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Encounter with Sr. Wilhelmina

In 2018, we hadn’t a clue who Sr. Wilhelmina was, but we were told to find her. Little did we know how grateful we would be for that short, grace-filled meeting.

October 2018 was memorable for our family in many ways, my mother had just died (a Jew who converted on her deathbed, Deo Gratias), our older sons were off to boarding school, we had three girls in middle school and our youngest son was preparing for his first Holy Communion. Bishop Schneider invited us to the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus in the now famous Gower, Missouri, so he could hear our son’s first confession and give him his First Communion. A big trip this was, as we were all still reeling from my mom’s death, and everything that comes with that. Not to mention we live in Virginia. When I explained to my Jewish sister and my agnostic father that we were all heading to Missouri for a first communion, they probably thought deep down, how odd, but were supportive, as they always are. We packed up an entire first communion reception in our suitcases and off we went. (No, the potato chip bags did not make it, unfortunately)

Just by coincidence, a few days before we left, we hosted our longtime friends Roger and Priscilla McCaffrey for lunch. They both told us about Sr. Wilhelmina and suggested we ask Mother Abbess to meet her while we are at the Abbey. For those of you who know Roger, you know his suggestions are really better taken as assignments, and we take them seriously. It was at that lunch that we learned that this older African American nun was the Foundress of the Order we were about to visit for the first time and a lover of the Traditional Latin Mass. We were certainly intrigued. Roger, the original publisher of both Sursum Corda and the Latin Mass Magazine, interviewed Sr. Wilhelmina for an issue that ran back in 1995. The article, actually written by Sr. Wilhelmina, is a must read for those new to this now famous Sister.

Mother Abbess Cecilia, who at first glance seems much younger than she is, welcomed us with that gracious Benedictine hospitality. She kindly agreed to our request to meet Sr. Wilhelmina after mass and, honestly, after the email exchange arranging the meeting, we hadn’t thought much more about it. Parents know that first communion days are hectic ones, let alone doing it on the road, halfway across the country. The Sisters prepared a beautiful candle with flowers for our son to hold during Mass, as is the custom of Bishop Schneider. We noticed Sr. Wilhelmina during mass, but truly our eyes were focused on our little 7-year old, praying he didn’t drop the lit candle he was holding for what felt like hours, causing this beautiful chapel to go down in flames. These are the things moms think of.

Following Mass and Sext, our friends Sisters Misericordiae and Scholastica, who we know from Virginia, wheeled Sr. Wilhelmina into the parlor to meet us. She was 94 years old and it was clear she was suffering from a few health problems. But she was talkative, sweet, humble and, most of all, cheerful. She radiated a joy that was infectious. We had a pleasant conversation, and promised to pray for each other before the Sisters lovingly whisked her away. It was probably all of ten minutes long.

Our family was in Gower, Missouri, that time for little over a day, a quick whirlwind of a trip. We left Gower grateful to have met Sr. Wilhelmina, and within a few months (May 29, 2019) we learned that she had died at age 95. We didn’t presume that Sr. Wilhelmina was now Saint Wilhelmina, and we added the repose of her soul to our daily rosary. However, we then read the Sister’s biography of their foundress in 2020, and that brought her into a new light. I am not sure that Hollywood could have written a better story for the life of a Saint: the great-grand daughter of a slave, growing up impoverished in segregated St. Louis, facing discrimination and bigotry even in the Church, being a faithful nun for 75 years, starting a new Order at age 70, and experiencing visions of Our Lord and Our Lady from the time that she was nine years old. This was the little old nun we met? Incredible was all we could think. My husband started privately asking Sr. Wilhelmina’s intercession each night.

Almost exactly four years after her death, May 2023, we learned that Sr. Wilhelmina’s body had been found to be (apparently) incorrupt. Coincidentally, my youngest daughter and I had driven to Kansas that week for a conference with Bp. Schneider in Kansas City, and we were told quietly of this big news. Not knowing that it would be public, or if we were allowed to visit, we left the conference and drove the 17 hours back home. As soon as I arrived home…the internet was ablaze with the incredible news of her apparent incorrupt body.

Who turns around and drives back to Missouri from Virginia? Apparently, we do. My husband insisted we make that Midwest trek again because, after all, how often do you get to see and touch an (apparent) incorruptible? More to the point, how often has someone met and touched a saintly person while they were living, and then were able to see and touch their incorrupt body, as we now had the chance? We could not pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this wonderful, holy woman again.

Back in the car we got, bringing our two youngest children, ages 11 and 15 with us. My husband was energetic and enthusiastic as we left Virginia at 4:30 am on Friday and, after a few stops and hours of listening to podcasts about Sr. Wilhelmina, interviews with Mother Abbess and the Benedictines, coupled with plenty of Hillbilly Thomists and Johnny Cash, we arrived in Kansas City at 10:00 pm. Staying at the house of some generous friends, we awoke the next day (Saturday) excited to head to Gower.

As we approached the abbey early that morning, it was obvious right away something special was happening. We could see plumes of dust rising from a mile or so away as dozens of cars drove up the gravel road. The line of cars was reminiscent of the last scene in the movie “Field of Dreams,” only this time they were coming to see Sr. Wilhelmina, not a baseball game.

All photos by the author

Pulling up to the Abbey was surreal. Since 2018, we have come here on retreat every year. This was different. If you can picture it, Gower is in the middle of nowhere. As you leave Kansas City, you feel yourself leaving what you think is civilization… but as you approach the Abbey you realize that you are entering Western Civilization right there past the cornfields of Missouri. We pulled into the front gates of the Abbey and the energy was amazing. This normally quiet and beautiful monastery is now bustling with people from all walks of life.

Since normally the abbey gets just perhaps around twenty visitors each day, there is not some large parking lot to accommodate an influx of thousands upon thousands of incorruptible-seeking pilgrims. Volunteers were directing traffic, the many cars parking in the front lawn and in the field across the street. The local Knights of Columbus were grilling burgers and hot dogs for everyone. Another local parish was providing free snacks and water. It was the Vigil of Pentecost, but it was a unique and festive atmosphere. Everyone was there from all over the country, but we were all there for the same purpose – to see with our own eyes, and to bring our list of prayers to this Sister who has now made headlines everywhere, even on CNN. I kept looking at the local law enforcement officers, wondering what they must think of all of us, armfuls of rosaries to touch to her, buckets of roses, medals, holy cards. For a non-Catholic it must have been quite a sight! I remember thinking that day, I love Holy Mother Church. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

It’s 8am and there are already lines of pilgrims. Probably for the sake of peace and order, the Sisters had moved Sr. Wilhelmina’s body from their chapel to their basement, a large, well-lit room with an outside entrance. The line of pilgrims wound around back and up toward the chapel. Fortunately, the weather all week was lovely, sparing the Sisters the potential of a muddy mess. We passed the time chatting with complete strangers while waiting in line, meeting folks from all over the country. Families, single people, the elderly, parents with sick children, the handicapped. It was an incredible sight to see. I even spoke to locals from Kansas City who came, but had never heard of the Abbey before this news!  .

As we walked into that basement to see Sr. Wilhelmina’s body the first time, it did occur to me that perhaps this would be weird and uncomfortable. I had never touched a dead body before, and definitely not one that has been exhumed. “Kids, we just drove 17 hours, now let’s go see up close this dead body. Also, please keep your voice down.” Once we approached Sr. Wilhelmina, it was an awe-inspiring and peaceful moment. What a feeling to be kneeling right next to her, touching her habit for which she fought, lightly feeling her feet in the Hanes socks in which she was buried, touching her hands, and to even place roses and rosaries against her face. Stage fright came over me, trying to remember the myriad prayer intentions we brought with us! I just wanted to kneel, to stare at her. I didn’t want to leave. We were given our minute or so then it was time to move on. As I was walking away I ran into our friend, Sr. Miseridordiae Radel and all I could do was embrace her with tears. I was so happy for her! Four years ago, the Sisters said good-bye to their foundress, hoping to see her in Heaven one day. But God had a better plan!

The relics of Sr. Wilhelmina

What would you do after waiting in line for a long time and then emerging? Just sit around and talk outside the Abbey? No, you go through the line again. We wanted more time! Plus, call us skeptics if you want, but we were curious about her smell. She had been lying on that table for probably two weeks, normally a body would emit some awful scent after even a day or two. So, having no sense of embarrassment at all… I smelled her.  My whole family did. As our 11-year old said, “She smells like sugar.” The sweetest scent came from Sr. Wilhelmina’s (apparently) incorrupt body. It was amazing.

What was most remarkable about what we saw was Sr. Wilhelmina’s habit. The habit she wore was the habit that prompted her to found this order. Her previous Order, of which she was a member for 50 years, started to reject the natural fibers and the full habit, and Sr. Wilhelmina wanted no part of that. Seeing her habit in which she was originally buried up close, touching this habit that was at one point covered in mold, its perfect condition seems nothing short of miraculous. According to reports, her casket had cracked, so it was full of mold, mud and water. However, Sr. Wilhelmina’s face, even while covered in wax, was clearly her face. Her Hanes-brand socks, her brown scapular, Miraculous Medal, rosary beads, profession candle, and the ribbon around the candle, all of these things were in perfect condition. As Mother Abbess said, everything that had to do with her life was preserved. The things associated with her death were not.

After going through twice, we walked around the grounds talking to fellow pilgrims. Families from near and far away. We attended Terce, spoke to a few reporters, and the kids feasted on Knights of Columbus hot dogs and chips. Providentially, we even ran into a friend from Front Royal who had hopped in her car with her daughter and also made the 17-hour journey, after never coming here before. It was an amazing group of people.

Providentially, the Fraternity of the Society of Saint Peter (FSSP) had their ordinations at their Our Lady of Guadalupe seminary in Lincoln, Nebraska, on that Friday, May 26th. Their seminary is just a few hours away from Gower, so many FSSP priests were able to visit and see Sr. Wilhelmina. The FSSP and Sister Wilhelmina had a beautiful connection from the very beginning, as the FSSP took Sr. Wilhelmina under their wing when she was first starting her new order. This relationship is now more of a friendship, and continues to this day with their shared commitment to the traditional Latin mass and obedience to the proper authorities.

Words cannot express just how special this visit was. A foretaste of Heaven. Sr. Wilhelmina is now encased behind glass in a shrine at the Abbey, and I am sure pilgrims will still be visiting their beautiful property for the foreseeable future.

Anyone who knew Sr. Wilhelmina, or read her biography “God’s Will,” written by the Sisters in 2020, cannot help but be impressed with her obvious personal sanctity. The Sisters can attest to that. In less than a year, her case for Sainthood may be opened. Whereas long ago a holy person found to be incorrupt would normally result in automatic sainthood, today incorruptibility is not considered an official sign by the Church as a miracle for canonization. Every aspect of Sr. Wilhelmina’s life must be subjected to intense scrutiny, by medical experts and Church authorities. But already there are whispers of miracles due to Sr. Wilhelmina’s intervention. Let’s pray that the Vatican will be open to the cause of an African-American nun who loved the Traditional Latin Mass, and who founded an Order that has been incredibly fruitful, so that one day soon we can all exclaim, “St. Wilhelmina, pray for us!”


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