’s story exemplifies the inextricable link between Black history and Catholic history in America. Her path to Catholicism began through divine providence, as an enslaved maternal great- grandmother, Mary Madden, was freed by her owner at her Catholic baptism. Uncommon within the Black community, Sister’s family were devoted Catholics. Her parents, Oscar and Ella, were so committed to properly catechizing their four children they founded the first accredited Catholic high school for Black children in Missouri, as none was available for Mary Elizabeth (Sister Wilhelmina) to attend.
Though she could have carried deep resentment from growing up in a materially impoverished household during the Jim Crow era, Sister believed in rising above class wars caused by discrimination and racism. More important than her family’s cultural identity was their Catholic identity. They recognized their faith was their riches and their dignity. Always caring about the immortal souls of her fellow religious, Sister would later in life encourage them also to “rise above.”
From an early age, Sister experienced mystical experiences and demonstrated a great love for our Lord and the Eucharist. She was also very devoted to Our Lady and the rosary, and at the ages of two and seven was said to have been visited by the Virgin Mary. At the age of nine, when she made her first Holy Communion, Sister said the Lord spoke to her and asked, “Will you be mine?” At the age of 13, she came to understand she was being invited to religious life. Unfortunately, few options existed for Blacks then, as orders were segregated. She sought acceptance to the Oblate Sisters of Providence (OSP) in Baltimore, Maryland. The Mother Superior wrote back encouraging her to complete high school first. Following God’s will, she did as Mother advised, graduated valedictorian, and entered the OSP in 1941.
Sister thrived among the Oblates, deepening her true devotion to Mary through the teachings of Saint Louis De Montfort. She served as a teaching sister for several decades, instructing inner city youth and serving as the community’s archivist. While she loved her community deeply, to her great disappointment, it did not escape the turbulent cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s.
She began to see experimentation and an abandonment of their traditional practices, including the Latin Mass. Her order discarded the rule of silence and communal prayer; started to emphasize social work over traditional religious education and service; and introduced changes to their traditional habit, ultimately abandoning it for secular clothing. Sister believed the order had taken a wrong turn. She had no desire to leave her order, wanting to help reform it. She worked hard to do so for years against resistance, even seeking permission to establish a traditional branch of the community. All the while she embraced her heartache and frustration as purification.
In 1995, Sister realized reform was not possible and, after over 50 years with the OSP and at the age of 70, she left the order with the blessing of her superiors to begin a new one, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. This interracial community initially started in Scranton, Pennsylvania, but moved to Kansas City in 2005 before finally settling in Gower, Missouri. The order was to imitate our Lady’s prayer and intercession for the apostles. The contemplative community is affiliated with and supports the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. Sister’s emphasis on traditional contemplative service has drawn significant numbers of young women — initially all white, but now with a growing number of Black women. The order’s applicants continue to increase annually, which necessitated the establishment of a daughter house.
After successfully rooting the order in Gower, Sister’s health necessitated she pass the role of Mother Abbess to a younger sister. Living then in a supporting role of obedience, she maintained an incredible holy magnetism that inspired and encouraged many younger sisters. Her indominable spirit, contagious sense of humor, and love of sacred music, singing, acting and poetry made her one of the community’s greatest treasures.
Sister passed away at the age of 95 on May 29, 2019. She did so in a manner befitting the way she lived — most holy. She not only died on the feast date of her patron, Saint Bede, but in the same manner — at the end of compline as the entire community was praying together in her room. At her death an exuberant smile fell upon her face as if she were gazing upon something beautiful. Mother Abbess exclaimed, “How much God loves . . . our community. Our Lord could not have chosen a more fitting nor consoling moment to withdraw the treasure of our community back to Himself.”
Sister was buried on the grounds of the abbey in her habit in a simple silk lined wooden casket. In April 2023, her remains were exhumed for transfer to a side altar in a newly completed shrine and were found, along with her habit, little changed.
Since this discovery, thousands have flocked to the abbey in Gower to pay respects to Sister Wilhelmina. While some ponder the possibility of canonization, Bishop James Johnston of Kansas City has issued a statement urging caution while the Church investigates the condition of her remains first and foremost. No cause for canonization has been opened yet, which traditionally must wait five years after death. If established, incorruptibility does not automatically qualify one for sainthood, though some saints were found to be so. The bishop and community ask for continued prayers from the faithful.
Sister’s life demonstrated her deep trusting abandonment to Divine Providence, which she immortalized in her “Marching Song”:
God’s will, God’s will, God’s will be done!
Praise we the Father! Praise we the Son!
Praise we Divine Love, Lord Holy Ghost!
Praise we in union with the heavenly host!
In addition to Sister Wilhelmina, there are Black religious and laypersons with open canonization causes that require prayer: Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, foundress of the OSP; Venerable Henriette Delille, foundress of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family; Servant of God Julia Greeley, a former slave who promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart; Sister Thea Bowman, a Catholic convert who entered religious life as a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration; Venerable Pierre Toussaint, a former slave, entrepreneur and philanthropist; and Venerable Augustus Tolton, a former slave and first known U.S. Black Catholic priest.
(Clarence Johnson is candidate for the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Colorado Springs and spiritual advisor to the Colorado Springs Council for Black Catholics.)