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Family of 'incorrupt' Black Catholic nun decry 'mistreatment' from Benedictines, priests

The Benedictine Sisters of Gower, Missouri, have yet to address claims that they restricted the family's access to their aunt during the late May international fervor.

Johnson Young Lancaster of St. Louis, a nephew of Mother Wilhelmina Lancaster and one of several family members speaking out concerning what they call mistreatment from her order following her death. (Maria Altman/St. Louis Public Radio)

As pilgrims continue to flock to rural Missouri to see the possibly incorrupt body of Black Catholic Benedictine abbess Mother Wilhelmina Lancaster, her family has spoken out concerning what they call their unfair treatment by the religious order and local priests during celebratory events earlier this year.

Various nieces and nephews released a statement in early June concerning their aunt, who founded the traditionalist Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles in 1995. The family claims that, among other perceived slights, they were not informed of the unearthing of Lancaster’s body until well after the fact—a possible violation of both state and canon law.

“We, the Lancaster family, only learned of the exhumation after being notified a full three weeks after,” they said in a four-page statement shared with BCM.

“We contacted the family members in St. Louis to apprise them of the situation and inform them of the re-interment on Monday, May 29th. We were told bits and pieces and very sparingly about the timeline and actions.”

The family further alleges that, upon their arrival at the Abbey of Ephesus in Gower, where Lancaster died in 2019, they were met with a cold reception, being told that their wishes for her body to remain untouched by the growing number of visitors would not be honored.

Thousands of visitors are estimated to have visited the convent to see Lancaster’s exposed remains between May 9, when her preserved state was first discovered by the sisters, and May 29, when her body was encased in glass at the convent chapel following a procession. The local ordinary, Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. of Kansas City-St. Joseph, issued a statement on May 26 instructing that pilgrims not touch or venerate her remains until a proper investigation of incorruption occurs.

Even so, the sisters themselves called the situation miraculous and appear to have encouraged veneration, in line with the traditional ovations of sainthood for Catholics found to have undecayed bodies after death. At the same time, however, Lancaster’s family said the sisters became “possessive” of her remains even in the presence of her next of kin.

“We asked for private time and we were told that the schedule was tight, that there would be no time in the scheduled activities for us to have a private moment with our Aunt Mary,” the family said. 

“Instead we were invited to place flowers around her body before the procession and re-interment. Ultimately after additional discussion we were allowed 45 minutes alone with our relative.”

Pilgrims touch the exposed body of Mother Wilhelmina Lancaster, OSB, last month at the Abbey of Ephesus in Gower, Missouri. (Fox 8 News)

One of Lancaster’s nephews is also said to have been accosted by Clinton County sheriff's deputies after approaching his aunt with an African drum—an act that a nearby priest allegedly called “nonsense.” (Another priest, Fr Matthew Bartulica, who the family believes called for the authorities, was previously investigated by the diocese for misconduct in 2012.)

In addition, the family member was reportedly told by Mother Abbess Cecilia Snell that he could only recite “Catholic prayers” while with his aunt’s body—to which he and his relatives took umbrage.

“It is the second time where he has been accosted by members of the order when coming to see his aunt.  The first time was at her original funeral in 2019,” the family said.

“This appears to be a pattern. We do not want to see this happen again. The Abbess could ostensibly create a situation that may cause physical harm or worse to our male relatives. This we will not allow.”

In their statement, the family noted that Lancaster herself had visited Africa and respected the culture, which was also her own as an African American. They also demanded an apology from the sisters and the diocese for “mistreatment, insult and disrespect”—including the fact that a fundraising table was placed conspicuously close to Lancaster’s body, for the sisters’ new $20M convent in nearby Ava, Missouri.

While the sisters did not immediately respond to a request for comment from BCM, a spokesperson from the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph said she was not able to confirm the allegations but that “Bishop Johnston has spoken to one member of the Lancaster family.” 

“[He] has shared with the family the process for requesting an in-person meeting, but that has yet to be initiated by them.”

Now one month out from the height of the Lancaster zeitgeist—which generated headlines around the world—the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has yet to announce any updates on their investigation of her body, which would precede discussions of an official sainthood cause.

The family has noted that they will support such efforts, but that amends must also be made.

“Mistakes were made through this process. However, we do not wish to impede or hamper the ability of our Aunt, born Mary Elizabeth Lancaster, now Sr. Wilhelmina Lancaster, to proceed toward canonization,” they said.

“We are overjoyed that her life and works will be celebrated and serve as a beacon of how prayer and contemplation can change lives and circumstances.”


Correction (7/1/23): A previous version of this story contained inaccurate details about Fr Matthew Bartulica. We regret the error.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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