The Moore Report, Ralph Moore, Jr.
The Moore Report, Ralph Moore, Jr.

By Ralph E. Moore Jr.,
Special to the AFRO

Sister Mary Wilhelmina Lancaster, of Gower, Mo., is still causing a bit of a stir these days– even in death.  

She passed away in 2019 but her body, now exhumed, has been discovered with little decay, despite the deterioration of her casket in the moist clay of the land where she was buried. 

Sister Wilhelmina was my fourth grade teacher at St. Pius V Catholic School in West Baltimore. She was an Oblate Sister of Providence at the time.  She and I corresponded by letter a bit after she left the Oblates. 

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– but in four by six inch envelopes, with the perfect penmanship similarly practiced by every nun I know.  

At St. Pius, Sister Wilhelmina taught classes and led music for special occasions. She helped orchestrate the music for funerals at the church and during annual graduation ceremonies. She also led the student body through musicals. One entitled, “The Night the Angels Sang,” was presented 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) and frequently directed me in the middle of practices to lower my voice.  

Sister Wilhelmina taught several siblings of mine.  There were eight of us at St. Pius including my sister, Toni Moore-Duggan, currently a nurse practitioner and a job readiness teacher at the Caroline Center for Women in Baltimore.  Sister taught her in Fourth Grade, also. 

“Sr. Wilhelmina had a quite sturdy presence that brought you to attention,” Toni said recently. “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 later, Sister Wilhelmina taught me and three years later from that she taught our sister, Emily Moore, an administrative assistant at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine. 

Many will associate Sister Wilhelmina with music, as Emily Moore recalls. 

“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.”

My other personal recollection of Sister Wilhelmina was not at all music related.  At the end of many school days, she would come to me at my desk with a dustpan and a brush. She’d direct 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, foot dust and dirt. 

Whew! Finished! I would think to myself, as I attempted to return the cleaning equipment to Sister.  But she would always have another staircase in mind– the steps centrally located in the convent. These steps were 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.

Sister Wilhelmina left the Oblate Sisters of Providence and started a contemplative order of religious women, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles in 1995.  She died at age 95 in 2019.  But miraculously, her body was exhumed on May 18, 2023 to relocate her remains to a new site perhaps under the altar in the order’s chapel. Her body and habit are not decomposed. 

The sisters in her order were told by cemetery staff to expect only the bones remaining of Sister Wilhelmina’s corpse, so imagine their shock and surprise to see her body and habit present in a deteriorating casket. She had not been embalmed.  

The sisters of the Benedictine order intended to keep their discovery secret. But an email describing Sister Wilhelmina’s miraculous condition was made public on social media 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–were visiting the sisters’ convent site in Missouri. Visitors were allowed to take dirt from the sister’s grave, but that stopped last month on the morning of Memorial Day.

Sister Wilhelmina’s body will be placed under glass in the Shrine of St. Joseph’s Chapel in Missouri.

As we remember Sister Mary Wilhelmina, pray for the expedited canonizations of the first six African-American candidates for sainthood from the United States. We on Earth know she is doing the same in heaven, too.

This article was originally published in Black Catholic Messenger, a nonprofit media publication.