Sainthood Pending

The lead story in last week’s issue, about a dead nun (no, really), brought an interesting reaction, so I thought I’d put it here for discussion. Let’s start with the story:

Sainthood Pending

A Benedictine monastery in Gower, Mo., had put the founder of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, in a temporary grave when she died four years ago. Now that there is a final resting place available in the chapel, the nuns had gravediggers exhume her unembalmed body, which was buried in an unsealed wood coffin. They told the sisters to expect to find only bones, but when the casket was opened, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster’s body didn’t look much worse than the day she was buried. A miracle, some say, declaring in Catholic parlance that she is “incorrupt,” and eligible for sainthood. Even her habit, made of “cheap material,” looked good. The sisters merely had to clean away a little mold and put wax sealant on her face and hands. Reburial in the chapel has been canceled: now they want to put Sister Wilhelmina in a glass case for “long-term viewing.” (RC/WDAF Kansas City) …One difference between a saint and a televangelist: a televangelist wouldn’t be caught dead in a cheap suit.

Sister Wilhelmina, on display. (Photo: Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, via Facebook)

That this happened in a monastery, not a convent, is correct: the monastery invited the Sisters to set up there.

In an Author’s Note, I said I was lying down for a nap (I’m still recovering from Covid-19) when I came up with that tagline. Also, since the story was getting a little long, I excised one bit: “‘She’s a Saint already,’ said one visitor who traveled to view her body, without saying whether they were the pope or not. ‘I already have her canonized.’” Because, you know, random folks get to decide these things.

Sister Mary Wilhelmina Lancaster, who is/was Black, is the founder of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, in 1995. She was formerly part of the Oblate Sisters of Providence (founded by Mother Mary Lange in 1829 as the first-ever Black religious order in America).

Bishop Robert Finn invited the order to his diocese in March 2006.

Led by their founder, the nuns (in addition to their regular duties) are also recording artists, and their first two albums of recorded chants and hymns reached Number 1 on the classical traditional Billboard charts. They were thereafter named Billboard‘s Classical Traditional artists of the year (2013), the first order of nuns to win such an award in the history of Billboard.

Their album sales have been used to improve the monastery and pay off the abbey’s debt.

The Feedback

Luca, a free edition reader in Italy, commented, “Where to start…. I’m a Catholic and I believe in Saints but I think they should be put up for veneration based on saintly deeds they did while they were alive, not on what happens to their corpse after they die. As of late there has been too much talk about miracles in Italy, and I’m really happy when the Pope and the State try and put a stop to that. Belief in God (and our moral compass) shouldn’t depend on miracles and other shenanigans or be swayed by them. I think the sisters are either easily impressed or looking for some sweet profit. Keep up the good work!”

I was hoping some Roman Catholic readers would comment, but that’s the only one — so far. So now the Comments below are open for you to weigh in, Catholic or not.

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6 Comments on “Sainthood Pending

  1. To the idea that “random folks get to decide these things,” yes, yes, there needs to be some juridical process to verify that a person was really so holy before the pope decides these things for the whole Catholic Church so that we will name parishes after someone or put up paintings of her with a halo, but in the meantime, there is nothing wrong with a Catholic deciding for himself that someone like Sister Wilhelmina was a very holy person who is worthy of his devotion. The 13th Century canonist Sinibaldo Fieschi, who later became pope and therefore is better known as Innocent IV, says in his commentary on the canon law that “we do not deny that everyone is allowed to offer prayers to any deceased person whom he believed to be a good man, that he should intercede with God for him” because even if the devotee’s opinion of this person’s sanctity might be wrong, or at least less firmly grounded than an eventual solemn judgement of the Church, God pays attention to the intention to honour God in the person who is reasonably believed to be a saint of God. Generally the process for formal beatification and canonisation will not be initiated unless there is some level of popular devotion already, and there are more places than you might expect that have their local saints who they hope will attain official recognition some day. For example, in Pittsburgh, many Catholics bring their prayers to a marble sarcophagus in the main church of the Passionist monastery that holds the body of the saintly Father Theodore Foley.

    On the subject of miracles and visions, I have sure heard of some lately which are unworthy of belief, and sure, someone who is mature in his faith will not need to see miracles to be convinced of God’s government of the world. When St John of the Cross was in Lisbon, some of his fellow friars invited him to come with them to meet a famous local stigmatic, and St John declined, preferring to stand at the shore of the ocean reading the Bible. On the other hand, there is no reason for a Catholic to indiscriminately disbelieve in miracles as if there is no God capable of performing them, or to scorn what they evidently signify—or what they seem to some of one’s fellow Catholics to signify, who are not certainly wrong and are doing no harm.

    Not that I am sure the arrest of Sister Wilhelmina’s decomposition is necessarily something supernatural, but as Newman notes, God is capable of manifesting some person’s sanctity through the providential operation of natural causes too. I have it on the authority of the superior of the Passionist monastery in Pittsburgh that a few years ago, when the monks were broke and the property was going to be sold to be converted into apartments, he prayed to Father Theodore about the community’s need for money, and out of nowhere, someone called up and wanted to donate a million dollars. Was it a miracle? He prayed for it, it happened, and it was all under the control of God, what more is there to say?

    I think the religious context of an otherwise inexplicable event is important to judging whether a miracle has happened. If you are born blind, and one day you suddenly see, is it a miracle? Who knows. But if it happens after I walk up to you and say, “in the name of the Lord Jesus, you will now see,” does that sway our judgement at all? Some people would surely want to say to me, “you have some secret medical technique,” or, “you somehow predicted he would happen to recover his sight at just that moment.” In 1997, the British Medical Journal reported a case of a healthy woman who heard voices telling her they used to be doctors and she had a brain tumour. Her psychiatrist saw no signs of a tumour and ordered a brain scan just to calm her down, but a tumour was found, and after surgery was performed with the agreement of the voices, they thanked her for listening and said goodbye, and the patient made a full recovery. The end of the article sums up some attempts to explain these events naturalistically. Not to say that all these suggested explanations are impossible, they are rather speculative and contrived. I understand perfectly why atheists and materialists feel driven to such explanations, I just offer this case as an example to suggest that for someone else whose metaphysics already admits some possibility of extraordinary divine intervention or preternatural contact with angels or human souls, sometimes Ockham’s Razor seems to favour just accepting that something “spooky” has happened.

    Catholics have been finding incorrupt bodies of long-dead saints for thousands of years (according to St Paulinus of Nola, who records such an occurrence in his Life of St Ambrose), and for just as long, the faithful have been flocking to the saints’ tombs to honour God’s holy one in his or her earthly remains, seeking the miracles that are reputed to occur there. St Gregory of Tours, in his Life of the Fathers, writes a life of a saintly old man culminating in one single miracle story followed by the abrupt announcement of his death, and Gregory says he knows what the reader is probably thinking: this isn’t a very impressive saint compared to others they have read of who performed many miraculous deeds. Yet Gregory declares that one miracle after death is worth more than many miracles during one’s life, and proceeds to prove the sanctity of St Illidius by the many miracles that have happened at the holy bishop’s tomb. It is easy to take a cynical attitude towards this and say that in every case, the main promoters of the saint’s cult were the custodians of his body and they in some way stood to gain from the devotion, but you have to imagine them as preying on the sincere devotion of the pilgrims to the relics of the saint, and it is as much more parsimonious as it is more charitable to suppose that the caretakers of the shrines are just Catholics too who are genuinely devoted to the memory of the virtues of their late superior or bishop or confrère. Indeed, cynical people will be interested to know that promoting your superior’s canonisation requires hiring a lawyer who lives in Rome, it isn’t cheap, and having a holy foundress isn’t a guaranteed way to get rich. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had a shrine at their convent in Bensalem, Pennsylvania of their own foundress, St Katharine Drexel, canonised in 2000 by Pope John Paul II. But the community ran out of money, and in 2018, the convent in Bensalem was sold and St Katharine’s relics had to be moved to the cathedral in Philadelphia.

    Should someone be canonised for holy works they did while they were alive? Absolutely, and so they are, unless they made up for the way they lived by the way that they died, like St Andrew Wouters, who lived unworthily as a priest on account of his fondness for women, yet went to the gallows as a martyr for the faith, retorting to the Protestants who killed him, “fornicator I always was; heretic I never was.” But after human judgement has been passed on the servant of God’s life, the Church ordinarily looks for divine ratification in the form of miracles, because as Francis Kenrick preached at the funeral of St John Neumann to explain why the Church was praying for the soul of a man who was so obviously in heaven as he spoke, “the divine judgments are different from those of men. Imperfection is found in actions which win our admiration, and even saints are not wholly without blemish, since the heavens are not stainless in the divine sight.” Granted, there is a human element also in the judgement that a miracle has taken place and has done so through a certain saint’s intercession, and the Church does not absolutely need miracles to make a saint, but they notionally provide firmer assurance that this person really is in heaven, interceding before the divine throne.

    Whew! A long read, but interesting. And thanks for including links.

    I absolutely agree that anyone should feel entitled to pray for anyone else alive or dead, but “She’s a Saint already. I already have her canonized.” seems to overstate things quite a bit. -rc

  2. When I saw your blog notice email my 1st thought was “Randy is getting a Sainthood? About time”. You’ve been accused of being pro/anti just about every religious (and political) stance over the years so it’s certainly warranted. After all, “random folks get to decide these things” & I’m *CERTAINLY* a random folk.

    Heh! I wouldn’t count on it. 🙂 -rc

  3. A story that irritated me “We’re not indoctrinated, just believe us that we’re not indoctrinated” being exactly what you’d expect somebody indoctrinated to say, just a week after Sr. Wilhelmina (who often called herself “mean” when she was alive- stubbornly sticking to old traditions because she “had a will and was hell and mean”). But that’s why I still subscribe to This Is True, despite the irritation- it gets me thinking.

    One big thought I had as a Catholic but an occasionally skeptical one is “Her miracle extended to her CLOTHES!”. It’s one thing for a body buried in mud in a wood casket with no embalming to show no signs of decay, it’s quite another for cheap fabric gleaned from a tablecloth (she had to make her own habits- nobody makes them in that style anymore) to survive.

    It’s an amazing story that gets even more amazing the more I read about her life; she should be the patron saint of colorblind anti-racism.

  4. Color me skeptical re miracle. There’s a scientific reason for it. But believers like to believe.

    “Rebecca George, an anthropology instructor at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, said the body’s lack of decomposition might not be as rare as people are expecting.”

    George said the “mummification” of un-embalmed bodies is common at the university’s facility and the bodies could stay preserved for many years, if allowed to.

    Coffins and clothing also help to preserve bodies, she said.”

  5. I am not Catholic, so not equipped to comment on the mysteriously preserved nun (I refuse to mention anything about communion wine…). Anyway, your new comment leaves me wondering what name they recorded under, or what song or album was on the charts?

    Their best-seller on Amazon seems to be this one *, and there are several others linked from there. -rc

  6. Being incorrupt is not required for sainthood. Most Saints’ bodies have decayed away to dust, and there are incorrupt people that are not Saints. What the Church looks for is heroic virtue.


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