Mother Mary Wilhelmina Lancaster, OSB, of Gower, Missouri, is causing a bit of a stir these days in death. She passed away in 2019, but her body—now exhumed—has been discovered to be intact despite the deterioration of her casket in the moist clay of the land where she was buried. Sr Wilhelmina was my fourth-grade teacher at St. Pius V Catholic School in West Baltimore. She was then an Oblate Sister of Providence, and we corresponded by letter after she founded her new order some years later.
At St. Pius, Sister taught classes and led music for special occasions such as funerals at the church. During annual graduation ceremonies, she led the student body through musicals. One, entitled “The Night the Angels Sang,” comes to mind. It was performed during Christmastime. I remember her as stern. A no-nonsense nun. When she was my teacher, she found my singing to be a bit off-key—hard to believe, I know—and she frequently directed me in the middle of practices to lower my voice.
Sr Wilhelmina taught several siblings of mine. There were eight of us at St. Pius, including my sister, Toni Moore-Duggan, who is currently a nurse practitioner and a job readiness teacher at the Caroline Center for Women in Baltimore. Sister taught her in fourth grade, also. Toni said recently that Sister “had a quite sturdy presence that brought you to attention.”
“Her grace-filled presence was an amazing gift of music, piety, and light. She was always very clear about her expectations of our paying attention, singing it until we got it right, no shenanigans, and sitting up straight.”
Three years after teaching my older sibling, Sr Wilhelmina taught me, and three years later she taught our sister, Emily Moore, now an administrative assistant at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Many will associate Sister Wilhelmina with music, and Emily was one.
“I have many great memories of Sr Wilhelmina because of music. I think that I love music and musicals so much because of her,” she said.
“I remember learning songs and performing in many plays with her teaching and conducting all of them herself. She worked and helped with performances of children from all grades at St. Pius V.”
That said, my other personal recollection of Sr Wilhelmina was not at all music related. At the three o’clock end of many school days, she would come to me at my desk with a dustpan and a brush, directing me to sweep down the steps from top to bottom of the four-story school building at 954 Harlem Avenue. I did what she asked of me and just when I thought it was time to go home, she would tell me to sweep down the stairway on the other side of the building with its candy wrappers and foot dirt and dust. “Whew! Finished!” I thought to myself as I attempted to return the cleaning equipment to Sister. But she had another staircase in mind as well, the centrally located steps in the convent. This was in a separate part of the building but in easy earshot of the classrooms. On many days, I was an unofficial (and unpaid) part of the school’s cleaning crew and incidentally, the friends she sometimes named me to help sweep had long high-tailed it home.
Sr Wilhelmina eventually left the Oblates and started a contemplative order of religious women, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, in 1995. She died at age 95 in 2019. On May 18 of this year, her body was exhumed for relocation to a new site in the order’s chapel; according to the sisters, her body and habit were not decomposed. They had been told by cemetery staff to expect only the bones of Mother Wilhelmina’s corpse, so imagine their shock and surprise to see Mother’s body and habit present in a deteriorating casket. (She had not been embalmed, after all.)
The Benedictine sisters intended to keep their discovery secret, but a message describing Mother’s miraculous condition was accidentally sent publicly rather than internally and the news got out. According to the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office, at last count, up to 15,000 visitors at the rate of 200 vehicles an hour have visited the sisters’ convent in Gower. Visitors have even been allowed to take dirt from Mother’s grave, but are no longer allowed after the morning of Monday, May 29—the anniversary of her death. Mother Wilhelmina’s body will soon be placed under glass in a new Shrine of St. Joseph at the convent.
Mother Wilhelmina and I corresponded by letter years ago. She was very warm and affirming in her notes to me. She spoke of her commitment to the Tridentine Mass, otherwise known as Traditional Latin Mass. I remember her notes, long lost, sent in 4-by-6-inch envelopes with the perfect penmanship similarly practiced by every nun I know.
Mother Wilhelmina, please pray for the expedited canonizations of the first six African American candidates for sainthood. We on Earth know you are in heaven, too.
Ralph E. Moore Jr. is a lifelong Black Catholic, educated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Jesuits. He has served on various committees on race, racism, and poverty for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He is a married man with two children and four grandchildren. He is currently a weekly columnist for the Afro-American and a member of the St. Ann Social Justice Committee. He can be reached at email@example.com.